The $6-billion Shire-Zambezi waterway project in southern Africa is in jeopardy because two sponsoring countries are at odds.

Project would provide transport path between Indian Ocean ad interior.
Map: Walter Konefor for ENR
Project would provide transport path between Indian Ocean ad interior.

Landlocked Malawi and Mozambique, two of three countries (the other is Zambia) that signed a memorandum of understanding to construct a 238-kilometer waterway project, disagree about a comprehensive study on the impact of the multibillion-dollar plan to construct an inland free port at Nsanje in southern Malawi and link it to the Indian Ocean port of Chinde in Mozambique. Economists estimate the improved waterway would save the three countries $250 million a year in transport costs.

The split surfaced last year when Mozambique rescinded an agreement to contract a Zimbabwean company, Zambezi River Transport Co. (ZARTCO), to carry out the study. The action was triggered by Harare-based ZARTCO’s failure to commence the study within 21 days after winning the contract. A German firm, Hydroplan Ingeniuer GmbH., Worms, recommended a detailed study after it conducted a European Union-funded prefeasibility study.

Hydroplan Ingeniuer reported that both rivers, which traverse Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia, are navigable, but that a comprehensive feasibility study was necessary.

The study, if approved by the project’s sponsoring countries, would pave way for the dredging of sections of two rivers, according to Victor Lungu, Malawi’s director of planning in the Ministry of Transport.

Further, the study would determine total project costs, alternative transport routes and socio-economic impacts as well as an economic comparison with other transport modes including rail and road.

“Much smaller projects than the Shire-Zambezi waterway have environmental impact assessments so we do not accept being forced to omit fundamental stages,” said Mozambican Foreign Minister Oldemiro Baloi.

Mozambique President Armando Guebuza says it is only “after the study, should it come down in favour of navigating the two rivers [Shire and Zambezi ], that agreements, contracts and treaties can later be drawn up.”

“We are open, and we are going to work on the matter. In this whole case, economic viability cannot be imposed. A study should be made with our agreement, and [then] we shall see what position to take,” President Guebuza added.

In addition to the feasibility study, the project has an infrastructure-development and equipment-acquisition component.

The waterway initiative design includes additional berths and port buildings as well as the replacement of dysfunctional port structures at both at Nsanje and Chinde.

According to the project’s memorandum signed by the sponsoring countries, other infrastructure development works include the upgrading of dilapidated roads and construction of additional ones to link the waterway to the transport network within the corridor area.

The rehabilitation and modernization of the 797-kilometer Mchinji-Nsanje railway line in Malawi and the construction of a new 24-km line between Mchinji and Chipata in Zambia has been lined up as part of the waterway project.