Africa's inland waterways have long been mooted as part of the solution to the continent's transport woes. While road and rail networks require constant maintenance and upgrading, navigable rivers and lakes have need of far less investment and infrastructure.
Yet relatively little effort has been put into making the most of this African natural resource over the past 40 years, perhaps because it is only of great use when integrate d with road and rail transport links. Now, however, governments all over Africa are finally recognising the value of inland waterways, including on Lake Malawi and on the Zambezi and Shire river system.
It is often written that David Livingstone--one of the best known European Christian missionaries to travel in Africa in the 19th century--regarded the Zambezi as the ideal means of water transport in Central-Southern Africa. He hoped that promoting travel on the river would help to overcome the economic reach of the slave trade in the region. It is perhaps less well known that his vision of a waterborne trade network never really took off, partly because the whole length of the river was not easily navigable at that time.
However, great use can be made of this and other African rivers by integrating transport networks across the continent. Various forms of cargo and particularly containerised cargo can often be most easily moved from one point to another by using a variety of forms of transport. For instance, containers often arrive at the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam, where they are transferred on to rail for transport to the west, perhaps to the lake port of Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. They can then be shipped north to Burundi, west to Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) or south to Zambia and the final stage of their journey is often undertaken by road.
When the infrastructure and organisation is in place to enable the transfer of containers from one form of transport to another, this is a modern and efficient method of transporting goods and promoting trade.
It often requires inland container depots (ICDs) to be developed at the nexus of road, rail and water transport networks and this requires investment. A good example is the Bollore ICD at Kampala which serves the rest of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Southern Sudan and Eastern DR Congo.
However, with so many other calls on their financial resources, many African governments have neglected such infrastructure...