(eTN) – The announcement earlier in the week that the Kenyan government had, through the Kenya Ports Authority, issued invitations to tender for the design and construction of the first three berths of the planned new deep sea harbor of Lamu, has thrown the gauntlet down to “competing” projects in the wider region. Related infrastructure, too, is said to be part of the tender documents now available for domestic, regional, and international bidding as rail, besides and alongside improved roads and highways, will be the key to opening up Eastern Africa’s full economic potential.
Kenya will be home to the new rail-road link between the still to be built new port of Lamu, connecting the South Sudan and Ethiopia to the Indian Ocean with a pipeline, a highway, and a railway, while the existing Uganda Railway, built at the turn of the 20th century, which links the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa via Nairobi to Kampala, is due for major upgrades in terms of not only rolling stock and locomotives but also the widening of the line to “standard gauge.”
The Lamu project is an undertaking by the Kenya government, with participation of the private sector, while the existing railway upgrade is to be undertaken by Rift Valley Railways, the concessionaire chosen by Uganda and Kenya to manage their existing rail network and modernize it. When complete, the Lamu port is due to extend to as many as 20 berths, become home of a refinery able to process over 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day, and become the railhead of over 1,700 kilometers of railway connecting Kenya with the South Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as the endpoint of the oil pipeline spanning nearly 1,300 kilometers to the South Sudanese oilfields.
In the wider East African region, other rail projects are also being discussed, although it appears that not one of the other countries involved in similar schemes can actually raise the multibillion US dollar capital otherwise needed to start, leave alone complete, such mega infrastructure projects.
In Uganda, there has long been talk about a consortium wanting to put together a rail link from South Sudan’s capital city of Juba to the Northern Ugandan city of Gulu and from there into the Kampala to Mombasa line. To be built in standard gauge for higher speeds of cargo and passenger trains, this component of a greater East African railway network, however, has gone ominously quiet when the direct rail and road link to Lamu was floated by the Kenyan government, keen to see a shorter, purpose-built rail line to connect their planned port of Lamu with a key consumer market for Kenyan products and broader import/export services. This project has the added incentive with a link to Addis Ababa, which would provide the Ethiopians with a strategically hugely important “secure” link to the Indian Ocean, further away from what is thought to be an aggressively hostile regime in Eritrea, which is too close for comfort to the traffic axis between Ethiopia and Djibouti.
And in Ethiopia itself, railway projects are also being planned on a major scale to link the country domestically and with Kenya and Djibouti. In fact, information from Addis Ababa suggests that four contracts for separate segments of an improved national railway network are already signed, and more contracts have been prepared, to eventually cover a rail network of some 4,700 kilometers of overall length. Notably, in spite of extensive international competition, Chinese companies have so far bagged all the contracts so far awarded, a trend duplicated elsewhere in Africa.
Kenya’s LAPSSET project got a further boost towards implementation when South Sudan made it known that they would build a new pipeline from their oil fields to the Indian Ocean port of Lamu, where a dedicated oil export terminal is to be constructed, allowing for much of the distance to have the oil pipeline run parallel with the railway and the highway, easing construction problems of otherwise multiple routes.
While this has left Uganda sort of reeling – South Sudan is Uganda’s most important export market in the region – though they were first off the blocks talking rail links, events seem to have overtaken this option as South Sudan’s primary gateway to the coast, leaving Uganda to either find their own financiers to construct the Gulu-Juba section, somehow unlikely considering the much-reduced cargo volumes it could now generate in competition with the Lamu-Juba link, or else drop the plan.
In Tanzania three major rail projects are under discussion, one being the full overhaul and modernization of the TAZARA railway, which links Dar es Salaam with Zambia and which was built by the Chinese and opened in the early 1970s. That railway, however, has over its lifetime seen more downs than ups due to often inept management, lack of capitalization to maintain and modernize infrastructure and rolling stock, and not the least over the bane of African economic development, corruption.
Talks are underway with China once again to restore this line to its former functionality, leaving the upgrade of the existing railway and plans for a new one to be resolved.
Agreements between Tanzania and Rwanda are at an advanced stage to construct a new railway link between Isaka in Tanzania to Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, with an onward planned link to Bujumbura/Burundi and to Goma/Eastern Congo, to ease the flow of goods for import and export and also promote passenger traffic by rail, a cheaper and safer alternative to road transport.
This link, to be built in standard gauge, is at an advanced planning, design, and financing stage already and the most likely of the projects to go ahead, leaving it to Tanzania to find either the funds or investors to upgrade the existing railroad from Dar es Salaam to Isaka from the present narrow to the standard gauge.
This seems the most urgent of the Tanzanian railway projects under consideration, but requires larger sections of a modernized routing to be improved and secured against constant flooding and disruptions as seen in recent years when at times rail traffic came to a standstill over weeks, if not months, while waiting for the flood waters to drain and repairs to the line to be completed.
That leaves Tanzania with the grandiose plan, often seen as the proverbial white elephant project, to build a new port near Tanga at Mwambani – instead of modernizing the existing Tanga port facilities currently massively underutilized – and create a new purpose build railway to the Lake Victoria town of Musoma, from where a rail ferries are to connect the line to and equally new lake port on the Ugandan side.
This railway, following what has been termed the notorious “Corridor of Destruction” will likely have the greatest opposition over the chosen routing and importantly the purpose of it overall from environmental lobby groups. As the true extent of the current Tanzanian government’s intent becomes clearer by the month, and their secret shroud over hugely detrimental components of the transport axis and related industrial projects gets lifted more and more by leaks from within the establishment in Dar es Salaam, this creates greater awareness of the potential risks in the public domain of late.
The plans for a new port in Mwambani, to be constructed directly inside the marine national park only launched a few years ago for the protection of the prehistoric Coelacanth fish, have met with determined resistance from global conservation groups, as well as increased opposition by local populations, who are apparently being targeted for removal and relocation without either consent or having been made part of the consultative process. Meetings, the latest only held two weeks ago, regularly exclude tourism stakeholders and genuine local representation, preparing the grounds surely for legal cases to be brought, if not in the national court system then at the Arusha-based East African Court of Justice.
The “Corridor of Destruction” then moves along the Eastern Arc Mountains, for which an application for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site was withdrawn last year following a directive from Tanzania President Kikwete, to avoid sinister plans for mining and logging to be interfered with by UNESCO in the future, as seen over other controversies in the Selous and over the planned Serengeti highway. The route of the new rail line would be near enough to the Eastern Arc Mountains to become an effective “opener” to an aggressive and very likely quite unsustainable exploitation of the wider area, where illegal logging is already decimating the forests at an unprecedented rate.
But the two worst impact areas of the planned railway, as only weeks ago admitted by government officials in another case of lapse of secrecy, will be the creation of the necessary link to a planned soda ash factory on Lake Natron, another pet project of the Tanzanian President. If this project comes to be, it will irrevocably destroy the sole breeding grounds for the millions of flamingos which are found in Eastern Africa and which congregate in the mud flats of the lake to breed. A soda ash plant and related infrastructure, like roads and rail and human settlements, would in the opinion of experts, create enough disturbances in this crucial breeding area to drive the birds away, with nowhere else to breed and then doomed to die out within years.
And then there is, of course, the issue of the most direct route to Musoma at Lake Victoria. Will financiers, said to be the Chinese with an appalling track record of environmentally-negative practices, add the extra cost to circumvent the Serengeti or else follow the planned highway routing across the national park’s most sensitive areas for the annual migration of the wildebeest? Here, while having made half-hearted noises that they would not “pave the highway,” high-ranking officials have in past months time and again referred to the highway as “coming, like it or not,” in spite of the matter being before the East African Court of Justice. It is there that other related projects linked to the railway may well end up, too, as the court registrar, when announcing the decision of the appellate division a few months ago, which dismissed objections by the Tanzanian government over competence of the court to hear this case, also made it clear that the court was not just competent but more than willing to take on cases which were not being dealt with by the national judiciaries, often rumored to succumb to political pressure.
Be that all as it may, Kenya is seemingly set to fast track the start of major construction in and near Lamu, which will, if and when the project components advance, transform this formerly remote and untouched part of Kenya into a new transport hub, create a new airport, promote manufacturing under bond, very likely establish a free port, and see the establishment of a new population center for as many as half a million people, workers, and their dependents.
Catapulting Kenya into the 21st century has been a catch phrase over these plans and the tender announcement does indicate that someone somewhere means business – so watch this space for regular future updates on this first of several mega infrastructure projects, which will open an entirely new range of business opportunities along this stretch of Kenya’s coast line, hospitality and tourism included.