Congolese leaders since the Mobutu era have dreamed of building a stack of dams along the Congo River. Seduced by the vision of harnessing Inga Falls’ immense hydro potential, Congolese politicians have claimed the Grand Inga will transform the country’s economy. We are told that the dams will stimulate economic growth, pave the way for increased energy access, and fuel industrial growth and new jobs. They focus on the potential generation capacity and earnings, downplaying any environmental and social impacts.
As a Congolese national, I have heard all these grandiose promises before. We were first told that Inga 1 and 2 would be fully rehabilitated by 2007, and that the country would earn as much as $40 million dollars a year in revenue from the dams. But when engineers got to work, they found the dams’ infrastructure was in much worse shape than they’d expected. Eight years and millions of dollars later, the World Bank has yet to deliver on its promise: To date, just one turbine has been fixed.
What’s really driving the development of Inga 3? “The DRC does not have a huge demand, but the rest of the continent does,” said a former Eskom employee. South Africa, for one, is facing an energy crisis that could turn into a disaster for the economy if not addressed immediately. According to the World Bank Project Appraisal Document, connecting Inga 3 to the Southern Africa Power Pool will save the region $1.1 billion in power costs, and countries relying on coal will benefit the most. But how much will DRC save?
Meanwhile, the African Development Bank has been very active in the preparation of the Inga 3 feasibility study. The Bank wants to spur sustainable economic development and social progress in Africa. Only 41% of Africans have access to electricity, and Grand Inga could play a crucial role in closing the gap, they say. Nigeria, Angola and Egypt have also shown interest in Inga 3 and its subsequent stages. And the Angolan government has been pleading for more electricity for its Cabinda enclave bordering with Bas-Congo.
The problem is, dams are incredibly difficult to build. There’s no off-the-shelf dam. Engineers must take into account the individual geology and stream flow in every location, and cost overruns are always higher on hydro projects than on other infrastructure projects. This may provide consulting opportunities for multinational corporations, but it doesn’t do much for ordinary people in need. Alternatives like wind or solar are not even considered. So the delays lengthen and the costs increase.
Lost in all these considerations are the Congolese people themselves. What about the man in the street and the women in the village? What does Inga 3 mean to them? Would they share in the spoils? Will their lives change? Those who are not already connected to the grid are unlikely to receive electricity from Inga 3 without a new plan. Even if they are given access to the grid, will Congo’s poor be able to afford power from Inga 3?
Congo has been the site of other people’s adventures—and need to conquer the unconquerable—for too long. How much money has been spent on surveys, studies and preparatory work on Inga 3 to date? And if that money had been invested in wind and solar power generation back in 2008, how many megawatts would be online now, powering the DRC and the continent?
South Africa dreams about purchasing the cheapest electricity and feeding its ever-growing demand for power. The Congolese people dream about reliable access to energy, roads, schools and hospitals, while its leaders dream about a new stream of income other than from extractive industries. And the rest of the world is mesmerized by the mighty Congo River and its enormous hydropower potential. Is Grand Inga someone else’s dream?
As a Congolese national, I dream about peace, freedom, equality for all, adequate schools, hospitals, roads and—of course—reliable access to electricity and water. But should Grand Inga be developed at the expense of the people, rivers and forests of the DRC—and for benefits my people may never see? For me, the Grand Inga may turn out to be a nightmare.