Grand Inga - the World Bank's Latest Silver Bullet for Africa
Huffington Post, May 21, 2013
When World Bank President Jim Kim visits the Democratic Republic of
Congo this week, he will find a country rich in natural resources but
blighted by a lack of basic services. The world's poorest country has
not only been ravaged by civil wars, but by decades of grandiose
development schemes that inevitably failed. The World Bank and other
donors are now concocting the continent's biggest pie in the sky: the
$80 billion Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River.
Close to 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in a state of
permanent power outage. It is tempting to provide electricity to so many
people with one ambitious silver bullet. The Grand Inga Dam would divert
the Congo River near its mouth and, according to its promoters, meet the
electricity needs of more than 500 million people. With a capacity of
40,000 megawatts, the scheme would be the world's largest hydropower
On Saturday, the DRC government announced plans to start construction on
the Congo River in October 2015. The World Bank, the African Development
Bank and the European Investment Bank want to join the ride. The World
Bank is considering support for the Inga 3 Dam, the first stage of the
much larger Grand Inga scheme, and two similar projects on the Zambezi
River. The Inga dams feature prominently on the agenda of the Bank
President's visit to the DRC.
The enthusiasm of the World Bank and other funders for mega-dams has a
long history. Over the past 40 years, donors have poured billions of
dollars into dams and associated transmission lines on the Congo River.
The projects have been plagued by rampant corruption, perform far below
capacity, and have failed to benefit the poor. About 85 percent of the
electricity in the DRC is consumed by the mining industry, while only 6
to 9 percent of the population has access to electricity. Worse, the
centralized nature of these investments has created a winner-takes-all
system that has encouraged tension and civil war.
The World Bank argues that a new generation of mega-dams could "catalyze
very large-scale benefits to improve access to infrastructure services"
in Africa. Yet once again, the projects on the Congo and the Zambezi are
designed to power the mining industry and urban centers. More than half
of the electricity generated by Inga 3 would be exported to South
Africa. The International Energy Agency has found that for most of
Africa's rural poor, grid-based electrification is not a realistic
option, and billions of dollars in aid for the energy sector will once
again bypass them.
Africa is more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change than any
other continent. The World Bank's proposed support for mega-dams will
further increase this climate vulnerability. In a period when rainfalls
are becoming ever less predictable, focusing investments in centralized
reservoirs amounts to putting all energy eggs into one basket.
Luckily, better options are available. Distributed renewable energy
solutions have become affordable for poor consumers, who currently spend
a big part of their income on candles and kerosene. Decentralized wind,
solar and micro hydropower projects are much more effective at reaching
the rural poor and creating local jobs than grid-based power projects.
Like cell phones in the telecom sector, they can revolutionize the lives
of the poor that have been bypassed by the centralized landline and
electric grid systems.
Unlike large dams, decentralized renewable energy projects strengthen
the resilience of poor societies to the vagaries of climate change. They
have a smaller environmental footprint than large dams. And in contrast
to big, corruption-prone hydropower projects they are at a scale that
can be monitored by a poor country's civil society.
Donors claim that they will learn the lessons of their past failures
with mega-dams. Yet they are excluding civil society voices from the
decision-making process. The DRC government did not invite any NGOs to
the stakeholder meeting which launched the Grand Inga Project on May 18.
World Bank President Kim is not meeting any NGOs during his visit to the
Congo. The dam industry even excluded my colleague Rudo Sanyanga from
attending their Africa 2013 hydropower conference as a paid participant.
Donor governments will be asked to underwrite the new era of mega-dams
for Africa through the replenishment of IDA, the World Bank's fund for
the poorest countries. They have a choice. They can support an outdated
top-down approach that has failed Africa's poor in the past. Or they can
throw their weight behind the creative, decentralized energy
technologies of the future. Africa can't afford to waste another decade
on a new generation of mega-dams.
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