CSO leaders compromised to back Lake Malawi water scheme without feasibility study

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are vulnerable when they have no solid structure, little independent funding and  key activist in Malawi have fallen for subtle charm or enticement to vociferously back the controversial South African based  billionaire Simbi Phiri $500-million Malawi government water scheme.

Mayaya (right) and Sembereka: Compromised
Newa, Sembeleka and Mayaya addressing a news conference to back Water scheme where Malawian billionaire Simbi Phiri’s company will assess the “feasibility” of a project from whose construction he stands to benefit – a move seen as a clear conflict of interest

Major questions have also been raised about whether the project – to pump water from Lake Malawi to the capital Lilongwe – makes financial and technical sense.

The chief executive of the Lilongwe Water Board, Engineer Alfonso Chikuni, told  Phiri’s companies, Khato Civils and South Zambezi, had been “identified” and “would carry out feasibility studies, procure and construct” in a turnkey arrangement on the Lilongwe-Salima scheme.

The approach has drawn fire, with critics arguing that it is unusual and involves an inherent conflict because the would-be contractor has an interest in glossing over pitfalls and overstating the feasibility of the work.

But prominent rights activists  for the sake of money, funding, favours and existence are willingly, surrogate fronts for Khato and have voiced their support on the project that would pump 50-million litres of water a day from Lake Malawi to the Malawian capital along a pipeline more than 130km long.

Veteran rights defender Rodgers Newa flanked by Billy Mayaya and Macdonald Sembereka read a petition at a news conference asking donors and other development partners to put their hands off the project, saying Malawi is a sovereign state.

“The partners  in Malawi should refrain from neopateimonialism and neoliberal tendencies considering that Malawi is a sovereign state operating in the global context that is supposed to levelled playing field,” said Newa.

Newa said government should not succumb to both internal and external pressure that may detail the implementation of the project.

“Government is under constitutional obligation to ensure that the citizens right to water is not unnecessarily delayed and work expeditiously to iron out challenges locking the project in particular the EIA,” said Newa.

Newa said CSOs are concerned that the citizens especially in capital city have a legitimate expectation of the improved service delivery of water which will add value to the their standard of living.

Although managed by the water board, the project has large implications for President Peter Mutharika’s government.

Lilongwe Water Board would raise loan finance on the strength of a government “sovereign guarantee”.

Khato Civils Limited won the $500 million (approximately K360 billion) contract on restricted tender process where  six companies participated in a restricted tendering method of procurement, where contractors were selected based on technical experience on similar assignments carried out in Malawi or internationally, as well as on their reputation.

The other bidders were the Sinohydro Corporation Ltd of China, PW Engineering of the United Kingdom, Mota Engil of Portugal, China Railway Engineering No. 21 and the Italian company, CMC di Ravenna.

The chairperson of Malawi’s parliamentary committee on natural resources and climate change, Werani Chilenga, complained that the government has not been transparent on the project.

“I cannot say I have heard or know much about it – all we know is that government will give a guarantee to Lilongwe Water Board to borrow money from overseas. As a committee, we are not happy and have many questions,” he said.

Chilenga added that the committee fears the project is not economically viable and will do more harm than good to Malawians.

“Clearly government has upside-down priorities. We have power blackouts because Escom (the power utility) is failing to generate the required power due to low water levels. How do they think they will be able to generate the power needed to pump water from Salima on the lake to Lilongwe? Why should we be pumping water upland?

“This project is very costly and in the end the consumer will pay if the project fails.”

Chilenga said principal secretary in the ministry of agriculture, Erica Maganga, failed to answer the committee’s questions when she appeared before the committee earlier this year.

“Maganga failed to convince us. She did not have a feasibility study or any information regarding any groundwork for the project, and yet Lilongwe Water Board has gone ahead and awarded the contract.

“We were not convinced about why this project should be carried out, bearing in mind the huge sums of money that could be wasted,” he said.

Major questions about the scheme were raised by one of Malawi’s foremost water experts, Kenneth Wiyo in two articles published in The Nation newspaper.

Wiyo, associate professor at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, also emphasised that there has been no feasibility or pre-feasibility studies, or formal assessment of the possible impact on the environment and communities whose land will be crossed by the pipeline.

Wiyo also asked:

  • Why has the low-cost approach of capturing river water before it reaches the lake, rather than being pumped uphill to Lilongwe, not been adopted?
  • The gravity method, used to feed water from Mulanje Mountain to Blantyre, would also create opportunities for hydropower generation, fish farming and tourism, Wiyo said;
  • Has any estimate been made of the power requirements of lifting water almost 2 000 feet from the lake to Lilongwe, and what will be the source of this power?
  • Wiyo said his students had estimated the required power usage at between 68 and 128MW, in a country where Escom failed to generate 300MW. He asked how the new demand would be squared with repeated blackouts and rationing across the country.
  • How much water is to be abstracted from Lake Malawi, and will it will have an impact on the outflow of the Shire River, affecting hydropower generation?
  • What is the required pipe size; how easily and quickly can the pipes be laid; and will they be locally manufactured or imported?
  • What route will the pipeline take, and will it need land bridges and aqueducts to cross rivers, gullies and dambos? Will a storage dam be needed, like Mudi Dam in Blantyre?
  • Have studies been conducted on soils and geological formations to inform decisions on the pipe material use? Wiyo said he knew of a Malawian irrigation project where nearly 9km of piping had been replaced due to corrosion.
  • Will the proposed pipeline route involve land tenure, settlement removals and compensation issues, and who will be responsible for compensating affected communities? Wiyo said that in the past enraged communities had chased ministers from project sites to protect their interests.
  • Why has an environmental and social impact assessment not been conducted, given that it is required by Malawi’s Environmental Management Act? Wiyo said it would be a criminal offence not to conduct such a study and not to act on its recommendations.

The president of the Malawi Institution of Engineers, David Mzandu, said the project is technically possible, but added: “I cannot invest my money in something where I am not sure if I will get returns. If you are going to invest, you must know the economic viability.

“I am sure government is aware that such a huge project requires a feasibility study.”


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