Inga Dam: Congo’s Power Dilemma

McDike Dimkpa
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Africa is still a dark continent. The ‘dark’ here has nothing to do with the long-standing Euro-imposed meaning of it. You must have seen, read or heard of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel believed to depict Africa as a dark continent, during the early years of ‘discovering’ Africa. This ‘dark’ simply relates to the unavailability of and less access to electricity.

As of 2015, ‘annual consumption is 518 KWh in Sub-Saharan Africa, the same amount of electricity used by an individual in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD – example is the U.S.) country in 25 days. More than 500 million people live without electricity. Across the continent, only 10% of individuals have access to the electrical grid, and of those, 75% come from the richest two quintiles in overall income.
Less than 2% of the rural populations of Malawi, Ethiopia, Niger, and Chad have access to electrical power. Electrical provisioning in Africa has generally only reached wealthy, urban middle class, and commercial sectors, bypassing the region’s large rural populations and urban poor.
According to the forum of Energy Ministers of Africa, most agriculture still relies primarily on humans and animals for energy input. The electrical industry in Africa faces the economic paradox that raising prices will prohibit access to their services, but that they cannot afford to roll out additional infrastructure to drive prices down and increase access without additional capital’. Source

However, resources to provide more than enough electricity in the continent are everywhere around the continent. While we may not mention all, we will take a short look at the Grand Inga Project and its host country, DR Congo.

Scooping water from the highlands and mountains of the East African Rift, as well as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru, which feed the Lualaba River and the Chambeshi River in Zambia, the Congo River and its tributaries snake through Zambia, Angola, Rwanda, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, encompassing the large rainforests of Congo Republic and the DR Congo and emptying itself into the Atlantic. Besides the many benefits of and intriguing facts about this river, studies have shown that the Congo has the capacity to produce more than the amount of electricity needed by sub-Saharan, if not all of Africa!

This has been discovered as early as the 1950s. In 1972 and 1982, the forgettable Mobutu Sese Seko government of DR Congo constructed the Inga 1 and 2 hydroelectric facilities respectively, to produce 2, 132 mw of electricity but they have never produced above 40% of that capacity, according to a 2013 report.

The international economic community has proposed a hydropower scheme that will generate electricity to power an industrial revolution in Africa. Of course, it is not a hidden fact that businesses suffer in Africa due to irregular power supply. Factories find it very difficult to operate here as they have to spend a fortune to power generator sets and heavy machines; remember, to spend all that to sustain one’s business only means that there are customers to pay for it. In general, Africans suffer both as business owners and as customers: high cost of running a business leads to high prices for goods and services.

The Grand Inga Dam has the capacity to produce more than 40 gw of electricity, more than the leading Three Gorges Dam of China. The project, which can gulp more than USD$80 billion, is to be done in seven phases, beginning with the Inga 3 hydropower project.

  1. Some companies and agencies take the project as a priority and they include
  2. Southern African Development Community (SADC)
  3. New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD)
  4. Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP)
  5. World Energy Council

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One big problem associated with the Inga 3 construction has been the political cum corruption volatility of DR Congo. The country has been unstable for a long time, despite being ruled by one family since the late ‘90s. This project was conceived after their civil war in 2003, but it has remained undone out of the political unrest that creates uncertainties for investors and interested agencies.

Inga 3: Timeline of Planfor Development and Abandonment
  • A consortium of five countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and, of course, DR Congo) called Western Power Corridor (Westcor) had signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2004 for the construction of Inga 3, contracting the distribution to SAPP. Note, this Inga 3 is to produce 4,800 megawatts of electricity.
  • In 2009, DR Congo pulled out of the deal and decided to do a sole proprietorship; they floated tenders which was won by BPH Billiton.
  • 2013 saw the World Bank coming in to finance the construction; South Africa, still circling, agreed to buy 2,500 mw of the 4,800 mw to be produced.
  • 2016, three years after, the World Bank withdraws its support after Joseph Kabila took control of the project from the agency handling it.

That was how President Kabila stunted that dream till now.

According to projections, over 60% of Sub-Saharan Africans will still lack access to electricity by 2020. What is baffling is how this opportunity exists but remains an breathing stillbirth: it is there, alive, but useless.

Problems with Inga 3

From the perspective of the Congolese however, the Inga 3 dream is nothing more than a disaster. Firstly, the plan for the construction does not include powering the homes and businesses of the rurals, something that still baffles me. That out 4.8 gw of electricity, not even twenty percent is allowed the owners of the place. They simply want to produce and sell. It is obviously not a great idea.

It is the kind of issues surrounding Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, a rainforest zone that has become a shadow of itself after years of crude oil sucking by explorers. Nigeria only takes the oil and sells off, to distribute the money among politicians while the oil producing communities suffer diverse environmental problems.

The Congolese governments never factored it in their plans to give power to their people but to make gains; this made a group of concerned communities write a petition against the project. Besides the already ‘planned’ negligence, the Inga Dam will displace people, portend incessant flooding, make people lose their way of life and sources of livelihood.

The Chinese Three Gorges Dam, for instance, is already notorious for its troubles to the environment and people. It has displaced more than 1.2 million people, flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages, claiming more than 600 kilometres for a reservoir. These are the dangers with constructing the ‘damned’ dam.

Constructing the damn is like the choices before a fairy tale hunter who caught a fairy in his trap and was to be punished by death for trapping a fairy, whether he left the fairy in the trap or let it loose, he would die. So the dam has all the wonderful potentials but constructing it means more environmental and social harm to those whose communities are in the way of the blueprint.

What then should be done? Resettle the people like they did for the construction of the Inga 1 and Inga 2 with the unfulfilled promise of compensation?

It is worrying then, that DR Congo’s interest in the Inga scheme is not to produce electricity for the said 90% of people with less or no access to electricity, but to make some money for the government.

The Better Alternative

According to a research carried out by Ranjit Deshmukh, Ana Mileva and Grace C. Wu, in affiliation with the University of Carlifornia,

‘DRC has abundant, low-cost and accessible wind and solar potential that is sufficient to completely replace and greatly surpass the energy that would be supplied by the proposed Inga 3 Dam. DRC could install a minimum of 15 GW of wind power and 70 GW of solar PV within 25 kilometers of existing and planned transmission lines.

The researchers further said the DRC’s wind and solar potential, at 85 GW, could address the country’s chronic power shortages and would far surpass the output of the planned 4.8 GW Inga 3 Dam on the Congo River. 60 GW of that energy could be installed at less than $0.07 per kWh, which makes it competitive with conventional power options.

So, if there is an alternative that is cheaper, less problematic and more environment-friendly, why is DR Congo not doing anything about it?

McDike Dimkpa  is a contributor to The African Progressive Economist and the opinions expressed here are his own.

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