The history of hydropower development in Zambia


By Ronald Lwamba

Part 1: the construction of the Kariba Dam

However, that is water under the bridge. Political differences must be cast aside when it comes to protection of the dam wall.

Sometime back the Zimbabwean Minister of Energy and Power Development, Elton Mangoma admitted that the Kariba dam wall on the Zimbabwean side is weak and requires urgent repairs to prevent the wall from collapsing. There is also erosion in the plunge pool where the water impacts from the spillway which is over 90m deep.

During this period the Northern Rhodesian Governor requested a loan for a major rural development programme that was intended to reverse rural migration to the Copperbelt and the urban centres along the line of rail from the mining companies.

Unfortunately the Federal Prime Minister also requested the mining companies to loan the Federation the necessary finance and they opted to fund the Kariba Dam project in the sum of $56 million and the mines were promised the first benefits of power from Kariba. $8.4 million came from the Commonwealth Development Finance Company, $42 million came from the Colonial Development Corporation, and, biggest of all, $80 million came from the World Bank.

Natural justice would have demanded that the power station should have been constructed on the north bank to balance the equation after having lost out on the construction of the hydropower power project on Kafue River.

However, the white settlers had an inkling that the Federation would not survive and chose the south bank for a power station that was largely meant to supply the mines with electricity on the Copperbelt.

This choice would later haunt independent Zambia when the then Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965.

Most of the electrical and mechanical engineering contracts were given to British firms or their African subsidiaries but the main contract, the civil engineering contract comprising the building of the power station and the dam itself, was given to an Italian firm much to the consternation of the white settlers who were predominantly of British stock.

It was just over ten years that the British had fought the Italians in World War II. But within a year the settlers were won over by the Italians because of the speed and skill at which the work was carried out. In addition, the Italians did not organise gangs of Africans to do heavy manual work which was the prevalent colonial custom.

At Kariba, when something had to be shoved or lifted, black men and white men put their shoulders underneath it, all together, which Dr Martin Luther King could only dream about, posing an unusual sight at the time. This was quicker than looking for gangs of Africans to give orders to. Unfortunately Zambia has perpetuated the use of this colonial custom of “bakapitao.”

The two Rhodesias had different approaches on resettlement. In Southern Rhodesia the villagers were forcefully removed whereas in Northern Rhodesia it was based on persuasion until at the last minute when it became clear that persuasion had failed.

The Gwembe Tonga men did not believe that it was possible for their villages to be flooded by building a dam many kilometres downstream.

Even headmen who had been taken to the dam site to view construction activities could not relate them to their impending removal. There was a faceoff between the mobile police and the villagers. The police had guns while the villagers had spears, clubs and utility and ceremonial axes reminiscent of the Marikana standoff.

Failing to negotiate a solution to the impasse, the governor ordered the people into the trucks. According to the available version of events, the Gwembe Tonga men charged the mobile police who, believing their lives were in danger, fired back. Eight Gwembe Tonga men were reported to have died and at least 32 were wounded.

They also believed that Nyaminyami, their River God, would not allow them to be moved from their tribal lands and would also not allow the great Zambezi River to be blocked. They believed it would anger the river god so much that he would cause the water to boil and destroy the “white man’s bridge” with floods.

Believe it or not the floods did come. In 1957, a year into the building of the dam, the river rose to flood level, flowing through the gorge with immense power, destroying some equipment and the access roads.

The odds against another flood occurring the following year were about a thousand to one – but flood it did – three metres higher than the previous year.

This time destroying the access bridge, the coffer dam and parts of the main wall.  Nyaminyami had made good his threat. He had recaptured the gorge. His waters passed over the wreckage of his enemies at more than sixteen million litres a second, a flood which, it had been calculated, would only happen once in ten thousand years. After the floods, in 1959, three Italians and fourteen Africans working at the top of a shaft fell to the bottom when the staging gave way and 80 tons of concrete fell on top of them.

The bodies had to be prised open with pneumatic picks after the concrete had set. Although man had eventually won the battle, when the dam was finally opened in 1960, there was a whole new respect for the power of the River God, Nyaminyami.

The Queen Mother commissioned the Kariba Dam on 16th May 1960. Her visit was also extended to Lusaka where she unveiled the Rider and Horse statue and the Copperbelt as well as Western Province where she was paddled along the river in a state canoe. In Mufulira, I remember as an 11 year-old lining the main road leading to Mufulira West to welcome the Queen Mother waving a miniature union jack. We were given ice cream, my first taste of ice cream, a far cry from the way school children are treated these days when leaders tour their areas.

Ronald Lwamba has worked as a Town Engineer for the then Municipal Council of Livingstone and Zesco, initially as a Resident Engineer for Itezhitezhi rising to the post of Senior Manager, Civil Engineering where, among other things, he was in charge of the preparation of feasibility studies for hydropower projects. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering Degree (Civil) from the University of Zambia (1974), Post Graduate Diplomas in Water Resources Development (University of Roorkee, India) and Hydropower Development (University of Trondheim, Norway) and a Master of Engineering in Water Resources Development (University of Roorkee, India).

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