BULAWAYO // Landlocked Zimbabwe and three of its neighbours could have a direct link to the Indian Ocean, if an ambitious US$3 billion (Dh11bn) project to open up the Zambezi River to commercial traffic materialises. First mooted in the 1950s to reduce freight costs for landlocked countries in southern Africa, the Zambezi Seaway Project will handle cargo for Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana.
The seaway would be 1,500km long from Victoria Falls in western Zimbabwe, to the ocean to the east. Promoters of the gigantic scheme, the Zambezi Seaway Corporation, say it will offer a cheaper, faster and more efficient route to the ocean, thus boosting economies in the hinterland. John Holland, the project engineer, said the venture would be implemented in two phases and two sites have been identified at which ports will be built. He said when complete, the route will mainly transport minerals and other bulky cargo.
"The benefits [will be] immense," said Mr Holland. "The current cost of transportation of all goods and minerals to the coast is prohibitive to many heavy minerals. Floating minerals to the coast will make all goods and minerals competitive on world markets leading to an industrial boom. "The current cost of a container sometimes filled with relatively light goods is around US$3,000 to Europe. Over half of that cost is to the port of Durban [in South Africa]. More competitive goods equals more meaningful investment and as a consequence, more economic growth to the entire region."
He said jobs will also be created from building and running the route. The Zambezi is southern Africa's largest shared river basin and Africa's third biggest. It flows for 2,574km from north-western Zambia, through Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to the Indian Ocean on the Mozambican coast. The river supports southern Africa's largest hydro-electrical power stations - Kariba on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border and Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. They provide electricity to seven southern African countries - Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.
Abundant wildlife thrives along its shores and in its waters and it is the centrepiece of the tourism sectors in the riparian states. Mr Holland said raising money to finance the venture will be difficult. However, he said there is already interest from investors who have a long-term view of benefits likely to accrue from the seaway. "One only has to look at the economic impact of say the St Lawrence Seaway to the USA and Canada constructed in the main for timber and grain to see the future and there are investors who prefer long-term solid investment with guaranteed growth. Again those investors involved in mining in Zambia, particularly the Copper Belt, may feel the only way to survive is to cut the costs of transport of the copper making copper sales both competitive and secure," said Mr Holland.
He added that the developers will dredge some sections, while canals and locks will be used to circumvent rapids. The Cahora Bassa gorge and dam wall will also have to be circumvented for, "If it were feasible to construct the St Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes of Canada and the USA, circumventing the Niagara Falls for essentially the transportation of grain and timber, then all the rich mineral deposits in Central Africa make a seaway," said the Zambezi Seaway Corporation on its website.
"We will seek government assistance so that we sign a memorandum of understanding with the participating countries," said Aguy Georgias, the managing director of Trinity Engineering and Zimbabwe's deputy minister of economic development and main mover of the scheme. "We will then set up a public company which will be floated internationally to raise funds." Environmentalists are uneasy at the prospect of a new, large-scale infrastructural development project on the Zambezi. They hope that in addition to environmental concerns, prohibitive costs and rapids will frustrate progress.
"However, before we can worry about disruption of the environment, they need large sums of money to finance environmental impact assessments and to dredge sand on the river, which is heavily silted in places," said Johnny Rodrigues, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Trust. "The plan is a joke, considering the huge costs involved. Regional countries are generally financially unsound, so at the moment and in the foreseeable future, the project is not feasible."
Apart from plentiful wildlife, the Zambezi also hosts Victoria Falls, one of the globe's most spectacular waterfall and designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Innocent Hodzonge, the director of Environment Africa, said Malawi could refuse to participate in the venture because it is already developing the $6bn Zambezi-Shire Waterways project which will link it to the Indian Ocean. In May 2007, Malawi signed an agreement with Zambia and Mozambique to reopen the waterway, which will help them save more than $250m on transport costs, according to South Africa-based TradeInvest Africa, an online portal on business, trade and investment in Africa.
"I look at the floods on the Zambezi destroying millions of acres of foliage, wildlife because insufficient funds are donated to dredge and keep the water course clear," Mr Holland said. "I see automatic conservation that these environmentalists are not seized with, building up river banks preventing soil erosion." email@example.com