New parallel Birchenough Bridge…. Old bridge to be heritage site…..Govt applies for $40m loan from Japan

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Birchenough Bridge

Tinashe Makichi
Birchenough Bridge, about 8km south of the junction of Sabi and Odzi rivers in Manicaland Province is set to boost trade and tourism in the area if current discussions taking place are to reach execution.

The Birchenough Bridge, a breathtaking piece of engineering history was completed in 1935 at a length of 329 meters making it the 3rd longest single arch suspension bridge at its inception.

Designed by the same engineer, Ralph Freeman, who designed the Sydney harbour bridge in Australia, the bridge remains one of the major beacons of engineering excellence to be experienced in Zimbabwe.

The bridge takes its name from the late Sir Henry Birchenough, chairman of the Beit Railway Trustees, who provided the funds to construct the structure. According to latest developments, Government in partnership with Japan is planning to build a new bridge parallel to the existing Birchenough Bridge, which will then become a national heritage site.

Government has already made an application for a $40 million loan financing facility from the Government of Japan for the mooted project. This is after a feasibility study done on the bridge highlighted that the cost of rehabilitating the older bridge and constructing a new one was marginal. Speaking to Business Weekly, Japanese Embassy in Zimbabwe Counselor Miyagawa confirmed receiving a funding proposal from Government.

“After wider consultations we have come to the opinion that it is cost effective to build a new bridge parallel to the older Birchenough Bridge. “We are of the opinion that the Birchenough Bridge should be rehabilitated and be made a tourism or heritage site. We believe there is need to build a new bridge parallel to the existing one,” said Mr Miyagawa.

He said this project was part of the Asian country’s current efforts to set up efficient trade corridors within the Southern African region. Mr Miyagawa said the bridge connects Mozambique (Beira) through Zimbabwe to South Africa hence making it a strategic trade corridor. His sentiments come as Japan and India have struck an alliance which will see the birth of “Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC)”.

In the AAGC initiative, Japan will invest close to $200 billion in the project. The four main components of AAGC listed in the vision document include development and co-operation projects, quality infrastructure and institutional connectivity, capacity and skill enhancement and people-to-people partnerships.

“Already we are working on different corridors with the Southern African region. We believe Birchenough Bridge is part of an important corridor which links Mozambique and South Africa.

“The Bridge is of strategic importance and as you are aware we are also doing a feasibility study on the Harare-Chirundu highway,” said Mr Miyagawa. Transport and Infrastructure Development Minister Joram Gumbo confirmed recently that Government is considering two options for the Bridge which includes building a new one or rehabilitating the existing bridge.

“It is a fact that Government is looking at rehabilitating Birchenough Bridge and it is going to be a two way process. We are looking at whether we rehabilitate the bridge or come up with a new bridge,” said Minister Gumbo.

The Birchenough Bridge structure used to be third longest single-arch bridge in the world, second only to the bridge over Sydney Harbour and to the Bayonne Bridge, New York. The total length of the Birchenough Bridge is 1 240 feet and the great arch that rises 280 feet above the river measures 1 080 feet between the foundation bearings.

The magnificent bridge spanning the Sabi River, a gift to Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) from the funds of the Beit Trust was at the request of people of Zimbabwe named “THE BIRCHENOUGH BRIDGE” in recognition of the services given to the country by SirBirchenough the chairman of the Beit Railway Trust and President of the British South Africa Company.

The bridge was built to give the people residing in the eastern districts access across the Sabi River to the central districts of Southern Rhodesia.

The bridge crosses the Sabi River with a single arch which rises to 280 feet above the river and is 1,080 feet in length, a span which at construction was exceeded by only two other arch spans:  the great bridge crossing Sydney Harbour and the Bayonne Bridge over the Kill van Kull Creek, South of New York.

The bridge was the first long-span bridge to be constructed in the British Empire with modern high tensile steel. With trifling exception, the whole structure is made of Dorman Long & Company’s “Chromador” steel.

The use of this material made it possible to construct the bridge at a moderate cost as a single span. This avoided the necessity for making piers in the river bed which was found to be of a shifting and treacherous character.

In the combination which the design provides of an exceptional span with light weight and small capital outlay, the arch span is unique in bridge construction. The bridge was erected by the same process as that used for the Victoria Falls Arch and subsequently for the Sydney arch by building out the arch in two halves as cantilevers, anchored back to the rock shores by wire ropes.

The anchorage ropes used were the actual ropes used for the Sydney Harbour Bridge and were incorporated in the Birchenough Bridge as the suspenders of the roadway.

Government mooted plans to repair the bridge in 1998 after it had developed technical faults. Tourism players  have welcomed this development saying it is critical to maintain the existing bridge as a heritage site because of the history attached to it.

The Zimbabwe Council for Tourism President Tich Hwingwiri told the Business Weekly:  “Upon confirmation of the factuality of Government’s intentions, we believe this is a welcome development to the local tourism industry. The history around this bridge can be compared to none and it remains a significant site to the history of this country.

“It is critical that we preserve the bridge for heritage purposes and this definitely is going to attract tourists in the Manica town,” said Hwingwiri.

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