To The Victoria Falls
Development of the Victoria Falls
The following text is adapted from 'Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.
The Victoria Falls Power Scheme
With the coming of the railway and opening up of access to the region, the BSAC were quick to realise the economic and tourist potential of the Falls. As McGregor (2003) expands in her book 'Crossing the Zambezi':
"The prospect of the arrival of the railway provoked fantasies of economic growth, and global comparisons. It was confidently assumed that urban and industrial developments would be on the scale of Niagara City and Bufalo, which had grown up on the basis of power generated from the Niagara Falls. The African Concessions Syndicate Ltd, was not unusual in considering it 'a fairly safe prophecy' that such cities would develop, and 'an obvious fact that the industrial future of a large portion of Rhodesia and even of South Africa' would depend on electricity from the Falls. The South Africa Handbook of 1903 noted that thanks to the proximity of coal, minerals and water power, the site possessed ‘all the factors for the creation of a great manufacturing center. A new Chicago, let us call it CECILTON, will spring up near the banks of the Zambezi."
The first geological studies of the Batoka Gorge were undertaken in 1904 as part of the planning for the Victoria Falls Bridge was being constructed and when the Victoria Falls Hydro Electric Scheme was first conceptualised (the Victoria Falls Hydro Electric Scheme was not realised until 1938).
At the time of the construction of the bridge, Varian, and another engineer, Everard, were detailed to conduct a survey of the Victoria Falls, above and below the Falls, to access the feasibility of a hydro-electric power generation scheme. Along with others of the same period, such as Molyneux and Lamplugh, they were the first to conduct rigorous scientific surveys of the area.
"A cross-section of the gorge below the bridge-site was made as part of the work, and soundings were taken from the bridge. The bottom was found to be extremely rough, either from fissures in the rock, or more probably from the presence of rock debris and boulders. The cross-section showed that the river shallowed under the right bank, and the bed shelved in a more or less even slope for nearly three-quarters of the distance to the left bank. The deepest sounding at lowest water in 1906 at this point showed a depth of 56 feet [17 metres]. From that point there was a steep rise to the cliffs on the left side of the gorge, and the highest flood mark to be found at that time was 45 feet [13.72 metres] above lowest water level. This would make the maximum possible depth of water, when the river was in flood below the bridge, about 101 feet [31 metres]."
On 24th July 1901 the African Concessions Syndicate Ltd. obtained a concession from the Chartered Company to use the water power of the Zambezi and Victoria Falls for seventy-five years for the development of electrical power to supply mining and other industries. To year later, in June 1903 the Livingstone Mail announced under the headline of ‘The Victoria Falls Power Scheme’: "There seems to be little doubt that this gigantic undertaking is to be proceeded with immediately, but up to date few details are available."
In October 1903, Sir Charles Metcalfe and I F Jones (manager of the Chartered Company) visited the United States to investigate the industrial and railroad methods employed there. They were especially interested in examining the system by which the power of Niagara Falls was harnessed.
Metcalfe is quoted in the New York Times (2nd October, 1903) saying:
"It is to develop the iron and coal industry that we intend to utilize the 9,000,000 horse power which the Victoria Falls possess. Within seventy miles [112 kilometres] there exists probably one of the greatest coalfields in the world, and experts are now examining large iron deposits in the same vicinity. We expect to find at Niagara most useful hints for the establishment of a similar plant in Rhodesia."
[New York Times, 1903]
The concession granted to the Africa Concessions Syndicate was ceded on 14th December 1906 to the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company Ltd. By this agreement the Company was allowed to make use of the entire water power of the Zambezi in the vicinity of the Victoria Falls for the purpose of developing and transmitting electrical power.
Located by the ‘Silent Pool’ in the bend of the third and forth gorges, construction of the plant was begun in June 1936 by the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company, the turbines being supplied by the English Electric Company and the pipe-line by the South Durham Iron and Steel Company.
The power station was opened on 16 March 1938, Sir Hubert Young, the Governor of Northern Rhodesia. The immediate scope of the scheme was to supply power to the neighbouring town of Livingstone and to the Victoria Falls Hotel.
“At the request of the Government great care was taken to avoid spoiling the beauty of the Falls. The water inlet is some distance above the Falls and an underground pipe-line leads to the top of a gorge some distance below them. An overhead power cable was necessary in one place, but it was put as far from the Falls as possible and it will not be seen by tourists. Even in the dry season the quantity of water taken by the Power Station is negligible in comparison with the total flow over the Falls.”
“The Power Station houses two reaction turbo-generators each giving 1000 kilowatts. The head water is almost constant throughout the year at 350ft and at full load 2,500 cubic ft of water per minute are taken… There is a 60 ft deep settling tank at the top of the gorge, which may be made into a public swimming bath.”
The plant was built quickly to avoid loss of the contract under the specified timescales, and small in scale, diverting only a small amount of flow from the Falls.
In 1949 the then Northern Rhodesian Government acquired all interests in the Company, including the hydro-electric undertaking, for the sum of £104,000.
Today the power station is composed of Station A, built in 1938, with four units of 2 megawatts (MW) each; Station B (built underground) was added in 1969 with six units of 10 MW each, and Station C, completed in 1972 with four units of 10 MW each. Altogether the power station is designed to provide an installed capacity of 108 MW.
In 1972 a report, by Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners (who also worked on Kariba Dam) prepared on behalf of the Central African Power Corporation (CAPCO), identified a number of other suitable sites on the Zambezi for development as hydro schemes. These included Batoka Gorge and Devil’s Gorge, upstream of Kariba and Mupata Gorge, downstream of Kariba.