Expressions of interests for the $70-million Kazungula Bridge, development of which would provide a much-needed alternative to ferry transport over the natural boundary between Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, could be issued by November or October. But the Nepad Business Foundation (NBF), which was a keen supporter of the projects, given its potential economic benefits, warned on Tuesday that efforts would have to be made to ensure that politics did not stand in the way of progress.

Both Zambia and Botswana, which would be the main beneficiaries of the new transport link, had openly criticised both the recently one-person election as well as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s handling of the political and economic crisis in that country.

In fact, earlier in the week, Botswana put out a statement describing the June 27, 2008, run-off election as a violation of the core principles of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union and the United Nations. Botswana urged SADC to take proactive steps to disallow Zimbabwe’s participation in SADC meetings “until such time that they demonstrate their commitment to strictly adhere to the organisation’s principles”.

Speaking at the Infrastructure Project Finance Conference in Sandton on Tuesday, NBF senior project manager John Rocha said that, while the African Development Bank was funding the feasibility study, Zimbabwe, which had not initially participated in the process, now wanted to make its own assessment.

“A small portion of the bridge actually goes past Zimbabwean territorial waters, so they [the Zimbabwean authorities] have now requested that they do their own feasibilities,” Roche reported, suggesting that this could present a challenge to the schedule.

“I’m not too sure as to what the reasons are for the political bottleneck that we are now seeing. What is clear is that to reduce the cost of business in that region and in the rest of Africa, it is imperative that people have options in order to trade,” he added.

The NBF had been set up to facilitate dialogue between the private and public sectors in Africa, with the objective of partnering with governments to realise the objectives of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, or Nepad. It was also in the process of establishing a project management office to ensure better dissemination of information on priority infrastructure projects, such as the Kazungula Bridge, so as to assist in moving some of these through to a “bankable phase”.

Rocha indicated that much might now hinge on how the project was presented to Zimbabwe. “I think it should be presented in such as way as to show that by improving on one particular route, you will not necessarily lose business, because, by doing so, we will be increasing economic activity.

He referred to a recent World Bank report, which showed that there would be an overwhelmingly positive impact on trade volumes if certain key trade routes were strengthened in Africa.

“From the Botswana and Zambian government there is absolute commitment to move ahead with this. And I think this is a project that offers tremendous opportunities for the private sector.”

In fact, the governments of Botswana and Zambia had agreed to promote free and unobstructed movement of both cargo and people between the two countries, and had argued that the Kazungula Bridge was key to meeting that objective.

Rocha noted, too, that with the Walvis Bay expansion, the bridge could also be used extensively for the transport of goods to and from that Namibian port.

The bridge was seen as particularly important to facilitate an expansion of copper mining in the region, owing to the fact that ferries, which currently transport people and vehicles cross the river, are battling to cope with the increased volumes.

Should it proceed, the bridge would be constructed immediately downstream of the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers, some 65 km upstream of the Victoria Falls.

The project length of the bridge and approach roads would be 3 700 m, comprising 720 m for the main bridge and 2 980 m for approach roads.

A prestressed concrete extra-dosed bridge had been recommended, with a seven-metre carriageway, and one-metre-wide shoulders and sidewalks on each side.

A further $30,5-million would be needed for border-control facilities, raising the estimated total cost to over $100-million.