(The most direct line from Mwambani to Musoma leads across the Serengeti)
With much of official Tanzania on their year-end vacation to celebrate Christmas and New Year, the almost inevitable denials over the suggested direct routing of a new railway line from Tanga to Musoma through the Serengeti National Park came from lower ranking officials, clearly stung by the vehement reaction in regional and international media.
It was reported here, and then followed up by Ugandas The Daily Monitor (www.monitor.co.ug) that the pre-Christmas signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Uganda, Tanzania and the China Civil Engineering Construction Company paved the way for a full scale feasibility study to be carried out by the Chinese company at a cost of approximately 450 million US Dollars. Considering that the Tanzanian government, under immense international pressure over plans to build a highway across the same stretch of wilderness area, had to yield and write to UNESCO the Serengeti is a World Heritage Site that no highway would be built, only to see the letter writer, Tourism Minister Maige then rubbish his own written assurance within weeks when he claimed in public utterances that the road would still be built anyway, the denials however sound hallow and shallow.
It is clear that cost, as in everything, is a crucial factor and should the feasibility study suggest that a direct route would be cheaper, and therefore financially more viable, it is a foregone conclusion that the Tanzanian government will inevitably have to consider such proposals, more so as China is also the likely source of finance for the mega project, and should the Tanzanian government attempt to alter the outcome of the study, they would risk the financing and the project altogether.
The Acting Director of Economic Infrastructure in the ministry of East African Cooperation, Dr. B. Rufunjo, in his hastily convened media briefing on Thursday in Dar es Salaam, while attempting to deny such a routing would be even remotely possible, added yet another dimension to this ongoing saga, when he let it slip that as part of the agreements and discussions with Uganda even an oil pipeline would be constructed between the Tanzanian coast and the lake port of Mwanza, something he may well have to bite his tongue for after letting that cat out of the bag.
There are now THREE major infrastructure projects on the table, seeking financing and implementation according to the professed plans and intent by the Tanzanian government.
First was the highway, later on reduced to a gravel road across the Serengeti to connect the mineral rich region between Lake Victoria and the Serengeti to the rest of the country. Then followed the information that a joint railway project was being planned with Uganda to connect Musoma, where a major lake port is to be constructed with the coast at Tanga, where right in the middle of the Coelacanth marine national park in Mwambani another deep sea port is to be set up. And as the third component, now out of the bag by slip of tongue of Dr. Rufunjo, the oil pipeline has been casually made public only days after the railway controversy began to race around the world, alarming and alerting the conservation fraternity once again to another potential assault on the Serengeti.
It is common, both in practice and sense, that major corridors or transportation, like railways, highways and pipelines, are bundled, as has been done along the sector from Mombasa to Nairobi, where pipeline, highway and railway run for long stretches almost parallel and often only hundreds of metres apart.
It makes construction easier, provides redundancy in terms of access for maintenance, emergencies and repairs and most important, keeps the cost down of the overall construction of such projects vis a vis available jointly used work camps and related facilities.
The attempt to downplay and deny any intention of having a railway cross the Serengeti therefore backfired when the third element was made public, giving the local, regional and international conservation groups fresh fodder for thought and more worries. As usual, loud protests from within Tanzania will be few and far between, as the media especially in the case of the controversial highway plans were almost mute while individuals and NGO opponents feared political repercussions and trumped up charges against them, should they be too noisy; in 2010 during the elections, a perfect pretext to clamp down on any real or perceived opponents of development and government, during much of this year 2011 to keep controversy out of the run up to the 50th anniversary of Tanganyikas Independence from Britain and in 2012 for any other reason, perhaps even terming opposition to such development projects economic treason the term enemies of development has already been used repeatedly since the highway plans became public in May 2010.
One thing though is for certain, that the global conservation fraternity, already having Tanzania under the spotlight for a series of other planned environmental assaults like Uranium mining in the Selous, the planned construction of a hydroelectric dam and power plant at Stieglers Gorge / Selous or the on again / off again soda ash plant on Lake Natron, will redouble their efforts to oppose any such plans involving the Serengeti and other key wilderness areas. From sources in Nairobi it was also confirmed that the legal team, which is pursuing a case against the Tanzanian government in the East African Court of Justice in Arusha over the highway plans, may well try to expand their brief and seek a ruling covering aspects other than just the road, like for instance rail and pipeline routings.
And as is the case with the Serengeti Highway, there is no question of denying Tanzania her development as has been suggested in a flurry of comments since the news were broken here. For the highway a southerly routing has been recommended, and in fact the World Bank and other organizations, including the German government, have made it clear they would help finance such a route, and the same can be achieved for pipelines and railways. It is not an either or but a sensible compromise to be sought and implemented which leaves pristine wilderness areas intact for decades to come as a resource for wildlife based tourism, a major economic activity for Tanzania and much of the rest of East Africa. Let us not destroy what already works and works well but protect and preserve it while employing some common sense when finally deciding on where highway, railway and pipeline will be located. Not across the Serengeti if global opinion has anything to do with it. Watch this space.