NEW RAILWAY TO AVOID SERENGETI?
Stung by the swift onset of international outrage, when plans became known of a possible railway routing across the Serengeti, aimed to connect Musoma at Lake Victoria with a planned new Indian Ocean port at Mwambani, where the Coelacanth marine national park is located, has the Tanzanian government rushed to deny several weeks late that is that any such plans existed. The global Save the Serengeti coalition had swiftly mobilized after initially being ambushed by the signing of an MoU between Chinas CCECC, Tanzania and Uganda before Christmas and tourism stakeholders, the conservation fraternity and big names from abroad denounced such plans vehemently. Criticism was particularly loud from partner country Uganda where the media caught on to the destructive potential of such a routing and its negative publicity for Uganda too and Tanzanian transport minister Omar Nundu over the weekend felt compelled to put this to rest.
While his announcement, that the routing would run at least 100 KM south of the Serengeti, was greeted in principle with both applause and relief by conservation groups, the question was immediately raised why the highway across the park was not equally shifted to the same routing and why the Tanzanian government still seems hell bent to build a gravel road across the Serengetis migration routes, which according to their own traffic forecasts will eventually carry hundreds of cars a day across the most fragile part of the national park.
There is also the added open question on the Chinese funded feasibility study, supposed to cost over 450 million US Dollars, which is to establish the most viable and cost effective route for the new railway line and based on which financiers, including China herself, are to be attracted to the multibillion dollar project. Should that study conclude that a more direct route would be best and have the greatest chance to attract funding, who would Tanzanias government then react, quietly go along with it or vocally demand for the longer route around the park to be made the official routing, at the risk of NOT getting it funded?
Also over the weekend did news emerge that the planned rail link between Rwanda and Tanzania, which is to connect central Eastern Africa with the port of Dar es Salaam via Isaka, was likely to kick off in 2014, after all the necessary funding will have been put into place. Estimated at over 3 billion US Dollars, this route is due for upgrading to standard gauge measures between Dar es Salaam and Isaka. The new add on line from there to Rwanda, and very likely on to Burundi and into the Eastern Congos main city of Goma and beyond has for some time been agreed and earmarked for development. Principal financial agreements with development partners have already been put into place and questions inevitably are now emerging how Tanzania could attract finance for two mega projects of such nature at the same time, when a full rehabilitation and transformation to standard gauge of the existing line between Dar es Salaam and the Lake Victoria port of Mwanza would provide better value for money.
Experts have also rubbished Tanzanias claim that a new port must be build at Mwambani instead of expanding Tangas existing port but with no environmental impact studies yet at hand, nor billions of dollars of loose cash floating around to create such white elephants, the plans suddenly seem a bit more distant again.
China, also involved in bidding for the new railway from Lamu into the African hinterland countries of Ethiopia and Southern Sudan, does herself not have limitless cash to spend on purely prestige projects and it is expected that all railway plans presently being put into place for Eastern Africa will, when feasibility and environmental studies are finally complete, be compared as to their economic contributions and abilities to repay the financiers. Undoubtedly is rail transport hugely important to lower the cost of imports and exports and to provide affordable linkages for both people and cargo, and at a lesser carbon footprint compared to expensive road transport. Yet, in the final analysis, even the best looking plans need to take environmental concerns into consideration and avoid biodiversity hotspots, besides needing to find the funds from somewhere to pay for the ambitious outlook of how to transform East Africa into an economic powerhouse. Watch this space to stay informed about any future twists and turns on this issue and expect quite a few more of those.