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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The History of Hydropower development in Zambia

Headlines The History of Hydropower development in Zambia


kariba const

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 took into account the Victoria Falls and Kariba gorge on the navigability of the Zambezi River 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 with locks 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 comparable to the Panama Canal for 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

Proposed Seaway

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. However, that is water under the bridge.

Political differences must be cast aside when it comes to protection of the dam wall. Recently 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.

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.

kariba construction

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, 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.”

Nyaminyami-the River god


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.
The Tonga-mobile police standoff reminiscent of the Marikana miners-police standoff in South Africa

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, like former Zambian football coach Renard would say, 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).
Kariba Dam wall under construction


  1. Well thanks so much for this piece of work, its important that such papers are written as a way of preserving our history as a nation. i have learned a lot from this work.

  2. Nice work done will read more and add some sentiments i have collected and send to the writer if it could be more clearer and interesting to my fellow young ones.

  3. I love history and especially that which Renates to us. I feel it is important that you mentioned the effected We people or valley tonga are the last to benefit and may Not enjoy as much as the Rest of us as Most of that are remains unconnected to power. They are still making great sacrifices for us.Another note worthy point is that apart from “springs”,those people also had Bark cloth. True those who condemn Minis are ignorant and as arrogant as David livingstone who did Not understand that it is due to high valley tempretures that the choice of attaire were Sport or less clothing.

  4. As we have offended the “river god”,It is time to turn to the “Sun god”.Note, the valley tonga the We made great sacrifices and still do for us all as rural electrification has only started down there. They may Not taste the fruit of the sacrifices of their forefathers. We should honor them.

  5. Ba Ronald,
    Interesting History, but point of CORRECTION. When David Livingstone came to Africa for the first time, specifically to Chief Mukuni’s Area where the Mosi-o- Tnya is, Tonga men used to wear what was called ‘imilamba’ made from animal skin. These are cattle-keeping people, so animal skin was plentiful. They were NOT totally naked.

  6. Ba Ronald,,
    Interesting History, but point of CORRECTION. When David Livingstone came to Africa for the first time, specifically to Chief Mukuni’s Area where the Mosi-o- Tnya is, Tonga men used to wear what was called ‘imilamba’ made from animal skin. These are cattle-keeping people, so animal skin was plentiful. They were NOT totally naked.

    • @Cactus. I was actually shocked myself that some of our fore fathers walked stark naked according to Dr Livingstone’s narrative, not mine, and it is up to our historians to carry out the necessary research to disprove him. Like you I thought our men folk wore loin cloth made of barks from trees or animal skins. The dressing as described by Dr Livingstone is still worn today by Zulus and Swazis at traditional ceremonies and since he passed through South Africa he may have wrongly attributed it to the Tonga women. I can’t argue, I was not there.

  7. @Cactus. I was actually shocked myself that some of our fore fathers walked stark naked according to Dr Livingstone’s narrative, not mine, and it is up to our historians to carry out the necessary research to disprove him. Like you I thought our men folk wore loin cloth made of barks from trees or animal skins. The dressing as described by Dr Livingstone is still worn today by Zulus and Swazis at traditional ceremonies and since he passed through South Africa he may have wrongly attributed it to the Tonga women. I can’t argue, I was not there.

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