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China?s First African Silk Road

Maputo, Mozambique
Maputo, Mozambique

By Harry Valentine 2018-02-15 17:08:59

China recently assisted Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia to build new heavy weight standard gauge railway lines. However, in 1976 China actually completed construction of a railway line that extended inland from the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam.

Introduction

China’s first foray into Africa railway construction was intended to provide African nations such as Zambia and Southern Congo with railway access to an Indian Ocean port. At the time, the Government of South Africa administered their policy of apartheid and Southern Rhodesia, now renamed Zimbabwe, was being governed along racial lines. Also at the time, the nation of Mozambique was experiencing domestic political turmoil. While the Tan-Zam railway line actually provided a transcontinental link between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans (at Angola), Angolan political unrest rendered most of their railway line inoperable. 

Following cessation of political turmoil and social unrest in Mozambique, China has provided assistance to that nation to develop the port area and transportation links at the City of Maputo. Direct railway lines connect the capital of Zimbabwe (Harare) as well as South Africa’s most populous metropolis of Johannesburg to the Port of Maputo, with the Johannesburg – Maputo railway link being significantly shorter than the Johannesburg – Durban railway link. While Durban is still Africa’s busiest maritime container terminal, the Durban harbor experiences frequent silting at its entrance due to that entrance pointing into a southbound, sand carrying ocean current.

Overland Container Transportation

The combination of Durban being Africa’s busiest container port, Johannesburg area being the largest inland destination for containers and a railway built almost a century ago has strained both railway and road connections between Johannesburg and Port of Durban. An epidemic of corruption reaching high into the South African government has literally resulted in a situation where the Maputo – Johannesburg railway link is showing some future promise to carry additional container traffic. There may even be scope for China to apply their Mombasa – Nairobi railway rebuilding project to a Johannesburg – Maputo railway connection.

The Johannesburg – Maputo railway line is shorter and with less gradient severity than the Johannesburg –Durban railway link. As a result and providing South African government connected people restrain their corrupt tendencies, there might be scope to rebuild most of the Johannesburg – Maputo railway line with heavyweight railway lines and to the international railway gauge. Borrowing from Australian precedent, sections of dual gauge railway track would continue to operate at and near Maputo as well as near Johannesburg. The main advantage to rebuilding the railway line would be to allow passage to double stacked container trains.

Mozambique’s Future

While the nation of Mozambique has been divided by political strife and civil war, it would benefit the economic future of that nation if the different political groups were to recognize the benefit of peaceful coexistence. At the present time, the southern region of South Africa is in the grip of a multi-year drought that threatens several sectors of South Africa’s economy. The Zambezi is the main river that flows through Mozambique, and two major dams that are Africa’s largest Lake Kariba and the Cahora Bassa Dam are located along that river.

Lake Malawi also empties into the Zambezi River. Engineers from Zambia have raised concern about the structural integrity of the Lake Kariba dam wall, except that the former Zimbabwean dictator dismissed the concerns. If that dam wall collapses, the economies of three nations would be adversely affected. If the new Zimbabwean leader agrees to reconsider reinforcing the dam wall, the long-term economies of three nations would be assured. Agricultural produce from two inland African nations would be assured and would pass through sea ports located along the coast of Mozambique.

South African Problems

While the Southern region of South Africa endures a multi-year drought, people knowledgeable about climate and weather began issuing warnings as far back as 1986, that the Cape Town area needed to expand water storage capacity and even consider the option of building a large desalination plant. The warnings were repeated in 1989/90 with peer reviewed research published in 1993 that stated that due a steadily growing population, the Cape Town area needed to develop additional sources of water. Except that the warnings were repeatedly disregarded, including into the first and second years of the present drought.

Cape Town has finally responded by rapidly constructing small-scale desalination plants to provide some relief to the ongoing drought. The region to the east of Cape Town is also experiencing a devastating drought, with drought warnings been issued for the Greater Johannesburg (Gauteng) region. Drought has the potential to impact on port operations at both the Port of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, the result of reduced agricultural output and reduction in industrial output from water dependent industries. Aluminum based industries are located at Port Elizabeth while steel based industries are located in the Cape Town area.

Economic Shift

Mozambique has three seaports capable to transferring bulk cargo, the ports being located at Maputo, Sofala and the town of Mozambique. The availability of abundant non-saline water within Mozambique’s national borders makes certain location in that nation as suitable locations to build factories that depend on water. A railway line connects both Lake Malawi and the Zambezi River to the town of Sofala, allowing trains of tanker to transport additional water if needed. A section of the Lower Zambezi River is navigable, allowing tanker vessels to collect non-saline water from the Zambezi River and carry that water to Mozambique’s seaports.

The South African drought and related water shortages could prompt several South African businesses to open branch plants in Mozambique’s port cities, or even relocate there altogether. Participants from South Africa’s agricultural sector could also seek to expand or relocate into Mozambique. The prospect of future economic growth could prompt the government of Mozambique to build a water pipeline within their nation or encourage private sector entities to cooperate to develop a privately funded water pipeline that could sustain business operations in various regions of the country, even maintain municipal water supplies.

Resources

Mozambique’s offshore region is believed to hold the equivalent of some 20 billion barrels of natural gas. One proposal calls for the development of this offshore resource that specialized ships could carry to distant and overseas destinations. There is additional opportunity for South African based companies such as Sasolburg to process some of the natural gas into aviation jet fuel as well as sulfur-free diesel fuel plus special blends of petrol. The combination of South Africa’s ongoing drought along with Mozambique’s ample supply of water and natural gas provides a basis of future industrial and economic development. 

South Africa has indicated an interest in revising land ownership, using a more diplomatic approach than occurred in Zimbabwe. Former Zimbabwean farmers were welcomed and resettled elsewhere in the world, including parts of Africa. There might be scope for displaced South African farmers to engage in agricultural production in Mozambique, with a portion of their future crops being exported through Mozambique’s three ports. There may be scope to smelt iron ore from South Africa one of Mozambique’s ports, perhaps even produce consumer goods made from resources imported from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Conclusion

A variety of factors and ongoing trends could turn the nation of Mozambique into a possible future economic powerhouse.

 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.