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New Guinea recollections. (Part 6 of 8)

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                                                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")


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About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

18 responses »

  1. GOF- this story is fascinating! To think of all of the work that you and others did and all that you had to figure out by trial and error. How wonderful that you were able to succeed, even if your project later fell into disrepair. I think it is admirable, the work that you did, and you will probably never know the valuable difference you made in the lives of the people that you helped! I am amazed at your attitude and the attitude of the people that worked with you. Bravo!

  2. Amazing to me when critics find fault with someone's work, theorize how it could have been done better, but do NOTHING themselves.

  3. As an old retired sparky, I dips me lid, GOF. I'd have thought long and hard before attempting a job like that, and probably wouldn't have come up with anything as good anyway. The only disappointment is that I couldn't see any use made of that old pioneering standby, the Cobb and Co fencing wire means of support. No doubt I haven't looked close enough.

  4. What a fantastic achievement GOF – I agree with Peter – there are books in your material. To my knowledge not a single one of these learned and distinguished critics ever did anything to repair them. Shame on them!

  5. Awesome. I am loving these posts. 🙂

  6. Thank you for your kind words Freedom.To think of all of the work that you and others did and all that you had to figure out by trial and error. My work in PNG was insignificant and I was always inspired by the many long-term missionary and Government personnel who went before me passing on practical skills to village people. Most the credit deserves to remain with the village people themselves for all the unpaid effort they expended on projects like this.

  7. Amazing to me when critics find fault with someone's work, theorize how it could have been done better, but do NOTHING themselves. I expect you have probably come across a few people like that during your working career too GOM.Unfortunately the entire world-wide aid effort to developing countries is hamstrung by top-heavy bureaucracies, and the relatively few workers in the field who are prepared to get their hands dirty.

  8. The only disappointment is that I couldn't see any use made of that old pioneering standby, the Cobb and Co fencing wire means of support.We really could have used your knowhow back then Snowy.We begged and/or borrowed used electrical wire from the PNG Electricity Authority. When I sent their boss pics of our sub-standard "overhead 24v wiring" just as proof that we had used it for some useful purpose, he asked me never to reveal their involvement (or the photo) in public.And there's bound to be some 8 gauge wire (and Araldite) in the construction somewhere Snowy. 🙂

  9. Thanks again for your nice comments Pete.In my Telstra days I had great fun working up solutions which came from real life That must have given you a great deal of satisfaction. I think anyone who grows up in "the bush" automatically acquires skills at "making do" and using whatever materials are available.get things done while the talk fest continues.It makes my blood boil every time I hear of a conference (unfortunately I even attended a couple) discussing aid projects and policies in third world countries.The main thing lacking is qualified people who are prepared to get off their polished arses, leave the airconditioning behind, and go out and DO it.I look forward to some stories about your Grandfather. Now there was a generation which knew how to get practical things done.

  10. "there are books in your material".Thank you Emjay, but this is the closest there will ever be to a book.I am just happy to have collected and written this material to provide some sort of record for the descendants of the people with whom I worked.

  11. I am loving these posts.Thank you LOM…..It was something I had to do, and I thank you for reading them.

  12. I remember a Boss urgently wanting some software repaired one day. I fixed it with a quick re-install of the application.He wanted to know what caused the problem.I apologised with "I thought you wanted it fixed in a hurry. If you want a cause and effect it takes longer."He was not impressed so it mustn't have been as urgent as he claimed. I'm always pleased to delve into a problem (in fact I prefer it) but my overiding view was lets get the thing working if its urgent.

  13. Tremendous! Seriously.My dad and his brothers cut the way into the Ozark Mountains to "bring in" electricity from outside. They didn't create generators of any kind but they logged and put up poles and strung lines. With the "infrastructure" done (1968), electric companies stepped in — to make a profit. I was born in 1971 and many of the homes deep in the hills still didn't get electricity but many did.There were lots of families who had one bulb they'd unscrew and move with them from one area to another. When I was a kid, one of our neighbors (probably several but we'd visit him often) lived in a shack–with dirt floor–and had a bare lightbulb hanging from the rafters. I recall because I thought it odd that he'd have a light but used a floor like our barns. It didn't occur to me, as a 5 yo, what the difference a single lightbulb in a house could make.

  14. Wonderful story from your own background. Thank you for sharing it m-t.It is so easy in these times of plenty to forget the hardships suffered by older generations.

  15. GOF, you bloody ripper! That was great stuff, real pioneering hero material! I can understand the disappointment you felt when after leaving, things fell into disrepair. I have that issue with a number of my customers (they call me "Bro" these days, instead of wantok) at Porgera and Tolukuma. It's all good when I'm talking to them everyday, but when I am needed elsewhere for a spell and then return, things have stood still un-fixed.But clearly, you showed 'em alright!Salute!

  16. Thank you Ninja.With the benefit of 30 years hindsight I see that I could have organised things better. Unfortunately the village technicians who I trained received no support from the staff who replaced me. Oh well. Sampting nating Bro 🙂 That's life.

  17. This design is wicked! You most certainly know how to keep a reader amused.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost.
    ..HaHa!) Excellent job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.
    Too cool!


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