The Kariba dam.. a disaster waiting to happen?

Wed, 05 Apr 2017 10:39:52 +0000


BY Kanyanta E. Kauma

Like a rare flower wilting away due to improper care, so does the Kariba dam appear in the heart of Zambia. .Since it’s completion in the early 1960s as a product of the joint Northern Rhodesian and Nyasaland governments, the dam was created as an alternative power source for the growing mining sector. Over the years the dam has drawn tourists from far and wide.

Despite its core purpose being the production of hydro-electric power it serves both an aesthetic and economic purpose in the country.

As visitors  look upon this colossus of colonial engineering however two things become evident; firstly the sheer  beauty of unison between engineering and God.

How could tiny molecules of concrete and steel morph to create a barrier so solid it halts a river in its tracks? Placing the power of a god in the hands of man. The sheer beauty of the structure however seems to be compromised by the  evidence of cracks and bumps growing along various parts of the structure.

With the bridge wall serving as a bridge for both motorists  and tourists alike,  the structure plays a critical role in the daily lives of citizens and therefore the appearance of such sings may rouse thoughts on the safety of the Dam and prompting the question; how much longer will the dam stand? What will be the final straw that breaks the back of this colonial megalith?

For years experts have debated on the potential life span of the bridge with most predicting an eminent crisis if no major works are done on the dam urgently .  Since its construction at the cost of roughly480million dollars the dam is yet to undergo major repairs ,the dam wall and similar structures have undergone little to no change since they where erected in the early sixties.

Many argue that the cost of maintaining such a dam is simply to high, equating the cost of repair to the sum of constructing a new dam altogether.

Dam repairs require considerable amounts of  time with a minimum of 15-20 years depending on extent of the damage.  The life span of dams varies greatly depending on the nature of the dam and the materials used in construction. According to information on the website “” the average dam spans a life of roughly a hundred years under conducive settings and strict maintenance while unserviced dams last a significantly lower period of fifty years or less.

With roughly fifty seven years in use it is only speculated how much longer the Kariba dam can operate in its current state.

The safety and lifespan of dams are co-related, older dams are more prone to dilapidation  and structural failure ,posing a greater threat to safety.

Like the Mosul dam in Iraq which due constant fighting and wars has lacks any maintenance . This has caused the deterioration of the dam to the point which it is characterized  as a disaster that could happen at any moment, earning it title of  “the most dangerous dam in the world”. With each passing year safety and structural integrity of the structure declines.

Experts suggest that constant change  in weather patterns and water levels greatly compromise the longevity of the structure by weakening critical elements that hold the structure in place.  In worst case scenarios such as storms or floods the immense pressure of water would weaken the structure further causing the wall to collapse and sending a an enormous  wall of water crashing down its path.

The Kariba dam  contributes a great deal to the economic sector of the country by providing power to both Zambia, Zimbabwe and other neighboring  countries. A collapse in the dam structure would cause a ripple effect that would encompass  several aspects of the countries existence. Economically, the country relies heavily on the Kariba dam for the generation of hydro-electric energy.

The recent shortage of rainfall experienced in 2015/16 led to a dramatic plunge in the business sector. Several minor and major industries where forced to close their doors due to load shedding.  It would be hard to imagine what the country would do in the event of the dams failure. With countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique relying heavily on the dam for energy, a collapse of the structure wall would result in a major energy crisis that would leave nearly half these countries In a virtual blackout.

Industries would be brought to a screeching halt forcing workers to be laid off, prices of commodities would sky rocket increasing the average cost of living.

The Kariba dam holds in place several aspects of the nation’s pillars as it is the major source of energy and energy is the force that drives the nation’s industries. Mining companies in particular require constant supply of energy to run, without the Kariba dam the extraction of copper and other critical exports would significantly deteriorate, driving the sword deeper into the countries flesh.

The greatest and most significant impact a collapse of the Kariba dam would cause however is its impact on destruction of human and ecological life.

According to Jacques Leslie of the New Yorker(2016) “ the collapse of the Kariba dam would cause a spill of water four times greater than the deadly flood experienced in 1958. This amount of water and pressure would be enough to knock down a similar sized dam over three hundred miles downstream, in neighboring Mozambique”.

Mozambique would be among the hardest hit  victims of the catastrophe , with an estimated 3.5million people living right in the isle of a potential tsunami the results of a collapse could potentially be horrendous.

If the dam where to collapse at any moment, it would wash away everything in its path drowning  millions of people and wildlife. The pressure and force of roughly millions of cubic centimeters of water would leave behind an unprecedented  trail  of death and destruction.

The Kariba dam is no stranger to flooding in recent years  spillgates have  caused major flooding in surrounding areas forcing wildlife to seek refuge in human settlements. Rising water levels led to the displacement of life and destruction of the environment.  Reports where made of monkeys and lion’s sitting atop domestic roofs to escape the rising flood waters.

Many believe the fate of the Kariba dam lies not in the hands of engineering or physics but rather in the hands of the infamous river spirit of the Zambezi; Nyami Nyami.  For centuries before the construction of the dam, the Tonga people believed in a powerful fish headed serpent spirit  that resided at a protruding rock in the Zambezi river. It is from this rock that the dam’s name was derived.

The spirit is said to be a protector of the river and God of the underworld. Unsuspecting travellers  that wandered near the rock where believed to have been dragged down to the underworld by the infamous spirit to spend an eternity under water.

Nyami nyami is said to have lived in perfect unity with his wife in the Zambezi river until the dam was constructed. It is believed to be the cause of numerous accidents and deaths at the dam, and until it is united with his wife it will never be at rest. Before dam construction several families where displaced.

They where forced to leave their ancestral homes and watch helplessly as their homes and shrines where reduced to rubble o make way for the new structure. Since the dam was erected  tribe elders have always predicted the return of the infamous river spirit to his wife. It has been said that he can control the tides and waters and will one day  overcome the obstacle in his path.


The author is a journalist currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Mass communications at Cavendish University. For comments and contributions email till next week, keep reflecting.




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