It is now a year since the Nkhata Bay Jetty pontoon—the bridge that links arriving and departing vessels—sunk due to heavy Mwera winds. The jetty was constructed in 1957 and the first pontoon was replaced after 28 years.
Amid alleged lack of maintenance, the second pontoon submerged after serving travellers for 32 years. But now travelling to Likoma and Chizumulu islands through Nkhata Bay Jetty is a nightmare.
The pontoon had definitely outlived its life and it was just a matter of time before it gave way.
This has left traders from Likoma and Chizumulu islands, and Nkhata Bay, spending more to have their merchandise ferried to departing vessels.
Since then, government has been promising and assuring the people of Nkhata Bay, as well as Likoma and Chizumulu islands, a quick intervention, but to no avail.
Feeling the pinch of the absence of the pontoon are businesspersons like Mercy Chisowa, who runs a mini-shop at Likoma, where she sells groceries. She is forced to pay more for her merchandise to be ferried to the MV Illala on its trip to Likoma.
Chisowa, who gets her merchandise from Nkhata Bay, pays K2 000 for it to be ferried to MV Illala while her fare on the vessel to Likoma is K3 000. As expected, the extra cost is transferred to the end user—her consumers.
“Imagine, I pay an extra K2 000 to ferry my five bales of sugar into the vessel. When the jetty was operational, I was taking the sugar to the vessel myself. Life is hard without an operational jetty,” she laments.
She also pays K300 when in Likoma, where there is no jetty as well.
Chisowa sells a kilogramme of the brown sugar at K850 (K100 more than it sells elsewhere in the Northern Region) which, according to her, does not give her much profit. She said, actually, sometimes her profit is swallowed up by expenses she incurs because of the absence of an operational jetty.
That is not all: Failure to maintain the habour has seen people from Likoma and the surrounding areas failing to access health services. Most affected are patients who are referred to Nkhata Bay district hospital and other health facilities outside the island.
For the patients, getting onto and disembarking from the vessel is a nightmare. Random interviews with guardians and travellers established that lives are in danger due to the absence of functional facilities on both ends.
While Transport and Public Infrastructure Minister Jappie Mhango was inspecting the Nkhata Bay Jetty last October, two patients from Likoma—one on a drip and another in a plaster of Paris (PoP)—were carried from MV Chambo to a boat, and later to a nearby higher ground for easy landing.
It took well-wishers to help carry the patients from the boats and, later the Nkhata Bay DC, Alex Mdooko’s vehicle to take them to Nkhata Bay District Hospital.
Touched by the suffering of travellers, especially patients, Mhango ordered officials from his Ministry to fix the habour by December 2016.
“I am not advising, but instructing my officials to do whatever we can, as a Ministry, to redeem these people from suffering. It is a big problem. You can agree with me that while we were standing at the bridge, patients that had alighted from the ship were struggling to come offshore because of the unavailability of this facility. So, what I have done is simply instruct them,” said Mhango.
He said the absence of the pontoon is also affecting transportation of goods, and tourism, observing that people hesitate to use water transport because the jetty is not being attended to.
The long wait continues
December passed, nothing happened. When asked, Mhango was quick to mention Malawi Ports Company (MPC), a subsidiary of Mota-Engil, to help in the rehabilitation of the jetty.
“My friend, I do not just make promises. Whatever promise I make, I fulfil. I know what I am doing and that jetty will be constructed,” said Mhango.
Asked if government has money to reconstruct the jetty, Mhango said he has consulted MPC to do that although the concession agreement indicates that government will be responsible for infrastructure, including maintenance.
“When you are renting someone’s house and the owner tells you to maintain the house, will you say no because it is not your house. They are the concessionaires, so they have to look into that,” said Mhango.
A recent visit to the jetty revealed that, since last year, only some terraces (steps) have been built on the site. The terraces, which cost Mota-Engil K2 million, only ease movement of travellers who use private boats to and from passenger ships.
In an interview, Mhango said the construction of the terraces is a sign of things moving in the right direction, and that government has not failed on its promise to recover the submerged pontoon.
“We will bring in a crane to redeem it soon, government does not fail. It is not that government has run away, no,” said Mhango.
He attributed the current condition of the pontoon to lack of maintenance.
“I appreciate the suffering of the people of Likoma. The job will be done as soon as possible by the concessionaire—Mota-Engil,” he said.
Officials projected the jetty renovations to cost K26 million. However, in the 2016/2017 budget, government allocated K25 million for the construction of harbours, but it did not specify which ones.
MPC’s Austin Msowoya, who speaks on marine services, said the company already tried four options to recover the submerged pontoon, but failed.
“We are a port managing company, not a salvage company. We were trying to do a job that belongs to a salvage company because government could not finance services of a salvage company,” said Msowoya.
He added: “We are bringing another pontoon just as big as that one which sunk, but we need a crane to lift the bridge that is attached to the pontoon. We will then pull the new pontoon and fix it there.”
Until when the concessionaire and government solve the pontoon puzzle, the suffering of the islanders continues.