Vultures over Congo’s Inga Dams

Peter Bosshard

What could be nobler than being on the side of poor Africa women? Hydropower companies like to justify their dam projects – including the Grand Inga and Inga 3 dams on the Congo River – with the plight of poor women who spend hours collecting firewood every day. In reality, the poor are usually the last to benefit from such projects. Large mining companies and greedy vulture funds are already fighting over the spoils of the Inga dams.

The Congo River has the world’s second largest streamflow after the Amazon, which for engineers translates into a huge hydropower potential. The Inga 1 and 2 dams have been the Democratic Republic of Congo’s main source of electricity for the past three decades. The proposed Grand Inga Dam would divert the Congo River and generate electricity at a capacity of 39,000 megawatts – more than twice the capacity of China’s Three Gorges Dam. It comes with a fantastic price tag of $80 billion.

The Inga 3 Project would draw water from the reservoir of Inga 1 and 2 and, at a cost of $8 billion, have a capacity of 3,500 megawatts. The World Bank, the African Development Bank, the EU, BNP Paribas, Fortis and other institutions have already commissioned a pre-feasibility study for the project.

Only a quarter of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population has access to electricity. In rural areas, the percentage is much lower and the continent is literally dark. What could make more sense than harnessing the hydropower potential of the Congo River to bring electricity to the homes of Africa’s rural poor? Indeed, this is how the dam industry publicly spins its interest in building the Inga dams.

Alas, the reality looks different. Electricity is treated as a commercial product, and the poor don’t have the purchasing power to pay for expensive connections to the grid and the electricity generated by large, multi-billion dollar dams.

Grand Inga Power Grid
Grand Inga Power Grid
If Grand Inga is ever built, the electricity generated by the dam is slated to be exported to Southern Africa’s industrial centers, and across the Sahara to Europe and the Middle East. Commentator George Uwagiwabo compares the project to Africa’s colonial railway lines, which linked mines to Africa’s major ports and capitals but bypassed the majority of the population. The Grand Inga scheme would again export Africa’s natural wealth and ignore the needs of the local population.

The Inga 3 Dam meanwhile is being developed by the Westcor consortium to feed the power-hungry industries and the urban consumers of Southern Africa. In recent weeks, the mining giant BHP Billiton tried to wrest control over the project by offering the DRC government a sweeter deal. Billiton would use the power from Inga 3 to feed a smelter that will produce 800,000 tons of aluminum per year. The mining giant and Westcor are expected to meet for negotiations in the coming weeks. Whoever wins, Africa’s poor will not be among them.

Will Congo’s poor at least benefit from the revenues which the huge Inga dams might wash into government coffers one day? The chances are slim. The DRC has been ruled by a kleptocracy since colonial times. The communities who had to give up their lands for the Inga 1 and 2 dams are still fighting for compensation for their losses after 50 years – and now risk being displaced yet again for the new projects.

In a recent court decision, FG Hemisphere, a vulture fund that bought old debt of DRC’s electricity utility at bargain prices, gained the right to lay hands on the next $100 million of the utility’s revenues. As long as vulture funds and aluminum companies have more rights than the poor communities who pay the price for these projects, civil society has no reason to support the proposed dams on the Congo River.

Decentralized energy systems based on wind, solar power and micro hydro projects have a better chance of empowering Africa’s rural populations. When World Bank President Robert Zoellick visited the Inga site in August, he pointed out that “large-scale energy projects, such as Inga, should not overshadow the importance of small-scale projects, which serve the most vulnerable Africans.” Zoellick also noted “the need to adopt environmentally-sound schemes that must protect biodiversity and fisheries when energy projects are built on a river such as the Congo, which is the second richest river in the world for fish”. It will be interesting to see whether the Bank’s managers share the priorities and concerns of their President as they approach Africa’s energy sector.

Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at