French, Belgian, Chinese, Brazilian and African engineers have, over 60 years, all hoped to
dam the Congo. But decades of civil war, corruption, and the Democratic Republic of
Congo's (DRC) reputation as a failed state have limited the hydropower developments
at Inga Falls to two relatively small dams, built in 1972 and 1982. These, dubbed Inga 1 and 2,
have a theoretical capacity of 1 400MW but produce only about half that.
A new $20-billion development to generate a further 4 800MW was announced over the
weekend in Paris with work planned to start in October 2015. According to the DRC government,
working with European and other consultants, five further stages at Inga Falls could eventually
have a capacity of 40 000MW – the equivalent of more than 20 large nuclear power stations.
This would make the complete Grand
Inga development the largest hydro project
in the world, generating twice as much as
the Three Gorges dam in China. In theory,
say its backers, it could provide 40% of
Africa's electricity needs.
The attraction of developing hydropower
on the Congo, says the government,
is that unlike most of the world's great
dam projects it would not require tens of
thousands of people to be relocated,
nor would it block the river and result in significant environmental consequences. Because
the Congo River around Inga is so vast and falls nearly 100 metres over a short distance,
water can be diverted to create a massive new lake without disturbing its main flow.
"The impact on land use is very limited. The development can be progressive and carried
out in a series of further phases, eventually providing 40 000MW of power," says the technical
data for the proposed development.
The African Development Bank, World Bank, French Development Agency,
European Investment Bank and Development Bank of South Africa have all shown interest
in financing the next stage of the project. No developer has been chosen but Chinese,
Korean and Spanish companies are said to be in the forefront.
Key to the project is South Africa's commitment this week to buy 2 500MW of capacity.
"We have affirmed our commitment to the project by already provisioning for this purchase
in our budgetary plan," said South Africa Ministry of Energy official, Garrith Bezuidenhoudt.
But the prospect of the local population getting power from Inga in the next 20 years is remote.
Less than 10% of the population currently has electricity, with nearly all Inga 1 and 2 power
going directly to multinational mining companies in the Katanga "copper belt". It is expected
most Inga 3 power would travel 1 500 miles to power-hungry South Africa or large mines
Bad track record
Giant hydropower schemes in Africa have a bad track record. "Projects such as Inga 1 and
2 have not unleashed economic development, but have been major contributors to African
countries' unsustainable debt burden," said US-based International Rivers network which
has led opposition to major dams around the world for 20 years.
In a letter last week to the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, International Rivers and
18 other civil society organisations and networks from Africa, Europe and the United States
said the reality of large-scale dams seldom matched their expectations, mostly adding
to debt problems and allowing powerful companies to cheaply exploit and export Africa's
vast natural resources.
According to the groups, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that because
of the continent's low population density, grid-based electrification, including through
large hydropower projects, is not cost-effective for much of rural sub-Saharan Africa.
"Distributed renewable energy solutions such as wind, solar and micro hydropower
projects are much more effective at reaching the rural poor. According to the IEA report,
70% of the world's unelectrified rural areas are best served through mini-grids or
off-grid solutions," said the letter.
"In the DRC, the World Bank and other financiers have invested billions of dollars in
the construction and rehabilitation of the Inga 1 and 2 hydropower projects and
associated transmission lines over the past 40 years. After all this investment,
85% of the electricity in the DRC is consumed by high-voltage users, while only 6% to 9%
of the population has access to electricity. We are concerned that the bank's
proposed focus on large hydropower projects will write off electricity access for
the majority of Africa's poor." – Guardian News and Media 2013