DR Congo waits on funding for world's largest hydropower project
John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 May 2013
The dream of harnessing the mighty Congo with the world's largest set of
dams has moved closer, with the World Bank and other financial
institutions expected to offer finance and South Africa agreeing to buy
half of the power generated.
In the past 60 years French, Belgian, Chinese, Brazilian and African
engineers have all hoped to dam the river.
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 the country's Inga Falls to two relatively small dams,
built in 1972 and 1982. These, known as Inga 1 and 2, have a theoretical
capacity of 1,400 megawatts but produce about half that.
A new $20bn (£13.2bn) 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 - equivalent to more than 20 large nuclear
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
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
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 a South
Africa ministry of energy official, Garrith Bezuidenhoudt.
But the prospect of local people getting power from Inga in the next 20
years is remote. Less than 10% of the population 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 in DRC.
Giant hydropower schemes in Africa have a poor 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 the 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, the
International Rivers and 18 other civil society organisations and
networks from Africa, Europe and the US 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.
The letter said: "Renewable energy solutions such as wind, solar and
micro hydropower projects are much more effective at reaching the rural
"According to the IEA report, 70% of the world's unelectrified rural
areas are best served through mini-grids or off-grid solutions.
"In the DRC, the World Bank and other financiers have invested billions…
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 6-9% 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."
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