Andreas Späth

Energy colonialism in the Congo

2011-11-30 07:25

Andreas Späth

The Congo River embodies an immense amount of energy – enough to supply a significant portion of Africa’s electricity requirements. The river is being touted as a perpetual source of clean, green power that could “light up Africa” and solve many of the continent’s problems. But if its power is harnessed, who will benefit – the DRC’s millions of poor or a wealthy regional and international elite?

Congo power

The most strategic site to tap the Congo’s strength is at the Inga Rapids, some 150km upstream from the mouth and about 225km downstream of Kinshasa. As long ago as the 1920s, locals were forcibly removed from the area by the Belgian colonial rulers to make way for a hydroelectric scheme, but the 351 megawatt (MW) Inga 1 and 1424 MW Inga 2 dams were only commissioned in 1972 and 1982 respectively under the country’s post-independence dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Part of a failed industrial development programme, Inga 1 and 2 turned out to be white elephants and by 2002 they were only operating at 40% capacity.

More recently a 3500-5000 MW Inga 3 project and a gigantic Grand Inga hydropower scheme have been proposed with backing from the Southern African Development Community and potential financial support from the World Bank, the African Development Bank and a number of private investor. Inga 3, which is considered a first stepping stone towards the realisation of Grand Inga, is a presidential priority project of both the DRC and South Africa and on the 12th of November the two countries signed a Grand Inga memorandum of understanding.

Green giant

Grand Inga alone could generate over 40 000 MW of electricity - approximately equivalent to South Africa’s total installed capacity and more than a third of all of the electric power currently produced in Africa. It would dwarf China’s 20 300 MW Three Gorges Dam, the largest single power plant ever built.

Proponents of the $80bn mega project argue that it would fuel economic growth by attracting energy-intensive industries and help to provide renewable, eco-friendly and “zero carbon” electricity for many African countries far into the future.

Grand illusion?

There are several problems with the Grand Inga scheme. For starters, it may not be as green as its supporters would have us believe. If it were to involve the construction of a giant dam, blocking or diverting much of the river, there would be considerable impacts on the river’s ecology and on the large ecosystem it supports. In addition, mega-dams are known to generate large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Even if more modern run-of-river technology were to be used, Grand Inga wouldn’t be environmentally benign. Multiple turbine installations, minor dams and diversion canals would have a considerable cumulative influence on the river’s flow, fisheries, the adjacent riverine forests and even on parts of the equatorial Atlantic, where the “plume” of the Congo River can be detected as far as 800 kilometres offshore.

There are also major concerns over the viability of such a large and expensive project in a country as wrecked by poverty, internal strife, political instability and corruption as the DRC. Opponents question the lack of transparency and public consultation – much of the planning and negotiating has happened in secretive behind-closed-doors meetings with very limited input from civil society.

Thousands of people have been relocated without compensation and the DRC’s state power utility, SNEL, has long been characterised by unaccountability. In 2008, for instance, two of its directors were investigated after $6.5m earmarked for rehabilitating Inga 2 disappeared.

Civil society organisations are worried that ordinary Congolese, only 6% of whom have access to electricity, will remain in the dark, while their river’s power is transmitted to mines and industrial facilities in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa or even Europe, or to power-hungry installations such as a massive aluminium smelter proposed for the coast by BHP Billiton.

For Grand Inga to live up to its potential, it’s crucial that all environmental and social impacts are carefully investigated, the local population is fully consulted, displaced communities are compensated and fiscal accountability is ensured.

Supplying the impoverished inhabitants of the DRC with renewable energy should be the top priority. Whether or not an $80bn centralised mega-project is capable of doing that remains to be seen.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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