When Zambia was hit by its second electricity blackout in 48 hours last week, it turned to its unlikely major power importer to solve the problem: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is more commonly known for its interminable problems due to long-running war but is looking towards the mighty Congo River’s power generating capacity to forge a major new export industry for much of Southern Africa. Although Zambia has three hydro power stations of its own, it relies on the DRC to overcome a shortfall.
The key to the DRC’s long-term prospects in this industry is the long promised Grand Inga dam on the lower Congo. When it is delivered, the Grand Inga will be the world’s largest hydropower scheme. It is also envision by the international economic community to link into a power grid across Africa that will spur the continent's industrial economic development. Grand Inga has the potential to produce up to 39,000 MW of electricity, over twice the power generation of Three Gorges Dam in China, up to a third of all Africa’s current needs.
The major problem is the price tag: $US80 billion, well beyond the infrastructure budget of a poor African country. The scheme requires an international approach. Grand Inga is listed as a priority project of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the World Energy Council. Meanwhile other groups are proceeding with their own plans. Three days ago, South African company Eskom and the UN environment agency UNEP presented a $50 billion plan to dam the lower Congo. It is unclear whether this cheaper option included schemes to divert water to dryer regions south and north of the humid Congo Basin. Nor have Eskom revealed the local environmental consequences.
The Congo River has long been recognised for its damming potential. When the country prepared for independence in the late 1950s, its political leaders recognised that modernisation of the country required massive amounts of electricity for factories, cities, hospitals and schools. Its leaders decided to build a dam to span the river at one of the 32 cataracts on Livingstone Falls between the capital Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean. The narrow gorges within the Falls create pressures within the river capable of generating waves 12 metres high followed by whirlpools strong enough to suck trees under water.
In 1972 under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the first hydroelectric dam opened at the city of Inga, about 55km upriver from the seaport of Matadi. Known as Inga I, it was joined by Inga II a few kilometres away in 1982. The dams not only enabled Mobutu to control the flow of power to the rebellious province of Katanga but also remain the only extant hydroelectric dams in the country. They span the river where it narrows, plunging its way through a gorge. While they have been instrumental in supplying electricity to the people of the Congo basin, they represent just six per cent of the river’s potential hydroelectric capacity and there remains 30 other unexploited cataracts.
The idea of the Grand Inga megadam has been around since Inga II was completed. The likely cataract for the dam has a drop of almost one hundred metres promising a huge amount of energy. The dam has been slow getting off the ground while the DRC has been entrenched in war. Now as peace emerges, the plans are being dusted down again. However critics are worried by the environmental consequences. The size of the dam will create a massive reservoir of water that will flood forests and farms and also prevents migration of fish while killing millions of them sucked into the blades of the turbines. The World Wildlife Fund has warned that as conflict in the region subsides, a hydropower development presents the greater threat to the freshwater biodiversity of the Congo Basin, one of the most important wilderness areas left on the planet.
The dangers inherent in the potential size of Grand Inga is also shared by the World Rainforest Movement (WRM). They argue that because the Congo River runs strongly all year (due to rains on both sides of the equator) no large dam is needed. They say that to connect Inga to an Africa-wide electricity grid would cost more than $10 billion but would still not reach the hundreds of millions of Africa's rural poor. The Inga project departs from the goal of small-scale sustainable energy projects which would bring electricity to rural people through local wind and solar power projects. According to WRM, megaprojects are more likely to bring social, economic and environmental disruption of people’s livelihoods, lands and life.