The Malawi government says that it has engaged Mozambique in diplomatic talks to sort out the problems that are rocking the implementation of the $6-billion Shire-Zambezi Waterway Project.
The development comes after Mozambican authorities refused to allow a trial barge to move from Mozambique's port of Beira along the Zambezi river and dock at Malawi's port of Nsanje on October 23, when Malawi's President Bingu Wa Mutharika officially launched the Shire-Zambezi Waterway in the company of foreign dignitaries who included Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Zambia's Rupia Banda.
"We will soon make an official announcement over the whole situation because a lot is going on, and we hope to reach an amicable agreement in our discussions with Mozambique soon," says Director of Transport Planning in Malawi's Ministry of Transport and Public Infrastructure Victor Lungu.
Mozambique has always insisted that it will not allow barges to operate on the Zambezi river until a comprehensive feasibility study is undertaken.
Export Trading, which is the firm that tried to operate the barge destined for Nsanje, however, says that the results of its barge operation exercise will be useful for the upcoming feasibility study for the project.
"Our aim was to prove that the Shire-Zambezi Waterway is navigable and we have partly fulfilled it because the barge sailed through a long distance in the Zambezi before it was stopped by Mozambican authorities," says MD for Export Trading Mahesh Patel.
The trial barge carried 60 t of fertiliser, and Petel says that, if the fertiliser had come into Malawi through the waterway, as initially planned, the cost would have been lower than is the case with road transport.
Mozambican authorities, however, say they did not authorise the trial barge from sailing up the Zambezi and Shire rivers because the barge operating licence, issued to Export Trading Company Marine (ETC Marine) in 2009, had expired. ETC Marine operated barges at that time for commercial purposes.
Mozambican Transport Minister Paulo Zacula said in a statement that his Ministry received a letter from Malawi's Transport Ministry requesting an extension of the licence. It argued that Malawi appeared to be rushing to start using the waterway commercially, while ignoring the need for a comprehensive feasibility study.
Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, which are the key partners in the Shire-Zambezi Waterway Project, already signed an agreement with a regional consortium the Zambezi River Transport Company (Zartco) to undertake the feasibility studies.
However, Zartco is also uncomfortable with the role of ETC Marine, which it believes is looking to usurp its position as the study consultant.
Lungu says that the State participants are reviewing the arrangement with Zartco because the regional consortium failed to mobilise for the study within 21 days, as stipulated in the terms of the agreement.
"In the first place, Export Trading Marine is not doing a feasibility study of the project, nor an environmental impact assessment. They were given a licence to do a trial run. Obviously, the information gathered would have informed the feasibility study," says Lungu.
Meanwhile, the various governments have engaged the African Development Bank (AfDB) to procure new technical services to conduct the feasibility study.
The AfDB has also pledged to provide funds for the feasibility study for the project, which has the blessing of regional bodies including the Southern Africa Development Community, the New Partnership for Africa's Development and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.
The Shire-Zambezi Waterway Project is designed to open landlocked Malawi to the sea by linking its proposed port of Nsanje to Mozambique's proposed port of Chinde.
Malawi has already completed the first phase of the construction of the port of Nsanje, which is being undertaken by Portuguese contractor Mota Engil, implying that barges can now dock at the port.