The manufacturer’s plate on the giant turbine casing hints at the vintage of the hydro-electric station: “English Electric Company Ltd, Queen’s House, Kingsway, London”. The once-great British manufacturer of railway locomotives, guided missiles, computers and Lightning and Canberra aircraft, among other iconic engineering contributions, no longer exists, subsumed into the General Electric Corporation in 1968, the merger then creating a business employing more than 250,000.
Today GEC, too, has gone. The company, which by the mid-1990s was valued at £10-billion, was later renamed Marconi Corporation before it folded in October 2006.
Indeed, few things from that era remain the same.
But there’s one. The Mulungushi hydro-electric facility, at the bottom of a 355m ravine 60km south-east of Kabwe in Central Zambia, was constructed by the Broken Hill Development Company and opened in 1925 by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. It was built to provide power to the Broken Hill Mine in Kabwe and a second, sister facility was built a further 60km away at Mita Hills. (See main photo)
The tenacity, foresight, engineering and dedication required to build the Mulungushi plant all those years ago is breathtaking, the more so given the steepness of the gradient, the inaccessibility of the location, the prevalence of disease and much else.
Even today, the road from Kabwe through rural villages takes a back-breaking two hours in a bakkie. One can only imagine the journey on horseback or cart. The engineers not only had to construct the hydro plant, but also its series of sluice gates, the winch house, 5kms of canal and diversion dams, and the Mulungushi Dam itself to pool the feed for the turbines via a series of penstocks. And then they had to lay the kilometre of three side-by-side steel large steel pipes in muscular concrete encasements down into the valley to provide the speed of flow to drive the generators.
In 1925 there was just one 2.5 megawatt turbine. Two more 6.2MW units were added two years later, and a fourth 8MW turbine in 1941 when the zinc, lead and silver Broken Hill Mine was in full production.
With the nationalisation of Zambia’s mines in 1972 there began a long, slow process of decline.
The Kabwe (Broken Hill) Mine was closed in 1990. Twelve years later the two hydro plants feeding the mine were privatised and sold to the Lunsemfwa Hydro Power Company, becoming, at the time, the only private provider of power to the integrated grid of the Southern African Power Pool.
In 2009 the number one 2.5MW turbine was replaced by a 10.5MW unit, two and three were rehabilitated, and in 2013, number four was replaced and uprated to 7.8MW, increasing the output, at least on paper, to 32MW. The total installed capacity between Mulugushi and Mita Hills is now 56MW, a small but significant amount given Zambia’s pressing energy needs and shortages.
Zambia was known for its cheap and plentiful power, which enabled the mines to develop. Their needs remain about 50 percent of output, perhaps unsurprising for a sector which contributes 70 percent of foreign exchange reserves. Hydro-electric power remains a big development advantage for the country, which has about one-third of the water reserves of Southern Africa.
The estimated demand for power in Zambia has risen from 1,600MW in 2008 to 2,200MW now. On paper, at least, this should be met by current production from nine hydropower stations, principally Kariba North Bank, Kariba North Bank Extension, Kafue Gorge Upper, and Victoria Falls. There is also a new 120MW hydro station at Itezhi-Tezhi and a 300MW coal-fired plant at Maamba Collieries in the south. But delays to these and other projects and ever climbing demand have led to incessant load shedding which is now being keenly felt across the country.
For example, the 750MW Kafue Gorge Lower hydro project has been on the table since the mid-1990s, and the subject of countless donor-funded consultancies. One comprehensive study in 1997 identified the potential for an additional 6,000MW from Zambia’s network of rivers and lakes, offering significant export opportunity. At a time when 65 percent of the then 1,000MW of power produced was provided to the copper industry, the report envisaged increased electricity usage, as a result of the ongoing privatisation process, by as much as 100 percent within 15 years. It also noted South Africa’s projected shortfall of 5,000MW by 2010, and the opportunities for export to the republic.
After more than 15 years of delay the project for Kafue Gorge Lower was finally awarded late in 2015. The new power station will probably only come on line in five years, at best. Meanwhile the predictions of growth in demand have proved remarkably accurate; so now this project is about catching up rather than getting ahead.
A second trip, 32 years and a few months after the first, down the Mulungushi ravine was as exhilarating and interesting as it was all those years ago, the trolley going down a narrow track at a 45° angle connected to the “Allen West & Co, Brighton, England” winch at the top by a single cable, and some rudimentary engineering. You have to be a little off your own trolley to make the journey on that one. Health and safety advisers would need to lie down in a darkened room for a while to recover if they, too, were to make the descent.
At the bottom, 15 minutes later, the giant silver pipes from the top turn at right angle to feed the turbines via a complicated series of inlet valves and pressure nozzles. Inside the corrugated iron building the four turbines are laid our side by side, the two English Electric versions flanked on either side by two newer Chinese turbines from the Chongqing Huayuan Hydroelectric Technical Engineering Co. Ltd, to give its full title.
Will they be there in 80 years, like their imperial counterparts?
The control room is caught between the analogue and digital worlds, with a mix of plasma screen monitors and electro-magnetic Ferranti and Fleming instrumentation. Slowly the digital machines are taking over.
Lunsemfwa has commenced studies to replace the existing plants, and to further develop the catchment areas, potentially adding 350MW to the national grid. For the moment, however, they have to survive the next few months. Only one turbine was running during our visit. There is “a shortage of water”, explained the resident engineer, apparently both from low rainfall in the area and increased use of water by farmers. The last time they ran all four flat out was three years ago.
The colonial era did much harm in the manner in which it delivered development, not least to politics, people and pride. It is likely that, with the benefit of hindsight, so too it will be said did the contemporary one, with its incessant delays and overly regulated concerns about process.
One cannot imagine another Mulungushi happening quickly in the modern era, if at all, to the great cost to the Zambian people desperate for power and jobs. Multi-sectoralised and gender sensitised, stakeholder workshopped, peer reviewed and environmentally ingeminated processes may ultimately lead to sustainable development, but probably not before doing much worse damage by not getting things done in time. Such bureaucratic handbrakes only encourage government inertia and room for petty manoeuvre.
Zambia has a National Development Plan, various industrialisation and job creation strategies, and, naturally, a 2030 Vision. There is no shortage of good analysis and ideas. Yet action, not more visions and strategy, is what is required to deliver development. To get good ideas moving, a little of the Mulungushi can-do spirit, which delivered an astonishing feat of engineering in an inaccessible valley 90 years ago, would not be out of place today. DM
Dr Mills and Major-General Davis are with the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and have been in Zambia.
All photos by the authors.
"Those who will not reason are bigots; those who cannot are fools; and those who dare not are slaves." ~ George Gordon Byron