3 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Zambezi Dream Project Alive

THE centuries old dream to make the Zambezi navigable from its delta on the Indian Ocean as far as the Victoria Falls is still alive, with an undisclosed investor willing to put in US$10 billion to further the project.

Last Wednesday, Public Works Deputy Minister Senator Aguy Georgias met the ambassadors for Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique in Harare to give an overview of the new plan for the Zambezi seaway.

"I urge you to approach your principals in your different countries and sell the idea to them so that we sign a memorandum of understanding and begin work on the Zambezi banks immediately.

"There is an investor with US$10bn waiting to inject the capital once the memorandum of understanding is signed and the four countries form a company to run the project.

"I cannot reveal the identity of the investor at this stage," Sen Georgias said.

The seaway would cut freight costs that have rendered trade unviable among the countries and other global players.

Sen Georgias said the project would involve (dredging) opening up or deepening the banks or riverbed of the Zambezi River to allow ships to sail from the Indian Ocean to as far afield as Victoria Falls and back.

Right from the beginning of Portuguese exploration of the east coast, the dream of opening a route into the interior along the Zambezi has been mooted.

Several major difficulties have always stood in the way.

First, the Zambezi enters the Indian Ocean through a delta with constantly shifting channels.

Secondly, there are a number of rapids along the river.

But the Cabora Bassa and Kariba Dams have flooded two of these major rapids, and the Batoka Gorge Dam will flood a third.

It was with the opening creation of the Cabora Bassa Lake that the old idea was revived, since with lock gates at the dam and dredging of the main delta channel a route would be opened right up to the Mutapa Gorge downstream of Mana Pools.

Malawi would connect to the seaway via the basically navigable Shire River.

The Caprivi Strip in Namibia was created in 1890, as part of a set of British and German land swops in the Helioland-Zanzibar Treaty initiated by German Chancellor Count Leo von Caprivi, to give Namibia access to the Zambezi and a future seaway.

"This is a mammoth project. It has a big economic significance to Zimbabwe and her allies. It will help cut transaction costs. At the moment export and import charges account for 80 percent of the cost of doing business," commented Sen Georgias.

Zambian Ambassador to Zimbabwe Ndiyoi Mutiti said the project was crucial for landlocked countries such as Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe adding that Mozambique was in a better position than her counterparts as it had ready access to the Indian Ocean.

"My country is quite aware of the benefits such a project will bring to its economy and the region as well. We should also talk to technocrats even before the signing of the memorandum of understanding so that they give our principals a clear picture of what to expect."

Malawian Ambassador to Zimbabwe Professor Richard Phoya said all countries needed to tackle political issues first to create the political will that would give impetus to the project.

"There should also be consultations with engineers because this is a gigantic engineering project we are talking of. All countries participating in the project should be involved in nurturing the appropriate political environment to allow trade to flow smoothly," Prof Phoya said.

He added that the project would create a lot of employment opportunities for people in all the countries involved while the tourism industries of those countries would also benefit.

Prof Phoya also hinted that it was critical to consider the negative impact the project would have in all the countries involved saying Mozambique, for instance, would have to contend with sacrificing part of the trade it is enjoying at the moment owing to its close proximity to the ocean.

First Secretary (Commerce) at the Mozambican Embassy Custodio Ferreira Ossifo said it was important to have a comprehensive document on the negative impacts of the project in all the countries concerned.

Sen Georgias was, however, quick to allay such fears reassuring Mozambique that, to the contrary, the Zambezi Seaway project would see a quantum leap in use of Mozambican ports.

Says Sen Georgias, "To be certain, work on the Zambezi Seaway project will have to run in tandem with the improvement of facilities and capacity at Mozambican ports, specifically Beira.

"There will be demand for greater efficiency in handling the massive cargo that the project envisages would come through the Zambezi Seaway. It will certainly be the most cost efficient. Any negative impact will be on ports further afield, that will naturally become less competitive."

On completion the project is expected to make trade smooth among Sadc states and beyond with particular emphasis on the slashing of freight charges that the countries would enjoy.

The project is the brainchild of Sen Georgias who has since requested President Mugabe to be its patron.

Sen Georgias said they expected to complete the project within 18 months once it gets underway.

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