Govt’s broken promises over Chilonga Bridge irk community

Chilonga Bridge

In 2000, Cyclone Eline caused severe damage to the Chilonga Bridge in the Lowveld region resulting in its collapse.

This bridge connected the town of Chiredzi to rural communities including Chilonga, Chikombedzi, and Malipati, and the Sango Border Post.

Between early February and early March, Cyclone Eline brought unrestrained fury to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique, with wind speeds of 120km per hour causing widespread destruction

The storm’s impact on Zimbabwe included 136 fatalities.

According to the Civil Protection Unit (CPU), the cyclone caused extensive damage, including the destruction of 60 000 homes, 15 000 damaged toilets, and damage to 54 clinics and 538 schools.

After the carnage, Chilonga bridge, a low-lying narrow structure which is often submerged in floods or becomes impassable during the rainy season, was constructed, earning a place of infamy among communities.

In 2022, 14 people were swept away while trying to cross the low-level bridge, the CPU says.

At one time, the bridge was sealed off to save lives after a NetOne employee and a female colleague died when their car was washed away from the bridge.

The “killer” bridge is on a road that provides the shortest route to Chiredzi, the commercial capital for thousands of communal farmers in the area who rely on the town for goods and services.

The government has repeatedly promised to reconstruct the Chilonga bridge.

But 20 years later, there is no relief for communities in the northern and southern parts of Chiredzi District.

“We have been greatly inconvenienced by the low-lying bridge due to failure by government to replace and reconstruct a bigger bridge like the original one as we cannot cross to Chiredzi town where we get most of our services,” Tsakilani Mundau, a villager from Chipinda under Chief Chilonga said.

A 23-year delay has plagued the construction of Chilonga bridge and government authorities are yet to deliver on their promises.

Citizens whose lives depend on the bridge are caught in the middle of the failed promises.

Agnes Velemu from Velemu Village said some patients have lost their lives on their way to hospital after failing to cross the bridge during the rainy season.

“Sick villagers seeking critical medical attention have also died after failing to cross the river or due to delays while using the longer route of travelling to Chiredzi via Rutenga,” Velemu said.

Velemu said one must travel over 250 km on an inaccessible road to reach the town that is otherwise just 35km away via a shortcut where one has to contend with the dangerous bridge that is always submerged during the rainy season.

The construction of the Tugwi Mukosi Dam has not helped matters as the Runde River frequently bursts at its banks when the floodgates of Zimbabwe’s biggest inland water reservoir are opened.

In 2017, then Transport and Infrastructural Development minister Joram Gumbo said the government was mobilising $200 billion towards the construction of the new bridge.

In February 2018, Gumbo toured the low-lying bridge and insisted that the central government would finance the building of a new all-weather structure.

Gumbo was later moved to the President’s Office before overseeing the construction of the bridge.

By April 2018, only $3 million was raised but only a paltry  $500 000 was paid for initial works at the site.

At the time, authorities said engineers had been deployed to do topographic surveys at the site where the bridge was to be constructed.

The claim was, however, refuted by former Masvingo provincial roads engineer Robert Mukome who said the central government was yet to provide funding for the project.

Mukome has since left the ministry of Transport and is now in the private sector.

Asked about the $500 000 released in 2018, Mukome said the money was not enough to fund the project.

“That money was even inadequate to purchase requirements for the substructure works. It was eventually eroded by Statutory Instrument 33 of 2019 (SI33 of 2019),” Mukome said.

The SI ordered the transacting public to use the Zimbabwe dollar as the sole legal currency from February 22, 2019, for accounting and other purposes.

In April 2019, talks of reviving Chilonga Bridge were revived once again.

According to authorities, only $8 million was raised, but consultants hired to do feasibility studies said the figure was insufficient.

The consultants said US$20 million was the actual cost of the project.

During the same month in 2019, the central government said it had identified an alternative site for the bridge, located a few metres away from the original one after admitting failure to raise US$20 million.

In August 2019, the central government said it was planning to float a tender for a local consultant to construct the low-cost design bridge by year-end, something which did not come to pass.

Fast forward to March 2022, talks on the stalled project gained momentum again.

This was after deputy Finance minister Clemence Chiduwa vowed that the central government ‘is making good’ of its long-deferred promise to construct the new bridge after setting aside nearly  $4 billion for the project.

Contacted to provide a progress update on the construction of the bridge, Gumbo said he cannot speak on behalf of the Ministry of Transport which he has since left.

Gumbo is now the minister of State for Presidential Affairs, responsible for implementing government programs and projects.

The construction of the Chilonga Bridge thus falls under his jurisdiction in principle.

“But all I can tell you is that the Chilonga Bridge construction was a proposal,” Gumbo said in a telephone interview.

“Take note that a proposal and the actual implementation are two different things. We proposed several projects.”

Chiduwa also said he could not comment on the issue as it does not fall under his ministry.

“The best people to comment on that are officials from the Ministry of Transport who are implementing the project.

“The president said ministers should comment on issues pertaining to their ministries,” Chiduwa told The Republic.

In his 2023 budget presented last year, Finance mMinister Mthuli Ncube allocated $2 billion (US$2 million) for the re-construction of the Chilonga Bridge, a figure which is a drop in the ocean given the initial estimated cost of US$20 million.

Transport minister Felix Mhona said engineers were designing the new bridge.

“They also went on the ground to establish a new site for the bridge as the soils at the current base are too loose such that even if we build the bridge there, it will still collapse or be washed away,” Mhona said in an interview.

However, community members doubt the bridge will ever be constructed.

“Our hopes for Chilonga Bridge reconstruction have since been washed down the Runde River,” Hatred Mtakwa, a villager, said.

“We doubt the government’s sincerity in the matter.

“The revival of the project keeps popping up when it’s election time.”

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