Kariba Hydro Power & Dam: Testament To Rhodesian Ingenuity & Foresight Ahead Of The World

Editor: Imagine today an audacious engineering project, the greatest in its time, being completed ahead of time, under budget, at a quality commended for excellence and, for the benefit of all citizens without crippling debt because it paid for itself? Impossible! Yet Rhodesia did it, despite the challenges of:

-Mother nature hurling epic floods,

-Thousands of people and wild animals to carefully relocate,

-International sanctions curtailing access to materials, and

-A war against internationally financed Communist Terrorists at its peak!

By Dr Peter Hammond, Frontline Missions SA.

A Marvel of Engineering

Kariba Dam was “Africa’s greatest mass of masonry since the Pharaoh’s built the Pyramids” declared the Sunday Mail on completion of the wall. On 17 May 1960, the Queen Mother officially dedicated the Kariba Dam by turning on the second generator. The Queen Mother hailed the Kariba scheme as:

“a marvel of modern engineering, which in the future may well rank with the seven wonders of the Ancient world.”

The Largest Man-Made Lake

In terms of volume, Kariba remains the world’s largest man-made lake, with a volume of 180.6 kmᵌ. Kariba covers an area of 5,580km². The height of the wall is 128 m and the length of the lake is 282 km.

Foresight to create abundant food and industry for local villagers: “In 1962 millions of tiny kapenta, the size of sardines, were introduced from Lake Tanganyika where they are indigenous. They bred fast and now support a large commercial fishing business.  Caught at night on kapenta rigs they are dried and salted and keep without refrigeration and have formed an important source of protein for local people for decades.”
Lake Kariba via National Geographic

Farsighted Investment

Kariba Dam cost £113 million, but within the first ten years of operation, it saved 3.6 million tonnes of coal and 82 locomotives and 5,000 railway trucks which would have had to transport these Millions of tonnes of coal to power stations which themselves would have cost another £100 million. Kariba South, Phase 1, included six generators which produced 705 MW of energy. Kariba North, Phase 2, completed by 1977, added another 600 MW to its capacity.

Phase 2 completed at the height of the Communist Terrorist war in 1977 almost doubled the hydroelectric capacity to benefit millions!

Ahead of Schedule and Under Budget

9,000 people worked on the construction of Kariba Dam, which, despite two devastating floods in 1957 and 1958, with unprecedented volumes of water wrecking much work in progress of the structures, the Kariba Wall was completed ahead of schedule and £2 Million under budget!

Early days of construction.
A view of the constrution of the Kariba Dam. (Photo by Terence Spencer/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
A view of the construction of the Kariba Dam wall.

Harnessing the Power of the Mighty Zambezi

Incredibly, the vision for constructing Kariba Dam began in the 1940’s, while war raged in Europe. Engineer J.L.S. Jeffares, the Father of the Kariba Hydro Electric Project, laid the groundwork for this far-sighted and way ahead of its time scheme to dam up the narrow gorge through which the mighty Zambezi River tore and to harness the hydropower that would save Northern and Southern Rhodesia the burning of a million tonnes of coal a year.

Cheap, Clean, Renewable Energy

The provision of cheap energy, at approximately 2c per kilowatt, made possible the tremendous economic and industrial growth of both Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Long before Aswan Dam on the Nile and other hydro-electric plans, Rhodesia pioneered the way in a wild land, sparsely populated by primitive people living in the iron age. Kariba was a feat unprecedented in history to provide cheap, reliable, clean and renewable energy for the benefits of all citizens in the Central African Federation. The people of Zambia and Zimbabwe continue to be the beneficiaries of this far-sighted and sacrificial endeavour and perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible adversity and insurmountable difficulties.

Operation Noah: May 1959: Rupert Fothergill, Senior Game Ranger, and an assistant, are seen standing on the submerged branches of a tree which has been very nearly covered by the rising waters of Lake Kariba, while they wait for the rescue boat to pick them up. Fothergill is holding a Hyrax, locally known as a “Dassie” or “Rock Rabbit”, which he has just rescued.
Operation Noah was undertaken at great risk to the dedicated men, occasional trips to hospital were required.

Kariba – Legacy of a Vision

Jonathan Waters has produced a magnificent 320-page, hardcover book with over 800 pictures: Kariba – Legacy of a Vision, which recounts all the drama, difficulties and dedication that produced one of the most practical foundations for economic growth in Central Africa, along with a major tourist attraction and marvel of the modern age.

More excellent construction photos by Alan Smith.

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2 Responses

  1. Chris Howell says:

    My Uncle Reg Storm was a crane operator working on this project. He took us kids on a ride on the cable car over the gorge. I will never forget that trip.

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