JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
THERE is a sound of heavy metal as the door to the cage is slid open. Within minutes, we are reeled deep into the bowels of the earth at one of the world’s deepest mines – aptly named Konkola Deep.
The mine, situated in Chilalabombwe on the Copperbelt, is touted to be the future of mining for not only Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), the Vedanta-owned mining company which operates it, but for the entire Copperbelt Province, which has over the years seen dwindling fortunes in mining.
Chililabombwe itself, which lies on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a town yawning for a new lease of life following a recession in the copper sector which left most of its residents jobless.
Konkola Deep is estimated to contain 200 million tonnes of good grade copper ore, with a life span of 50 years. Herein lies the future for KCM.
At a depth of 985m, the cage comes to a stop and we step out into a different world.
The deepest shaft at the mine, named Shaft Four, where we were, actually descends 1,500m into the earth.
The air is musty, filled with the smell of damp earth, for apart from being one of the deepest mines in Africa, this is also arguably the wettest mine in operation.
About 350,000 cubic metres or 350 million litres of water is pumped out of the mine every day. That is enough water to fill up 140 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
It is said that if the pumping of water was halted for just a few hours, the mine would get flooded, crippling operations.
And that, according to Keith Kapui, who is KCM vice-president, is the biggest problem the company has to deal with.
“In terms of challenges for our operations, one of the biggest challenges is the amount of water which we have to handle as part of our operation. The mine pumps 350,000 cubic metres of water every single day. This amount of water is more less consistent all year round. It does not reduce,” he says.
According to Mr Kapui, for every tonne of copper ore mined, there is 70,000 litres of water to deal with.
“For us, water management is key and it demands steady supply of power,” he says.
In fact, two-thirds of the 90 megawatts of electricity the mine consumes is used to pump out the water.
And just to make sure that the mine is not under the threat of flooding, KCM has installed back-up power – huge standby generators producing up to 44 megawatts of power.
So, where does all the huge volumes of water end up?
The answer lies not far from the mine. There is a water treatment plant for Mulonga Water and Sewerage Company adjacent to the mine, which recycles the water for domestic use. And whatever cannot immediately be used is channelled to the nearby Kafue River.
“We believe this is also a big contribution to the community and to Zambia at large because all this water actually forms a continuous recharge for the Kafue River,” says Mr Kapui.
Down here, there is an army of specialised personnel to keep the water level in check and to ensure that the pumps are working. The group of men is headed by a former footballer, who after losing his edge in the sport, decided to become a miner.
And that is where I met Joseph Sichalwe, an aging miner who works as a pump operator.
Mr Sichalwe has been working underground for 37 years, and is the longest-serving employee at KCM – his employment transcending three different companies that have owned and operated this mine.
Born into a poor family in Mbala in 1961, Mr Sichalwe’s father moved to Chilabombwe in 1967, where he worked as a miner.
But after the death of his father and mother, Mr Sichalwe decided to join the mine as a casual worker, because there was no one to sponsor his education.
He still remembers the exact date he started work – March 28, 1980.
His first experience of being lowered underground is still etched on his mind.
“It was scary,” he says.
“Working in the mine is like working in the army. One must not be lazy,” says Mr Sichalwe.
He says working underground was hard, especially in the early years when mine owners paid little attention to safety.
Mr Sichalwe speaks highly of KCM’s safety policy, which he says has saved many lives.
“Back then, when I started work, we never used to have safety talks, and some people used to report drunk for work, but now, every person is tested for alcohol before they enter the mine,” he says.
But despite the improvement in safety – and KCM has one of the best safety records in the country – Mr Sichalwe still invokes God in prayer each time before starting his shift.
He is well aware of the dangers that lurk in these dark tunnels.
“The people who have died here are many,” he says.
He recounts a number of fatal accidents that have happened during the years he has been working here.
“I have survived this long because of God’s mercy,” he says.
Mr Sichalwe is a devout Christian and has also influenced some of his workmates to become Christians.
The father of eight is thankful to God for the years he has worked underground, “because many never made it.”
And with only four years more on his clock, Mr Sichalwe still wishes he could have a job working on the surface of the mine.
But like a mole, he belongs underground.
“There is no job I can do on the surface, all I know is underground work,” he says.