Crossing troubled water

Crossing troubled water

South Africa is no stranger to the havoc heavy rain can cause. Every year there is a continual “flood” of incidents –  mostly infrastructure damage, during the rainy season – but this also extends to the disruption of cross-border trade. GAVIN MYERS investigates …

We recently caught wind of rising water levels along the Zambezi river, namely at Katima Mulilo, in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. In early February, the level at this point of the river was at its highest for this time of the year since 1980. According to Barney Curtis, executive officer of The Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations (FESARTA), in 2004 the river reached 7 metres and the subsequent flooding affected 50 000 people.

However, what is really of interest here is that further downriver there is a quadripoint of four national borders – Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Namibia connects with Zambia via a bridge at Katima Mulilo; Zimbabwe has one some 70 km downstream of the quadripoint at Victoria Falls. But, connecting the Botswana and Zambian borders is the Kazungula Ferry.

In service since 1979, the Kazungula Ferry directly serves traffic between Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe while indirectly serving South Africa and Namibia as well. Pontoon-type ferries are used, and, having a capacity of 70 tons, are the largest in south-central Africa.

The trouble starts when, during continual heavy rains upstream, the ferries’ safe operation becomes problematic. The river usually has a breadth and depth of about 400 m and 7 m respectively. However, during the rainy season, flooding can double the breadth, and increase the depth by up to 5 m. The border could therefore then cease to function until the water levels drop.

Heather Carr-Heartley, Botswana’s agency manager for freight management company Manica, has lived for many years at Kasane, a small town on the Chobe River about 10 km west of Kazungula. (The Chobe river is a tributary of the Zambezi, and forms part of the border between Botswana and Namibia). She estimates that approximately 40-60 trucks cross the river daily from the Botswana side alone (many from South Africa), making use of the ferries.

According to Carr-Heartley, there have been a number of ferries over the years. “One [was] blown up during war times, another sank mid-river while transporting chemicals, one ‘turned turtle’, another ended up halfway to Victoria Falls!” It was only when the realisation struck that truck overloading was the prime problem that something was done to improve the means of crossing.

She mentions that there have been some infrastructure developments in recent years, for example, stricter control measures have been put in place at the crossing; three additional ferries have been added (one primarily for small cars and pedestrians); roads have also been upgraded to accommodate the ever increasing number of trucks.

However, the variation in water level is not the only problem. There is a grave lack of facilities, such as showers and toilets, for the drivers who sometimes spend up to three days at the border post. The environment is suffering as a result. “The detrimental affect on the environment along roads and verges is obvious, and not only from a health point of view but from a socio-economic point of view,” says Carr-Heartley.

Health is another problem at Kazungula and also at many other border crossings. “One has to mention HIV/Aids, which continues to have an impact on the transport industry, and even though some companies are encouraging drivers to get wives or partners to accompany them, the HIV pandemic continues to adversely affect the entire industry – which gathers at any international border crossing,” Carr-Heartley continues.

A solution to the problems at the Kazungula border crossing was decided upon at the end of the last millennium. It was meant to come in the form of a new bridge which was to be built at an estimated cost of US$70 million (excluding US$30 million for the border control facilities). To be financed on a build-operate-transfer basis, funding was expected to come from the African Development Bank and other partners. Furthermore, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) provided for equal contributions towards the cost of design and construction of the bridge and the border control facilities by Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. But, despite numerous feasibility studies and proposals, construction has been constantly delayed. In 2008, Zambia and Botswana withdrew from the MOU with Zimbabwe and committed to their own one.

Kazungula aside, issues such as these affect cross-border operations on a continual basis. The problems associated with such incidents extend beyond that of just extended hold-ups and damage to the environment at the borders. Cross-border trade is hindered, risks for drivers and their cargo increase, and the operators’ expenses continue to rise. Of course, it’s the end user/consumer who lands up footing the bill.

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