The history of hydropower development in Zambia


Part 1: the construction of the Kariba Dam

By Ronald Lwamba

The history of hydro-power development in Zambia cannot be told without mentioning Dr. David Livingstone.

He saw the Zambezi River as “God’s Highway” to the sea but unfortunately God had other ideas. During his first journey down the Zambezi River, he came across the Falls and named them, Victoria Falls.

He also came across the Tongas whose men in those days wore no clothes at all, which he found to be indecent. “They walk about,” he wrote, “without the smallest sense of shame. . . . I told them that on my return I should have my family with me, and no one must come near us in that state.” The women wore a belt around their waist to which a great number of strings were attached to hang all round their waist, a bit like the reed dance women. These fringes were about 150 mm or 200 mm long.

The younger girls had the fringes only in front. It is therefore a misrepresentation of facts when we condemn women dressed in minis for not adhering to our culture. Which culture? The mini is more decent than what our fore fathers, or ancestors to be politically correct, wore.

It would be interesting to find out if there were more rape cases. This leads me to think that rape is a state of mind because in India where women wear long dresses and sometimes even cover their faces rape cases are rampant.

After the falls he rejoined the river at Kariba Gorge but on his second journey, in 1860, he went down the valley itself with a fleet of canoes. There was so much hope placed on the Zambezi River to provide access to the sea that the German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi negotiated the acquisition of the Caprivi Strip (named after him) with the United Kingdom in exchange for Zanzibar and another island in the North Sea in order to give Germany access to the Zambezi River and a route to Africa’s east coast, where the German colony Tanganyika was situated. Strips like these are very common in the USA and are referred to as “pan handles” because they look like pan handles.

Later on Dr Livingstone realised that the Victoria Falls and Kariba gorge made the Zambezi River not navigable and therefore suggested to have a port for steamers near the confluence of the Zambezi and Kafue Rivers.

Unfortunately the whole grand scheme collapsed in ruin and recrimination when it was discovered that the Cahora Bassa gorge in Mozambique, which Livingstone had not inspected, made God’s Highway totally unnavigable. It is my hope that in future a canal can be constructed to bypass the Cahora Bassa Dam to provide Zambia possibly with the participation of Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe access to the sea, whose economic impact can perhaps be as significant as the Panama Canal is to the USA or the mighty Mississippi River.

The question can be asked now, would Zambia have been better off having access to the sea rather than the gorges that impede navigability of the river had God been more magnanimous, some of which have been exploited for electricity? Although easy access to Zambia would have also resulted in increased slave trade during the slave trade era, I think Zambia would have been better off because it has other hydropower development options.

Serious planning for a major dam in the Zambezi Basin began in 1946 in what were then two British colonial territories. Its sole purpose was to provide electricity to the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt and the urban industrial centres of Southern Rhodesia. The mining firms had been experiencing rapid development since the end of World War II. Lack of a reliable, low cost supply of electricity was seen not only as a major impediment to further development, but as a potential energy crisis. Between 1948 and 1956 coal delivered from Wankie to the Copperbelt thermal power stations using an inadequate single-track railway line had to be supplemented by fuelwood that deforested 917 square kilometres in the surrounding areas (Williams, 1985). Energy supplies were also supplemented in 1956 by the temporarily importation of electricity from the Belgian Congo to the north – a strategy seen as only temporary because of civil strife (Soils Inc.2000). While the country was grappling with the energy crisis I stayed in an unlit house in Section 9 in Mufulira where my father worked for the mines run by the Rhodesia Selection Trust. It had to take another three years for my parents to move to Section 3A, “Amaiteneke” (prefabs), which was electrified. Despite the construction of the Kariba Dam and other hydropower projects, 50 years down the line, only 48% of the urban households have electricity and a paltry 3% of the rural households are electrified.

During the 1946-53 planning period two dam sites received serious consideration. One was the Kariba Gorge in the Middle Zambezi Valley; the other was immediately upstream from the Kafue River Gorge, a Zambezi tributary entirely contained within Northern Rhodesia. Established in 1946, the Inter-Territorial Hydro-Electric Power Commission appointed an Advisory Panel in 1948 to choose between the two sites. The Panel initially favoured the Kariba Gorge dam site to which the Northern Rhodesia government (NRG) objected and asked the Panel to look more carefully at the Kafue site. Involving a smaller, less expensive dam, NRG argued that Kafue could provide the critically needed power to the Copperbelt at an earlier date than Kariba. After the Panel confirmed that Kafue could provide sufficient cheap power more rapidly than Kariba, the Northern Rhodesian settler-dominated legislature voted in 1953 to proceed with Kafue and established a Kafue River Hydroelectric Authority as the responsible agency.

Unfortunately this decision was reversed because that same year the two territories were joined with Nyasaland to form the Central African Federation aka the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Though short-lived (1953 – 1963), creation of the Southern Rhodesian-dominated Federation shifted the emphasis back to Kariba since its Prime Minister favoured the Kariba dam site for political as well as economic reasons.

In order to project an image of impartiality the Federal Prime Minister engaged a French consulting engineering firm headed by the renowned French civil engineer, André Coyne. Engineering and architectural design fees are based on the cost of the project.

It is therefore not surprising that Monsieur Coyne recommended the much more expensive Kariba dam site which project he proceeded to design in the form of an arch dam, his speciality.

In today’s language this would have been called single sourcing. Coyne also designed the Malpasset Dam in Southern France, which failed killing an estimated 421 people. It was said that Coyne was deeply affected by the dam’s failure. He died half a year later. Thank God, we did not suffer a similar fate. The Kariba Dam site has faults.

Arch dams are so sensitive to the presence of faulty zones unlike the rockfill dam constructed at Kafue Gorge. The large reservoir has also resulted in some minor earthquakes known as reservoir induced seismicity, RIS.