Maputo’s new port will struggle to weather the coming storm

"The coal port, a bit further up the Maputo River, has also grown and aims to export 20-million tonnes of coal a year by 2020." (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

"The coal port, a bit further up the Maputo River, has also grown and aims to export 20-million tonnes of coal a year by 2020." (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

Temperatures sit in the mid-30s and Maputo’s humidity levels makes breathing feel like a small amount of water is being inhaled with each breath. Holding a launch ceremony — in Maputo in February, the worst part of summer — seems like the height of folly. But the occasion, the completion of dredging activities for the city’s port, is such an important moment that the heat has to be survived.

In an old warehouse, next to the quay of the fishing section of the port, dignitaries and journalists gather to listen to two hours’ of speeches. Two-metre tall air conditioning units struggle to process the moist air.

Transport Minister Carlos Mesquita, one of the three main speakers, says the dredging has increased the depth of the port from 10m to 14m. It can now accommodate the biggest container vessels. In the past, these would sail past and head to South African harbours.

This is part of Mozambique’s move to capitalise on one of its natural advantages: the ocean. Mesquita reinforces the point in his speech, in the official language of Portuguese: “Markets change, economies adjust, new opportunities arise, but if there is something that can always be a source of wealth, it is our privileged access to the sea.”

Other speeches hammer home the achievement. Maputo’s main port, which could handle only three-million tonnes a year in 2003, is well on its way to handling 40-million tonnes a year by 2020. That is after a $700-million investment in its facilities.

The coal port, a bit further up the Maputo River, has also grown and aims to export 20-million tonnes of coal a year by 2020. A second coal terminal is being proposed, with a consortium of Swazi and South African junior miners looking to export six-million tonnes a year to the “huge untapped market from India”.

The goal is simple, according to Mesquita: “To make the Port of Maputo the choice for the export of cargo volumes from Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana.”

But the coal that the port exports is both a short-term blessing and a curse. Coal is a greenhouse gas and burning it warms the planet. Exports from Maputo therefore help warm the planet, albeit it to a very small degree when compared with developed economies.

Warming is already affecting Mozambique and threatens the port’s future. It will drive a sea level rise and increase the intensity of the tropical cyclones that regularly batter Mozambique’s 2 500km coastline. Mozambique is a degree hotter than it was 50 years ago and could be up to 4°C hotter by the end of this century. That, according to the country’s National Institute of Disaster Management, will mean “more frequent” and “more intense” tropical cyclones and storm surges when there is a full moon.

Last week, Tropical Cyclone Dineo killed at least seven people. Floods in 2009 covered Maputo’s low-lying business and port districts. Tropical Cyclone Eline in 2001 destroyed the homes of 20 000 people in Maputo and killed about 1 000 people and 40 000 cattle across the country.

The institute says this problem will only intensify. The 1°C temperature increase is the loss of mangrove forests, which used to calm coastal storms. Coral bleaching has also stripped away another valuable calming tool that slows waves down.

The sea level has risen by 3cm in the last half-century. In its more dire projections, based on the melting of Arctic ice, the institute says the whole of Maputo Port and the low-lying business district will be under water. “The port and rail facilities will need to be gradually relocated as the water rises,” says the institute.

The coastline will then be up against the steep cliffs of the old city, half a kilometre from the river and ocean. This is a threat to the port and all the new developments, evidenced by the forest of cranes building headquarters for South African financial institutions, Brazilian resource companies and Chinese construction companies, on the low-lying strip on the coastline.

This strip runs along the Maputo River, dominated by kilometres of quayside and port, before curving around the coast and running northeast next to the warm Indian Ocean. It is protected by a curved, cement flood barrier which dates back to before independence from Portugal in 1975.

On the ocean side of Maputo, where storms and cyclones have nothing to slow them down before reaching landfall, fingers of rock and cement jut into the ocean. These normally provide sanctuary for lovers basking in the cool evenings, but a few times a year they break the force of waves that would otherwise swamp the flood barriers.

Rising sea levels will mean those surges can breach these flood defences. A lack of data for more local predictions, and funds to improve the defences, mean those storms could cause regular flooding throughout low-lying areas in Maputo and Mozambique, the institute warns.

But development policy has hardly catered for the warnings of what will come with global warming. Luis Artur, from Maputo’s Eduardo Mondlane University, writes that there is little focus on carbon emissions in Mozambique. “Authorities and churches avoid creating consciousness that climate change is human-induced and hence may be effectively countered by mitigation measures.” This means a development path that favours elites through extractive industries and short-term economic wins.

The coal and valuable metals that are the fruits of this development path arrive at the port through a road and rail network that spans Southern Africa.

On the morning of the port’s launch ceremony, a dozen wagons sit at a rail siding in the port. A crane, clattering along on its caterpillar tracks, uses its shovel to nudge them into place before unloading ferrochrome on to trucks. These then unload on cement slabs, each the size of a football field and named after Mozambican liberation heroes such as founding President Samora Machel.

Queues of trucks with South African licence plates create a disorganised traffic jam near the rail sidings, jostling to offload first. Port officials switch from Portuguese to English and attempt to force some order, but the tired drivers want to get back across the border so they can bring another load.

Bobby Peek, of nongovernmental organisation groundWork, says development such as this is happening as if it had no effect on climate change. “It’s madness and short-term thinking at its best. Especially when communities along the entire [Maputo] corridor will be so heavily affected by climate change.”

The port authorities acknowledge that business needs to move away from coal. India has promised to “eliminate coal dependency” in the next few years and China has halted construction on more than a hundred coal-fired power stations. This change will mean fewer and fewer vessels coming to fill their hulls with the black coal nuggets and more coming for the precious metals and raw materials — such as rubies — which are being dug up in the northern parts of Mozambique.

But the damage of helping to burn fossil fuels might have already been done to Maputo’s port, with storms and rough seas battering away at its facilities, and the rest of the city.

This story was done with Climate Home, using support from the Port of Maputo and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network 

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