Shire–Zambezi waterway not viable without regional buy-in, study shows

19th February 2016 By: Marcel Chimwala - Creamer Media Correspondent

A feasibility study on the proposed $6-billion Shire–Zambezi waterway, which will give Malawi access to the sea through the Nsanje inland port, has indicated that the project is technically feasible but not financially viable without investment from beneficiary countries Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

The €3.1-million study was conducted by German consulting firm Hydroplan International with the financial backing of the African Development Bank.

The project has faced stiff resistance from Mozambique, which does “not wish to invest in . . . the project because the transport policy in Mozambique is to develop transport by rail and road and [the country] has no industry based along the Zambezi river”, states the report.

Hydroplan, which was hired by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in September 2013, states that, based on digital aerial and underwater surveys undertaken in 2014 and a hydrodynamic model of the river system, a route has been identified for the 340-km-long waterway, stretching from Malawi’s Nsanje port to Chinde, in Mozambique. The firm adds that this route would require minimal dredging.

The report states that, based on daily flow records from 1990 to 2010, on average, the two rivers are navigable for 4.2 months a year without dredging but with the removal of the current hyacinth blockage on the Shire river required.

“Navigation for only part of the year is probably not feasible economically, therefore, dredging will be required to have continuous operation of the navigation route,” says Hydroplan.

The firm, however, points out that the waterway would face stiff competition from road and rail, based on operational, investment and maintenance costs, including dredging costs.

Nonetheless, transporting goods through the waterway offers many advantages, with the construction of the new inland port having the potential to expand economic activities. This would include attracting third-party logistics providers.

Hydroplan advises the member States to use agreements and conventions to which Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia are party to serve as a sound legal basis for the implementation of the project. The agreements include the Revised Protocol on Shared Watercourses in the Southern African Development Community, which the three member States signed after the approval of the Zambezi River Action Plan in 2000.

“This is an important protocol, as many of the critical areas of concern that were considered and agreed upon have a direct bearing on and are important to this project,” says Hydroplan.

Ministers of Transport from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia failed to reach an agreement to adopt the feasibility study report when they met in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, in September 2015.

Malawi Transport and Public Works Minister Francis Kasaila says he and his counterparts will meet again this month to deliberate on the report with a view to adopting it.

“We were supposed to have met again in November last year in Zambia but some Ministers indicated that they would not be available and the SADC secretariat is organising another meeting for February at a venue to be announced,” he says.

Zambian High Commission in Malawi first secretary Chansa Kabwela says that, as landlocked countries, Zambia and Malawi will continue to engage Mozambique using its coastal areas for access to world markets.

“Zambia is aware of the challenges countries face in pursuit of national economic prosperity because the strategies employed sometimes conflict with regional interests,” he says.

Malawi’s former President, Bingu Wa Mutharika, tried to launch the waterway without the involvement of Mozambique but the first vessel was blocked by Mozambican authorities, who insisted on a comprehensive feasibility study before the waterway could become operational.