Kariba Dam

Kariba Dam is the largest man-made lake in the world. It is located approximately halfway down the mighty Zambezi River. The history of Lake Kariba is a long and fascinating one. This mighty river rises in north western Zambia.

History of Lake Kariba

Designed to hold back the awesome power of one of Africa's greatest rivers and create hydroelectricity for an ever increasing demand, Kariba Dam wall is a feat of engineering and the Lake Kariba a holiday hotspot. However it was not achieved without some sacrifice.

After the Electricity Supply Commission set up an investigation into the possibility of hydroelectric schemes, funds were put aside in 1941 for the project. In 1955, the Federal Government at the time of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) called for tenders for the construction of the wall and power station. An Italian consortium was appointed in 1956. Andre Coyne, a French engineer, inventor and specialist in "arch dams", designed Kariba Dam. He designed over 55 dams during his career.In order for the dam to be built, massive areas of forest and scrub would be flooded. Thousands of wild animals would lose their homes and probably their lives too. Local villages and their inhabitants would need to be relocated, something that was opposed by the villagers, they could see direct benefit. Economic advantages from this controversial development convinced the authorities that it was worth the disturbance and loss of animal life.

Vegetation in the designated area was stripped and cleared then burnt creating a chemically rich bed of fired wood. Many creatures later found their way into the lake and settled in the habitat created by the remaining trees. Controversially, it seems that the local tribes were moved to the Zambian side and rescued wildlife to the Zimbabwean side.Construction of Kariba Dam began late in the 1950s. The Dam wall rose almost 40 metres high and over 24 metres wide; produced from a million cubic metres of concrete. This engineering marvel was required to sustain intense pressure from almost 10 million litres of water per second passing through the spillway. The sluice gates were closed at the end of 1958, with maximum levels reached in 1963.

Lake Kariba covers an area of 6 000 square kilometres. The lake has become home to a number of inhabitants in particular kapenta, sardine-like fish that were airlifted from Lake Tanganyika. Fish species have flourished including Tiger fish and breem. Hippopotamus, Nile Crocodile and occasional herds of Elephant can be seen.

Nyaminyami - the River God

In legends it was believed that Nyaminyami, the great River God lived in a rock at the entrance to the gorge, now deeply submerged below the water at a site near the dam wall. On hearing that the Zambezi River would be blocked and their people relocated, villagers predicted that this would not be tolerated by Nyaminyami who would cause the water to rise up and destroy the bridge.

In 1957 and 1958, two huge floods the second higher by 3 metres, caused enormous damage to the development. The odds of 2 successive floods were around 1 000 to 1. The second flood was so immense it roared over the construction at 16 million litres per second. A flood of this nature was calculated to occur only once every 10 000 years. The dam was finally opened in 1960, with new respect for Nyaminyami.

What became of the displaced tribes?

Around 50 000 people, mostly of the Batonga tribe were relocated; many were not convinced that the power generated from the lake would be of benefit to them in the long term. Some villagers that were relocated to the waterside found new fishing opportunities on the lake and prospered. Others were moved to higher sandier areas where schools, clinics and wells were built - however the loss of the rich alluvial river soil at their original home was a huge blow agriculturally. Compensation for the disruption and loss was minimal.

Recently, Zesco (the Zambia Electricity Supply Company) with the help of international funding implemented the Gwembe-Tonga project aimed at addressing social and environmental issues associated with the building of the dam. In order to redress mistakes of the past, the local communities are fully involved in all aspects of the project.

Wildlife Rescues - Operation Noah

Upon seeing wildlife hopelessly stranded during creation of the dam through flooding, public appeals raised money for boats and equipment to launch Operation Noah. This incredible rescue initiative had many heroes and near disasters in extremely trying circumstances.

Tears and triumphs in equal measure were experienced by the people involved. Many, many small animals, reptiles and insects simply drowned. Rescue efforts managed to capture an amazing 7 000 animals, including deadly snakes, which were relocated to Matusadona National Park and the Chete Safari Area.

Lake Kariba today provides

  • Hydroelectricity for Zimbabwean and Zambian power
  • A year round source of water for wildlife and humans
  • Fisheries: kapenta were introduced to the lake and thrived
  • Game fishing: Indigenous Tiger Fish love the kapenta
  • A great environment for Nile Crocodile and Hippo
  • Bird watching: Fish Eagle, Cormorant and water birds
  • Game viewing: Elephant herds come down to drink
  • Tourism: water sports, houseboats, accommodation
  • Business potential: local town on the rise is Sinazongwe

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