Korbau Village hydroelectricity
This story is unashamedly written from the heart.
It is my tribute to each and every one of the 100 good folk, including my honorary family; Dad and Mum, Mr and Mrs Wating, and brothers and sisters, in the tiny hamlet of Korbau (Botong) 3 hours hard walk from Pindiu in the mountainous Huon Peninsula hinterland.
Please allow me to describe this walk as it was in the 1970's, because the Korbau people carried in everything for this project, cement, pipes, electrical wire and generators, on their shoulders with enthusiasm and good humour.
From Pindiu airstrip the slippery bush walking track zigzags two thousand vertical feet down into the Mongi River gorge, firstly through garden regrowth, then dense rainforest.
A rickety 3 foot wide wire-rope suspension bridge 50 metres long, with many missing or rotting foot treads, crosses the raging river before the track then zigzags another 2000 feet up the other side to Silemana village. From there it is just one hour of easier walking on a contour bench track to Korbau passing through beautiful forest and crossing crystal clear mountain streams.
On and off, from 1975 to 1979 we all blindly toiled together to find a way to provide electric lighting for the people living there.
None of us had any previous electrical experience, or a prior model to copy, and there were no libraries, or an internet, to find out how to do it.
The station refuse dumps at Pindiu and Finschhafen were our principal hardware shops.
Traditionally the only form of night lighting in village houses is the glow from the fire hearth in the centre of the house.
In the 1960's, kerosene lamps like the Hurricane, Tilley and Coleman became available but the people could often not afford to buy the expensive fuel which had to be flown in from the coast.
None of us will ever forget the day when we turned the tap on to run the first rudimentary turbine which was fashioned from a discarded lawn mower, and hooked up to an old aircraft 24 volt generator.
It was the 28th of May 1976.
The jet of water hit the flat wheel paddles and irrigated the countryside for 20 metres around. (not the primary aim of the project) Then, with eyes open wide, we all stared at the single incandescent light globe in the little thatched "powerhouse" and watched as the filament slowly, very very slowly, changed from silver to a dull orange colour.
Applause all round for what was a magnificent failure, but we were sufficiently encouraged to build something better.
Our second attempt used PVC plastic pressure-rated pipe for a penstock instead of soldered galvanised downpipe. We fabricated a more realistic pelton wheel with improved impellor cups shaped from sections of copper pipe scavenged from the dump.
After connection to a disused Honda 240 volt alternator, the system provided a single light in each house for 2 years.
The benefits of lights in village houses were;
Children and adults could read more books.
Less smoke was inhaled from constantly burning fires in each house.
Women no longer had to cart 20kg of firewood every day in bilums (string bags) strung over their heads on the way home from the gardens.
Reduction in deforestation.
From the knowledge gained at Korbau we went on to build 2 other hydroelectric lighting systems at Gemaheng and Nawong villages.
Some time after I had returned to Australia, the projects fell into disrepair.
Experts, electrical engineering students, academics and politicians subsequently visited the sites and wrote reports outlining all of the design shortcomings and reasons why the projects eventually failed.
To my knowledge not a single one of these learned and distinguished critics ever did anything to repair them.
The machinery of foreign aid and Government funding to those most deserving is often clogged with bureaucratic procedure, and preference given to spectacular accessible-to-the-press constructions offering maximum publicity to the donor, and glory for the politicians involved.
Real power-to-the-people grass roots projects like that at Korbau are often derided and ignored by bureaucrats and administrators.
The PNG University of Technology eventually published a Standard Prototype Design Manual for micro-hydro installations in PNG and other developing countries.
As part of the introduction to that book, author Allen R. Inversin acknowledged our work at Korbau, concluding that we;
"largely forgot about the experts and detailed theory, and installed home-made micro-hydros at three remote village sites, and planted a seed by showing that it could be done before others said that it could not."
If that is to be the epitaph for these projects then I, on behalf of all my wonderful Korbau friends, proudly accept it.
(For access to all stories in this series click the "view my tags" link on the right of screen then click "png history")