Kariba: are the wheels falling off?

The rhetoric on Kariba these days focuses on reduced power production, falling lake levels, failing fisheries, dropping tourist arrivals and hyperbolic descriptions of the catastrophe that awaits the region should the dam wall collapse.

The Zambezi River, which feeds Lake Kariba, is at its lowest for many decades – as shown in this recent photo of Victoria Falls.

The Zambezi River, which feeds Lake Kariba, is at its lowest for many decades – as shown in this recent photo of Victoria Falls.

One would be excused for thinking that the wheels are falling off.  But is that really the case?

Built between 1955 and 1959, it would be natural to expect that the Kariba Dam wall would by now need rehabilitation. It has aged. To not do anything and expect optimum production would be dereliction of duty of the worst kind.

The attempted denial of the fact that the wall is faced with certain collapse, if recommended urgent rehabilitation works are not carried out, is also an irresponsible act worthy of punishment.

Why have the governments of both Zambia and Zimbabwe gone on to contract Chinese company Sino Hydro to expand their stations’ generation capacity – if the structure on which they are founded is collapsing? Why waste all this money if the dam will be washed away?

Technical advice
Clearly both countries are aware, or at the very least, have received technical advice to the effect that the plant still has life in it. Not just life, but valuable life. Recall that this is the very facility that the British Queen, on commissioning it, observed that the plant would generate “power for the rapidly growing industries for this potentially enormously rich territory”. The territory she was referring to were the two Rhodesias – both Southern and Northern – during the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

What has clearly been lacking is proper leadership. Both Zambia and Zimbabwe, as Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia became known after attaining independence, have had their founding fathers overstaying their welcome in the office of president.  Kenneth Kaunda had to be forced out by a strong wave of multi-party democracy after 27 years in office.  He wouldn’t willingly leave – even though it was apparent that he had nothing new or better to offer Zambia. He had to be defeated.

Real “rapidly growing” industrial activity only started after he left office. His Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, is eyeing another five-year term in office after 35 years in power. Zimbabwe is not enjoying any rapid industrial growth. The opposite is true.

Lack of planning
The expansion exercises in both countries are rather reactionary and, in the case of Zimbabwe, driven by the need to gain political mileage and not to satisfy anticipated industrial growth.  It is this lack of planning that is hampering the otherwise “potentially enormously rich territory.”

Guy Scott, who briefly became Zambia’s president after the death of the fifth republican president Michael Sata, in 2014, was right in observing that there is a major problem in sharing facilities such as a power generating station. There is an obvious competition in using the resource being shared (water in this case) – leading to its overuse.

All signs are pointing to a changed attitude towards the rehabilitation and maintenance of our power plants, finding alternative sources of energy and generally planning ahead. This development will be enhanced with a new thinking and style of leadership in both countries. The ruling parties do not necessarily have to change, but there has to be obvious changes in vision and thrust, probably necessitating fresh pairs of eyes.

There is a future
With funding for the rehabilitation works now secured from international investors, it is certain that deformities, cracks and anticipated new challenges will be addressed.  The plunge pool will be reshaped to avert the scouring of the basalt foundations. There is a future. Kariba can live again but only under a visionary leadership.

The same is true about the receding shoreline on Lake Kariba. It is purely a lack of effective leadership and planning issue.  One cannot blame climate change when it is a phenomenon that has been preached about for a long time but nothing has been done to anticipate its effects or mitigate them.

As an asset of immense importance the Kariba Dam reservoir is being mismanaged. The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) allocates water usage to both ZESCO (Zambia) and ZPC (Zimbabwe) depending on scientific studies of inflows and other hydrological conditions. However, both ZESCO and ZPC are known to have used more than their allocations, worsening an already bad situation. IF ZRA guidelines had been abided by, the serious load shedding now being suffered would have been far much less.

Sound advice is spurned and yet the governments would want us to believe that it is drought, caused by climate change, which is causing havoc. In the case of Zimbabwe, it is even claimed in government circles that the British are draining our lake as part of their economic sanctions.  This is no joking matter that serious government officials should be laughing about.

There are just too many hands involved in its administration. Besides the ZRA allocating water to both ZESCO and ZPC, based on measurable variables, ZINWA also sells the same water to municipalities, like Kariba town. ZINWA adds no value to the water, does not maintain it and probably does not measure any inflows. None of the money collected is ploughed back into the reservoir as is the case with the ZRA. Zambia is also doing the same in Siavonga.

One can see that Scott’s sentiments are correct – the two countries are competing with each other to draw from the shared resource. Only the Zambezi River Authority, which is a corporate body co-owned by Zambia and Zimbabwe, should manage the Kariba Dam as part of its mandate is to “regulate the water level in the Kariba reservoir and in any other reservoir owned by ZRA.”

Daily usage fee
The same mismanagement is affecting tourism. Since the separation of the ministries of Tourism and Environment, tourist arrivals started to drop partly due to unviable charges now demanded for a tourist to access Lake Kariba. The charging has even intensified from the initial per entry fee to a daily usage fee. The drastic annual drops in attendance figures at the Kariba Invitation Tiger Fishing Tournament (KITFT) attest to this.

Why the Tourism and Environment portfolios cannot fall under one ministry as before to help with cogent decision making is a big wonder. One is tempted to think that it is just a way of creating employment for loyalists. The economy suffers in the process – figures don’t lie.

There are so many things happening  on Lake Kariba that manifest themselves in power shortages, dwindling fish catches and dropping tourist arrival figures. These cannot be wished away or be blamed on the British and their Western allies. These have to be admitted as mismanagement issues so that they can be looked at with new vigour and addressed and, ultimately, give Kariba a new lease of life.

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