Your gateway to Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe's water & wildlife wonderland

About KARIBA: A Bit Of History

The Genesis

A dam across the Zambezi River was a concept that seemed an impossible dream in the 1930's. The dreamers envisaged lush green sugar fields along the plains downstream of what is now Chirundu. At the end of World War II, there was a huge demand for copper and Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) boomed on the back of the Copper mines. That boom however was limited by the supply of electricity and thoughts of damming the Zambezi turned from irrigation to electricity, electricity, electricity! The economic power of a Federation linking Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia( now Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland ( now Malawi) promised the stability to justify investment in the world's largest dam across the Zambezi River. Building began in 1955 near the upstream end of a narrow "kariwa", (the Batonka word for a "trap" or a "bridge"). The Batonka People lived along the Zambezi River for centuries, surviving capture and harassment by Kore-kore warlords, Zulu impis and Arab slave traders . They saw the building of a wall across this kariwa as a White Man's fantasy and an affront to "Nyaminyami", the Batonka Ancestral Spirit. Nyaminyami had his base here and would not like it trampled! Nyaminyami was hemmed in, his Zambezi River was blocked and impoundment began in December 1958.
In 1957 and 1958 the construction was delayed by unusually high flood levels in the Zambezi river that overspilled the half constructed wall and coffer dams, The 1957 flood was claimed to be a 'one in a hundred year flood', and the 1958 was claimed to be a 'one in a thousand year flood'! The Kariba dam wall is a "Double Arch Dam", curved vertically and horizontally and at the time was the largest dam wall to be built in this manner. It is anchored in the rock on either side of the gorge. Brass datum points are set into surounding hillsides and the structure itself, and precise measurements between these confirm the health of the wall. Strain meters add to the inspection routines.
At the crest of the wall it is 617 metres long and 13 metres wide. The base is 24 metres wide, and the volume of the wall is 1,032,000 cubic metres. The weight of this wall is an academic test for the mathematicians, but combined with the weight of water it impounds, it is enough to move the tectonic plate that creates the Zambezi Valley and send shudders of earth tremors throughout the surrounding areas! (While this is the explanation offered by the scientists, the Batonka people attribute the rumbles to Nyaminyami's anger.)
The water stretches back for some 300km and has a surface area of over 5,000 square kilometers ! The average depth is about 20 metres, but ignoring the shallow areas, a more typical depth is 60 metres. The deepest depth at the time of building the dam was 120 metres. Evaporation in the extremely hot dry months can account for a loss of 25mm a day, but the annual overall loss from this can be as high as 1.5 metres. As the water is drawn off for hydro electric power generation and is refilled from rainfall, the Lake level fluctuates wildly over the years. The "Minimum Operating Level" is 474.8 metres above mean sea level, and the "Maximum Retention Level" is 487.8 metres AMSL.
In 1995 the Lake fell to 476 metres AMSL, but after good rains in the catchment areas of North West Zambia and Eastern Angola, the lake rose to 487 metres AMSL in four years, falling back to 483 metres AMSL in 2002. In June 2009 it reached its highest level for over 30 years, approximately 1 metre below maximum. When all turbines are operational a total of over 1200 megawatts of electricity can be generated by power stations situated on both downstream banks of the river below the wall.

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