The road to the future, or is it?

Article by Boniface Mwila

Boniface Mwila,Principal mining engineering consultant

The business community in Zambia has clearly been dismayed by recent electricity price increases, but it is comforting to know that the hikes are part of a plan to upgrade the energy infrastructure more generally.

My last column highlighted the power generation deficit in Zambia, which is likely to reach over 550MW by next year. The challenge, moreover, extends to the whole of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, which has experienced this deficit since 2007. The region has planned over 70 new projects to generate power by 2027 to take us from our current levels of 56 000MW to some 96 000MW.

With the upgrading of infrastructure now clearly the topic of our time, I would like to shift attention to another area where Zambia is seeing exciting developments: roads. In particular, the Link Zambia 8 000 project is a large and coordinated plan to make it cheaper and faster to move around the country by road.

According to the Government, the project is expected to take at least five years, and will cost between $5 billion and $6 billion. The name of the scheme refers to the 8 000 kilometres (5 000 miles) of high-quality, single and dual lane road that will be rehabilitated or constructed around the country.

The private sector is being encouraged to take part in this build programme by undertaking the construction of key toll roads to take most of the commercial traffic, with tolls now becoming the basis of a new sustainable revenue model. These priority routes include the road from Solwezi to Kazungula, with a spur to Kasumbalesa; a new bridge at Kazungula, located about 60 km west of Livingstone, will replace the existing ferry system over the Zambezi River. To be enhanced with one-stop border crossing facilities, the bridge will reduce transit time and reduce the cost of trade. Other priority routes are the roads from Kapiri Mposhi to Nakonde, and from Lusaka to Mchinji via Chipata.

It is hoped that this project, if developed and managed properly, will make Zambia a transportation hub for southern Africa. Of course, toll roads are never a popular option for any country that is unaccustomed to a strict ‘user pays’ policy for roads; but in the current situation, where many roads have become almost undriveable, some difficult decisions must clearly be made.

What is perhaps harder to understand, however, is the apparent acceptance that mines will continue to be among the primary users of this road network. In outlining the need for Link 8 000 the Zambia Development Agency highlights the Zambian mining sector’s heavy reliance on its road network “to ship mine inputs and exports overseas through its eight neighboring countries”.

For those connected to the mining industry in Zambia, it is well known that rail – rather than road – was in the past the preferred transport mode for heavy equipment inputs and cathode exports. It is cheaper and safer, both for the mining companies and the state. The impact of 40-tonne mining trucks on national roads, for instance, is not good for surface longevity or road safety.

Rail, then, is the next important challenge in Zambia’s mining future – a topic I will return to in my next column.

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