Without Mozambican support the scheme is dead, since the two rivers run through Mozambican territory to the Mozambican town of Chinde at the mouth of the Zambezi.
On Wednesday, the transport ministers from Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia met in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe to discuss a report from a German consultancy on the feasibility of the project.
The Malawian government used a loan of 3.5 million US dollars from the African Development Bank to fund the feasibility study.
The result of the study was not what the Malawians had hoped for.
Interviewed by Radio Mozambique, Mozambican Transport Minister Carlos Mesquita said the viability study concluded that the two rivers were not navigable in their natural state.
It said they could only be used for commercial shipping if they were dredged. This would be extremely expensive.
“It would be necessary to invest 18 million US dollars in initial dredging”, said Mesquita, “followed by 30 million dollars a year to guarantee maintenance dredging, and a further 50 million dollars to clear vegetation from the banks of the two rivers, not to mention investments in port infrastructure”.
Even with this expenditure, the Zambezi and Shire rivers would, only be navigable for four or five months a year during the rainy season, according to the study.
For the Mozambican government, this destroys any idea that the Shire-Zambezi Waterway could be economically viable.
For Mozambique, resources should be used in a “coherent and sustainable fashion”, Mesquita said, suggesting that “Malawi should control its emotions”.
Mesquita pointed out that Mozambique’s main ports were built in part to allow landlocked countries such as Malawi access to the sea.
Railways run from Malawi to the Mozambican ports of Beira and Nacala.
He said Malawi believed that Nacala would only be used for coal exports, which was “a total fallacy”. People who made such claims seemed unaware that there were two ports in the Bay of Nacala.
One is the brand new port at Nacala-a-Velha, which was indeed built for Mozambique’s coal exports, but the other is the existing Nacala port, built in the colonial period specifically with Malawian traffic in mind.
Nacala, the best deep water port on the east African coast, needs no dredging and can handle ships of any size.
Mequita pointed out that Nacala port was currently undergoing rehabilitation, at a cost of 300 million dollars, to ensure that all the technological conditions were in place to serve international traffic.
The Shire-Zambezi Waterway project was conceived by the current Malawian President Peter Mutharika’s late brother Bingu wa Mutharika when he was president. Without conducting any feasibility studies, he decided the waterway would lower transport costs to the Indian Ocean.
Malawi even went as far as building a port at Nsanje, on the Shire River, at a cost of twenty million US dollars.
In October 2010 Malawi actually held an inauguration ceremony at Nsanje, attended by VIPs, including President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Zambia’s former president Rupiah Banda. The event was a fiasco. Mozambique had not been consulted, and the Mozambican authorities blocked fertilizer-laden barges that were en route to Nsanje to coincide with the ceremony.