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Kamuzu Barrage: Malawi’s lifeline

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By Gospel Mwalwanda, Contributor:

WITNESSED KAMUZU OPEN LIWONDE BARRAGE — Matilda (right) and Leliya

The two sisters were there when the old Kamuzu Barrage on the Shire River at Liwonde in Machinga District was officially opened in the mid 1960s.

And when President Peter Mutharika recently commissioned the same, but upgraded barrage, Matilda Kalonga and her younger sister, Leliya, were among the people who witnessed the event.

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Just like they did 54 years ago, the two sisters again braved the scotching sun, walking four kilometers from their village just to witness the second commissioning.

“My sister and I were here and saw with our eyes Kamuzu Banda officially open the old barrage,” Matilda said on the day, her arm around her sibling’s neck to show their sisterly affection.

As the two spoke about the importance of the barrage to the nation and recounted how they saw Banda first open it in 1965, people began to gather around them.

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“We are here again because we know this barrage is very important to Malawi,” Leliya said as she and her sister waited for Mutharika’s arrival on February 18 2019.

The two sisters may be typical villagers, but they understand the pivotal role the barrage has played over the years and continues to play in the economic development of the country.

It regulates the flow of water in the Shire River to ensure a sustainable surge for hydro power generation, irrigation, water supply and other uses. It also controls flooding in the Shire Valley.

Built alongside the Kamuzu Barrage is a bridge, an important crossing point through which large volumes of traffic pass every day along the Zomba-Lilongwe Road.

The new-look, 150-metre long barrage has been rehabilitated under the Shire River Basin Management Programme (SRBMP) with a $50 million loan from the World Bank.

SRBMP is a 15-year programme designed to develop a strategic planning and development framework for the Shire River Basin, support targeted investments to improve land and water resources management, associated environmental services and livelihoods in the basin.

There was need to rehabilitate the barrage as it had outlived its lifespan. The rehabilitation of the barrage will also increase water storage capacity to meet the needs of Malawi’s growing population.

The old barrage never had any repair works since it started functioning in 1965. It was likened to a ticking time bomb due to lack of maintenance.

“The first barrage was old and risky. We needed a new barrage here in Liwonde,” Mutharika said when he addressed a rally after commissioning the facility.

He added: “I don’t want to hear anything like ‘remote parts of Malawi’ because every region deserves development. There is no reason why some parts of the country should be considered remote. Every Malawian is important. Every Malawian deserves development.”

He also pledged to build a $600 million dry port at Liwonde, observing that the place is important in the country and that he wants it to be well developed.

“Liwonde is part of the international corridor that connects us to Nacala Port and the rest of the world. It is on the rail line that connects us to Zambia, Congo and other parts of the region,” he said.

Rehabilitation works involved removing the old gates which were replaced with 14 new ones to improve the efficiency and capacity of regulating water levels up and downstream.

Works, which started in 2014, also involved constructing a new bridge downstream parallel to the existing one to allow the old bridge to be used for operation of the barrage and pedestrian traffic.

Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Deputy Director of Groundwater Resources, Prince Mleta, believes the loan from the World Bank reflects the confidence the institution has in the Malawi Government.

“Rehabilitation of the barrage has given us new data. We will now know the amount of water that will be required down the river,” Mleta said.

SRBMP Coordinator, Sydney Kamtukule, said maintaining the barrage was a result of a research that government undertook to identify pressing problems the country was facing.

“It was decided that Kamuzu Barrage was top on the list of things that needed to be done,” Kamtukule said during a panel discussion.

He said later in an interview that the barrage was very important for control of the flow of water, pointing out that without it, people downstream would be greatly affected directly or indirectly.

As Mutharika was cutting a ribbon before he unveiled a plaque when commissioning the barrage, Matilda and her sister keenly watched from a distance, grinning from ear to ear.

“It is very likely that we will have gone to the next world when this barrage will be replaced again, but to see it officially opened twice in our lifetime gives us great pride and joy,” said Leliya, who is in her 60s.

Matilda chipped in: “We also need to talk about the bridge and its importance. You only have to recall the accident that happened here before the old bridge was built to appreciate its importance.”

Before Kamuzu Barrage with its bridge was built, one had to catch a ferry to cross the Shire River at Liwonde.

And Matilda was referring to the accident that happened at Liwonde when the ferry capsized midstream after the wire guiding it to the shore snapped. About 150 passengers drowned.

Media reports at the time indicated most of the passengers were returning from what was then known as Fort Johnston, now Mangochi, where they had attended Banda’s political rally.

Banda, then Prime Minister, reportedly ordered an immediate enquiry into the accident in which 57 people survived. The enquiry led to the construction of the barrage and bridge.

“We thank [Banda] for building the bridge and are equally grateful to the current government for rebuilding it,” said Matilda, who claimed she was a mother of three in 1965.

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