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Will Congo Benefit from Grand Inga Dam?

Africa’s poorest nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), plans to build the world’s largest (and most expensive) hydropower dam, Grand Inga on the Congo River’s Inga Falls. A day before I set forth for the DRC, the huge project took a significant step forward with the signing of a “cooperation treaty” by the DRC and South African governments.

The treaty makes South Africa the principal purchaser of the power generated at Inga III power plant, the first phase of the Grand Inga. The country will buy 2500 MW of the total 4800 MW from the proposed dam. The balance will be sold to mining companies in Katanga in southeastern DRC. As expected, the signing event, held in Paris in May, attracted a lot of media coverage and excitement within the government circles in the DRC and internationally. It made headline news within the DRC for a week running. My mission was to see for myself what challenges damming the Congo River at Inga Falls would bring.

The DRC capital of Kinshasa is huge and full of contradictions. There are over 10 million people and less than 30 percent have access to electricity, in a country with so much potential to generate electricity. Connections are intermittent and less than 10 percent have electricity for 24 hours a day. So what do the rest use? Charcoal trading is common in most African cities but in Kinshasa, it tops the list. It was everywhere, being sold in street kiosks, loaded on lorries and trucks along the roads and its smoke billowing out of homes. But on the other hand, electricity was being used wastefully where it was available. I tend to be quite conscious of water and energy saving in all the establishments that I come across.

I was warned that I would experience lots of power cuts here, so I was pleasantly surprised when this hardly happened. I even found out that there were so many air conditioners in all the places I went to and that no one bothered to turn them off, even in an unoccupied room.

Some buildings were over-equipped with the gadgets to an extent that it was too cold to be inside for more than five minutes. I had to carry a cardigan with me just in case the meeting room got too cold. I found out that the reason for the cold meeting rooms and the need for wearing a cardigan at the Equator was due to the fact that there was no motivation to save electricity.

Electricity charges are fixed for about 90 percent of the consumers as only 10 percent of local consumers have meters. Secondly, in the area I stayed – Gombe Commune – people had their own huge generators and so had electricity all the time. Those at the lower end of the “totem pole” used wood charcoal. All contributed to carbon emissions in their different ways.

I traveled to Matadi, a port city on the Congo River, 150km from the Atlantic Ocean. Matadi is 100km downstream of the Inga dams site. From there I visited Mvuzi III, one of the communities identified for relocation once construction on the Inga III dam project starts.

What was the mood and attitude to the project in this community? It is sad to report that, despite being in the path of this huge dam project, the people here had very little information about the dam and the impacts it will bring to their lives. This situation is the same everywhere in Africa where poor communities are being relocated to make way for huge infrastructure projects. The governments and developers thrive by providing little or no information to the affected. The villagers knew that they would be relocated when Inga III construction starts but had no details of how the exercise would be conducted.

They reported that the World Bank had carried out a survey in 2007 to establish the size of the affected communities and at the time informed them that they would receive US$900 compensation per household to relocate. The government and World Bank officials later informed me that a plan for the relocation would be developed to ensure fair compensation to the affected people. But the devil will be in the details – most especially how and if it will be implemented properly. The communities believe that they cannot go against the government’s wishes but would like a compensation package that does not compromise their lifestyle and livelihoods. They also hoped that the project would create employment opportunities for them.

A few days after the signing of the treaty, the World Bank president and the United Nations Secretary-General visited the DRC to discuss, among other things, energy developments. I set out with the hope of meeting the World Bank president to whom we had sent a letter asking several questions about this project. Hoping perhaps to hand the letter in person and get a response to our questions on the local population’s access to electricity and job creation prospects of Inga III versus renewable options; climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as issues of governance.

To these questions, we received an unsatisfactory response reaffirming the World Bank’s commitment to the development of Africa and no direct response to any of the questions we had posed. We were also hoping that the local World Bank office in Kinshasa would arrange a civil society forum to meet their President, but nothing of the sort took place. The presidents and officials held closed sessions with the DRC government.

My visit also included a site visit to Inga I (351 MW) and II (1,424 MW) built in 1972 and 1982 respectively. These two have never operated efficiently since they were commissioned due to lack of maintenance – partly a result of years of war, partly a problem of lack of local skills, partly a problem with the corrupt and mismanaged state energy utility. At the Inga I and II hydropower stations, I met contractors who were carrying out refurbishing and maintenance work.

This work is presently estimated to cost $883 million dollars when completed in 2016. This is four times the World Bank’s original 2003 estimate that put the project’s costs just under $200 million dollars. The rehabilitation of the power stations will include replacement and refurbishing of turbines, construction of a second transmission line to Kinshasa that will enable 3,5000 more consumers to be connected. The Inga–Kolwezi grid, which is operating at 25 percent capacity, will also be rehabilitated. The World Bank embarked on the rehabilitation project in 2003 with a justification that the rehabilitation of the two power stations and transmission line would enable the DRC to earn $40 million yearly through exports of electricity. Ten years down the line this dream has been marred by slow, barely satisfactory progress and huge cost overruns.

I had read a lot about Camp Kinshasa and was curious to see this compound where many who were displaced by the previous Inga dams have settled. This shabby compound is where the Inga I and II displaced communities had been dumped. The inhabitants have been waiting here for compensation for over 40 years. To get to the camp one has to pass through the Inga Estate, a small gated town established in the late early seventies to house workers from the DRC state power utility, SNEL, and supporting-service employees. The town has modern buildings although some were in a state of disrepair. A kilometer away from this town is Camp Kinshasa. It is an eyesore; the buildings are falling apart, with boxes and wooden boards nailed to support or cover holes in the original prefabricated structures. Litter was strewn along the fringes, and the structures are crowded with lots of people in a very small space. Service provision was non-existent.

In the face of this misery and injustice, I wondered whether the displaced people from the Inga III project would receive fair compensation and whether it was right for the project proponents to start making claims about how they will address the latest displaced communities while they continue to turn a blind eye to the legacy of the past.

At least $12 billion will be needed for construction of the Inga III and an astonishing $80 billion for Grand Inga dam. It does not make sense that DRC failed for over ten years to complete the rehabilitation of Inga I and II, yet now it expects to manage a bigger and more complex project. One cannot help but question whether there is human capacity to handle such a project and even capacity to absorb the huge amounts targeted for these developments. Is it realistic that Inga III can be completed in eight years when the rehabilitation has taken a decade and is still incomplete?

I have also wondered who will profit from the Inga projects (and in fact, I wonder who has profited from the costly rehabilitation of the previous dams). Inga III is clearly regarded by a range of developers and the Government as a commercial project that will supply power for export and the mines, not for the Congolese people. On the African continent, which averages a high energy gap, the DRC is 4th from the bottom, surpassed only by Ethiopia, Eritrea, Tanzania and Togo in the lowest number of electricity use per capita. Yet the DRC is very rich in resources.

Unfortunately, this blessing has so far turned out to be a resource curse. Transparency International rated the DRC 160th for governance and corruption out of 176 countries in the world. The Inga I and II rehabilitation process was not spared of corrupt deals. Six and a half million dollars went unaccounted for in 2008 and there may be more that disappeared unknown. The citizens, as well as the government, are fully aware of the prevalence of corruption in all sectors. What systems will be put in place to combat corruption? Once again, who will profit from this project?