Zambia is blessed with abundant rain that makes its soil one of the most fertile in the world; but the downside is that when this rain is extreme, it can wreak havoc with local infrastructure.
This happened in January 2017, when heavy rains washed away a footbridge over the Matemate stream in Kitwe. The excess water had weakened the soil of the embankments on either side of the stream, causing the concrete culverts holding up the bridge to collapse. Within days, the bridge was gone, leaving the two townships on either side – Mulenga Township and Ndeke Township – cut off from each other.
It was an uncanny replay of a similar incident twelve months earlier, in 2016, when the bridge over the Mwekera stream in Kitwe collapsed after torrential rains, leaving thousands stranded. It was rebuilt at a cost of K1.7 million by Mopani and a consortium of partners, in a much-publicised example of community goodwill.
This time, the washed-away bridge was smaller, but no less vital for the day-to-day needs of the communities affected by it. With at least 5 000 people living in Mulenga and Ndeke townships, and many crossing the footbridge every day – from schoolchildren to traders – the effect on daily life was felt immediately.
“A bridge is often taken for granted – until it’s gone,” says Chuma Kabaghe, Manager of Corporate Affairs at Mopani Copper Mines in Kitwe.
The bridge was gone, but township residents still needed to get across the stream. So, they braved the swirling waters on foot. Inevitably, tragedy soon struck. Two men trying to get to the other side drowned after being washed away by the raging waters.
“It wasn’t long afterwards that we got a call from the local Member of Parliament, Mr Elario Musonda, requesting our assistance,” says Kabaghe. “With the local authorities overwhelmed and not able to respond to a crisis like this, it fell to Mopani to do something about it before more lives were lost.”
Mopani’s engineering team swung into action. Accompanied by the local MP, they went to see the situation for themselves. It was every bit as bad as they had been led to believe: the bridge was gone, the concrete culverts had fallen, and people were crossing over a makeshift bridge constructed of rocks and pieces of timber. It had been hastily cobbled together by a group of youths.
“Safety was our main concern, so we helped the youths to construct a more stable structure using waste rock and timber,” says Muyoba.
A completely new bridge was designed in the space of a weekend
With the situation on the ground stabilised and the water level slowly receding, Muyoba and his team went back to Mopani and worked through the weekend designing a new bridge. They then set about constructing it in the workshop, using steel salvaged from the plant.
The finished bridge and its components – which cost around $36 000 – were then trucked to the site. New embankments were built using waste rock, and the culverts were replaced by steel casings filled with waste rock. The bridge was then erected on its new foundations. It is longer in span, and more stable than its predecessor. The entire operation took just under three weeks.
“Mulenga and Ndeke townships are once again connected, and life has returned to normal,” says Kabaghe.