Malawi retreats on Shire-Zambezi navigation

The Malawian government has backtracked on its demand that Mozambique authorise merchant shipping to use the Zambezi and Shire rivers to carry goods to and from landlocked Malawi.

Four delegates from Malawi’s Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure Development led by Minister Sidik Mia went to Mozambique to discuss with authorities of the most strategic country in the entire  Nsanje world inland Port which has been unused since it was launched in October 2011.

Last year relations between the two countries cooled when Malawi inaugurated a port at Nsanje on the Shire – but the Mozambican authorities refused to allow barges laden with fertilizer to make the journey to Nsanje up the Shire-Zambezi waterway.

The Nsanje port: White elephant so far

Mozambique said the rivers could not be opened to commercial shipping without a thorough study – particularly of the environmental implications.

Malawi has now accepted this position after a meeting of transport ministers held in the northern Mozambican city of Nampula.

According to a report in Friday’s issue of the Maputo daily “Noticias”, citing Fortunato Albrinho, the head of international relations in the Mozambican Transport Ministry, the Malawians now agree that studies should be made by independent consultants about the impact of commercial shipping on the environment and biodiversity, and on the security of the two countries.

“At this meeting”, said Albrinho, “the Malawian government recognised that using the Shire and Zambezi rivers for Malawian imports and exports involves the sovereignty of our country. It recognizes that before any steps can be taken, there must be a cautious treatment of the matter”.

However, the Mozambican and Malawian representatives at the ministerial meeting did not propose any date for the start of the studies.

The Shire River borders Malawi and Mozambique to the south and flows into the Zambezi River before feeding into the Indian Ocean via Chinde port in Mozambique. The Malawian inland port which is funded by the Africa Development Bank, World Bank, European Union and the Japanese government is about 238 km from Chinde.

President Bingu wa Mutharika sees the Shire-Zambezi waterway as a key route for Malawian trade and expressed hopes that it would also serve countries in the region.

Malawi has already completed the first phase of the construction of the port of Nsanje, which is being undertaken by Portuguese contractor Mota Engil. Traders have moved into the area around the port, buying up land to set up businesses. The proposed developments include warehouses, office blocks, houses and hotels.

The government says Malawi may save $175m of its total annual import bill when the new port becomes fully operational. The government hopes that the reduced transport costs will facilitate increased production of agricultural crops such as maize, cassava, sweet potatoes and rice.

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