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Maimed gateway to the future

The systematic silence on the once most-talked-about K15 billion Nsanje Port is because nothing is happening about it, ALICK PONJE writes.

AWAY FROM THE PORT—Women go to the river to wash clothes

When women found a convenient waterside, skilfully shaped and raised on the western bank of Shire River, a good spot for washing their linen, stories about it thrived.

Then curious couples also thought about turning the port’s block into a wedding venue. Stories abounded too when photos emerged of flour spread to dry there.

Now, little or nothing is said about Nsanje Inland Port except that it has faltered, its ideals almost driven into the annals of time.

Some locals who habitually trek to the port to do laundry— not on the slab but nearby edges of the river—still think the K15 billion facility was erected to ease their washing troubles.

“I think, once it is revamped and properly taken care of, it can significantly help in terms of washing our clothes and fortify our marriages,” Idah Petulo, a resident of Mthukuso Village, just outside Nsanje Town, said recently when we visited the place to appreciate what communities around it think now.

THINKS THAT THE PORT IS A WASHING SLAB—Petulo

Her view of the facility is not what former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, dreamed when he was envisaging the southern Malawi district teeming with high-rise hotels, sprawling shopping malls and a state-of-the-art airport.

Perhaps Nsanje Town would never be sleeping—maybe bright neon lights would be shining throughout the night allowing people to work whenever they want.

“People say many things about this place but I feel it was constructed to block the river from flooding and allowing us some nice space to wash our clothes,” Petulo said.

Today, the port is not among the government’s priorities in the next five years despite that President Peter Mutharika had charged during his campaign for the seat that, once he became Malawi’s leader, he would hop onto a helicopter and ride down to the southern Malawi district to open the facility.

Such sentiments continue to be played out by those who sardonically say they are waiting for the president to open the port.

The project appeared in the second edition of Malawi Growth and Development Strategy which was implemented between 2011 and 2016.

During our visit, we found that the part of the port where vessels were supposed to be docking had dried up, fraught with weeds.

Apparently, the drying up was in virtue of low levels in Shire River and Lake Malawi due to erratic rainfall patterns which had also resulted in a drop in power generation.

When Bingu conceived the idea of the port, his vision was that Malawi and her neighbours should use the Shire-Zambezi Waterway as a cheap means of transporting goods from Mozambique.

In 2010, he could not earnestly open the gateway after Mozambican authorities impounded a fertiliser-laden barge bound for the newly constructed facility.

The vessel was aimed at symbolically launching the port—a way of telling the world that it was possible for a huge ship to travel on the waters from Mozambique to Nsanje.

Mozambique has maintained that the project is not viable. This has raised questions about why Malawi had to go ahead with such a multibillion kwacha initiative without first clearing any hurdle which might be experienced along the way.

“At first, we thought Mozambique was just being difficult but the drying up of the part where ships were supposed to be docking seems to vindicate their argument that the project was not viable,” Frank Sagwanti, a resident of the Shire Valley district, states.

Now, communities near the port seem fully convinced that it is a white elephant—K15 billion spent in vain.

What they were told in the build-up to the project commencement and implementation has gently tripped into oblivion as no government official is telling them what will happen next.

“We expected that we would be employed here. Those with technical skills would obviously find work to do. We would have reduced our poverty levels,” Sagwanti says.

Two years ago, Mozambique withdrew from a Memorandum of Understanding with Malawi and Zambia after a feasibility study apparently revealed that the waterway was neither viable nor sustainable in the short, medium and long term.

VANDALISED—Part of the railway line in Nsanje

That country argued that in its natural state—without further modifications—the Shire-Zambezi waterway is not commercially navigable such that the argument that the project would reduce transport costs does not stand.

A senior Mozambique transport ministry official, Jafar Raby, said at that time that the difficulties in vessels setting sail to the port were not of his country’s making but were inherent to the project which was “neither viable nor sustainable in the short, medium and long term”.

“Using the river [Shire] for Malawi’s trade would imply regular dredging and removal of plants, which would be extremely expensive,” a publication, Club of Mozambique, said two years ago.

Quoting the country’s transport officials, the publication went further to state that Malawi had other, far cheaper and less time-consuming options—namely to use the Mozambican ports of Beira and Nacala, moving goods to and from the ports by rail or road.

“Transport by river would take between 10 and 12 days, compared with a day and a half from Lilongwe to Beira, and three and a half days from Blantyre to Nacala,” Club of Mozambique quoted Raby as having said.

Still, there were arguments that Mozambique was just being difficult when it had initially committed to supporting the project.

But even without such bottlenecks, marine experts argue that the status of Shire and Zambezi rivers would require constant dredging for them to be effectively navigable.

Now Sagwanti and other youth of Nsanje have given up on the possibility of finding something to do to ease their poverty. Since 2010, they have forlornly watched the section of the river where the port is rise and fall, with no hope of ships docking there.

“Maybe the money should have been used for other projects. Nsanje is one of the poorest districts in Malawi and we thought the port was going to bring development,” Sagwanti laments.

Those who were lucky during that transient moment when the port was being constructed were employed as casual labourers to work at the site.

They still expected that they would get some sustainable work once investors flocked to the southern Malawi district, attracted by the booming transport business.

But that has not been their only misfortune.

Nsanje residents have even witnessed more initiatives, which were originally put together to improve service delivery, crumble.

For instance, the railway line that passes through the district to connect with Blantyre and other parts of the country, stopped functioning several years ago.

The infrastructure has been vandalised while in other cases, trees have grown between the rails to show that the system might have died a natural death.

The construction of the port was also expected to revamp the railway system that lies in ruins.

But today, Mozambique says Malawi is free to be using the Sena Railway line to Beira, a system which would mean rehabilitating close to 200 kilometres of the track.

That concludes that the K15 billion dream crumbled even before it was fully realised. A touted gateway to the future has failed to make economic sense.

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