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The Mozambican government has once again rejected calls from Malawi to allow commercial shipping along the Zambezi river.
Last Sunday, Malawian President Peter Mutharika told reporters that he is awaiting the go-ahead from the Mozambican authorities to begin use of the Nsanje inland port which Malawi built on its side of the Shire river, the main tributary of the Zambezi.
Speaking at Nsanje, Mutharika claimed that his government is in discussions with the Mozambican authorities, and as soon as it receives the expected authorisation from Mozambique, it would push ahead with building those facilities which are still lacking at the port.
But the Mozambican Transport Ministry has denied that there are any talks with Malawi. Cited in Thursday’s issue of the Maputo daily “Noticias”, the head of the Bilateral Cooperation Department in the Transport Ministry, Horacio Parquinio, said that not only are there no talks, but there is nothing to talk about.
As far as Mozambique is concerned, he said, the matter is closed. He recalled that environmental assessment studies had been undertaken and these did not recommend opening the Zambezi to commercial shipping.
Parquinio noted that Malawi has insistently raised the question of Nsanje port and the Shire-Zambezi waterway, and Mozambique has refused to reopen the subject.
“In a recent meeting on the Nacala Corridor (the railway from the northern Mozambican port of Nacala to Malawi), they wanted to bring the question of Nsanje port to the negotiating table”, he said. “We, the Mozambican delegation, made them understand that this was not a matter up for discussion, and the question was withdrawn from the agenda”.
Nsanje port was a pet project of the current President’s brother, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, who believed using the Shire and Zambezi rivers would reduce the costs of Malawi’s foreign trade. In 2010, the Malawian government, with great fanfare, inaugurated the Nsanje port, which cost around 20 million US dollars to build.
The inauguration ceremony was a huge embarrassment when the Mozambican authorities blocked fertiliser laden barges that were en route along the Zambezi to Nsanje. Mozambique opposed opening the two rivers to international traffic on environmental grounds. For example, to make the entire route navigable would entail constant dredging, and any major spills would be damaging to delicate river eco-systems.
Subsequently the Mozambican government has changed, with President Filipe Nyusi taking over from his predecessor, Armando Guebuza, but there has been no change in the Mozambican position on Nsanje. At a summit in Lilongwe in 2016, Nyusi made it clear that Mozambique will not accept the proposal to open the Zambezi to international shipping. The Malawian proposal was “not viable,” Nyusi said.
In his first election campaign, in 2014, Peter Mutharika, promised to open Nsanje port [former Port Herald]. But nothing happened – and nothing could happen, since Mozambique remained strongly opposed to the project.
A study carried out by an international consultancy company, Hydroplan (a company chosen by the Mozambican, Malawian and Zambian governments) showed that the Shire-Zambezi waterway was not commercially viable, and would not reduce Malawi’s transport costs.
The maximum amount of goods that could be moved along the two rivers would be 273,200 tonnes per year. Dredging would cost 30 million US dollars a year, and the removal of aquatic plants 50 million dollars a year, figures which proved the project could never be viable.
The Mozambican authorities have consistently pointed out that it would be far cheaper and less time-consuming for Malawi just to continue using the existing railways to the ports of Nacala and Beira.
Please see below ‘Map of the Country between the Shire and Zambesi Rivers’, Daniel J. Rankin, 1892. Scottish geographical magazine. Source: University of Illinois, Digital Collections. Blue highlight on map shows Port Herald, Nsanje and is ours.
About Daniel J. Rankin
(….) Daniel J. Rankin was an explorer who had originally proceeded to Nyasaland as private secretary to Consul Foot, and who had also acted in a Consular capacity at Mozambique. He was enabled by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society to institute an exploration of the Zambezi delta. In the course of his journey he discovered the Chinde mouth of the Zambezi, which apparently was quite unknown to the Portuguese Government, though it had probably been first discovered by a Portuguese planter who was working a concession in the delta. This planter’s information put Mr. Rankin on the track of his discovery, which he announced to the world in the spring of 1889. It was briefly this, that the Chinde mouth of the Zambezi possessed a bar shorter and safer and simpler than that of any other outlet of the Zambezi, and with a minimum depth of water at high tide of 17 feet (as against, say, 10 feet at the Kongone). At the time Mr. Rankin sounded the bar, I believe he found a depth of water on it of 21 or 22 feet, a depth which has several times since been recorded, but chiefly at that season of the year when the river was visited by Mr. Rankin, namely when the Zambezi is in full flood. Ordinarily the depth of water at high spring-tides is 17 to 19 feet. Not only was the Chinde bar a far less serious obstacle than that of any other mouth of the Zambezi, but its channel from the sea into the main Zambezi was easier of navigation than the other branches of that river. In its far-reaching political importance, probably no greater discover}’ in the history of British Central Africa has been made than that of the navigability of the Chinde River from the Indian Ocean to the main Zambezi. (…)
Source: British Central Africa; an attempt to give some account of a portion of the territories under British influence north of the Zambezi
By Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston
“We waited there for almost a week for a steamer to take us to Chinde, a mouth of the Zambezi River. The only way you could find Chinde was to spot two trees on the shore, and if you missed them you had to turn round and go back and wait for the tide. In those days a German tug came out and you were lowered over the side in a sort of large linen basket, and if it was rough you were thrown about inside as you swayed over the water. You then waited in the tug whilst the baggage was taken aboard…On shore we went to the British Concession and stayed in the Mandala Boarding House…Eventually the steamer “Empress” arrived, unloaded, and we were sent aboard. I would have gone home any time after leaving Chinde. It was a terrible journey, terrible.”
Mrs. Grace Snowden recounting her 1912 voyage to Nyasaland (present-day Malawi) via the port town of Chinde in Mozambique; Published in The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 33, No. 1 (January, 1980), pp. 39-42
In the late 19th century, Great Britain held a territory adjacent to Portuguese East Africa called British Central Africa — modern-day Malawi. It was a landlocked interior region, and the British could only access it from the sea by going through Quelimane, a city just north of Chinde, and making their way inland through a series of roundabout rivers and tributaries. But then in 1889, British explorer Daniel J. Rankin discovered Chinde.
Chinde provided better, direct access into British Central Africa. By entering through Chinde, ships could offload their British passengers and cargo onto boats and steamers that would navigate the short distance from Chinde’s boggy waters to the Zambezi River, which took them directly to the Shire, a river that led straight into British Central Africa. To secure this route, in 1891, the British signed the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty and leased a portion of Chinde from Portugal, establishing what would be called the “Chinde Concession.” What followed was a three-decade golden period for Chinde as a transit port for British Central Africa, welcoming incoming and outgoing ships bearing goods and people from England via the Indian Ocean. (…)
Source: The lost city of Chinde, Concern Worldwide
By Kieran McConville, Crystal Wells, & Aeri Wittenbourgh