Power to Some People

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pumping hydropower from the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa may be an environmental dream come true, but there are issues around social justice that are dampening the excitement somewhat.

Critics say the Grand Inga and Inga III plants, planned for the Inga region on the Congo River, will not provide power to the African continent as a whole but will light up only those countries and industries that can afford it.

There are 500-million people in Africa without access to electricity, according to the World Energy Council, or 75%, according to the World Bank.

And although the transmission lines for the Inga projects will run directly over many of the poorest countries, it will bypass them, as well as the 96% of people in the DRC without access to power, and go straight to countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola.

Grand Inga, which has hopes of powering the continent, will emit 39000MW and will cost more than $80-billion. It is an initiative of Eskom and the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

Inga III, which will produce 4500MW and will cost $7-billion, is being driven by Westcor, owned by five national electricity utilities. These are Eskom, Snel in the DRC, ENE in Angola, BPC in Botswana and Nampower in Namibia.

IngaIII's most promising client is the global mining firm BHP Billiton.

Two projects, Inga I and II, which have become white elephants in the DRC, were built in the 1970s and 1980s and supply power to mines in the DRC.

They are producing 2000MW less than intended and are undergoing a $500-million rehabilitation process, funded mostly by the World Bank and the Canadian-based Mag­industries Corporation.

There are some environmental benefits to the Inga projects, one of which is that they are on the Congo River, which runs on either side of the equator and has rainfall throughout the year, with an average flow three times that of the Amazon River.

"The Inga projects are called 'run-of-river' projects," says Peet du Plooy, of the WWF. "This means you don't have to have dams over a major area, so it has a much smaller environmental impact."

He says that about 50 square kilometres of biodiversity will be lost to allow for the construction of the power plants.

But according to Ferdi Kruger, a regulatory specialist at the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa), although "this is one of the most exciting projects and impressive hydropower plants in the world", it will not bring significant low-skilled job creation to the DRC.

"The plant won't create work opportunities," he says. "You won't need 5 000 people on site. There may be only 100 jobs for highly qualified people."

According to International Rivers, an NGO strongly opposed to the Inga projects, about 8 000 people in the Inga region were told to vacate their land in 2006, with no adequate compensation or explanation.

The communities displaced in the 1960s to make way for Inga I and II have still not received compensation.

International Rivers also claims that the Inga projects are not bene­fiting the people of the DRC and that "concerns are growing that foreign companies will gain vast economic benefits from this mega-project, taking attention away from the development needs of Africa's poor majority".

Furthermore, they say there is a lack of economic transparency and public input. The only information available on Grand Inga and Inga III is "intended to boost the interest of potential investors".

Regarding importing the energy to South Africa, there are contradictory ideas on its benefits and pricing.

Du Plooy says that "it will be some of the cheapest power on the continent; it will be cheaper than coal", adding that the transmission "won't be that big … a cost".

But Nersa's Kruger disagrees, saying that, with the power having to travel a distance of 5000km from the DRC to South Africa, "the price of transmission on this distance could be double the price of the electricity".

This increase would be caused by transmission losses, which have to be factored into the price of the electricity and will raise the price significantly.

"On this distance we can expect 25% losses and a 25% price increase from these losses," he says.

Another risk is the instability of the lines, from potential veld fires, lightning and the unstable political situation in the DRC.

"To import 12,5% of our current power production of 36000MW, we would need to transport 5 000MW across 5 000km. There are no real-life examples of that in the world," he says.

"While it is the right thing to do environmentally, from an engineering point of view, on cost and technology, there is still some way to go."

Construction has not yet begun on the projects and Kruger says that they won't start until ­agreements are signed with reliable purchasers.

But this is taking a while because many companies are hesitant to put millions of dollars into a project that may be unstable because of the political situation in the region.

This reluctance is exacerbated by a negative perception of Africa's stability because of recent events in Zimbabwe and Kenya and the continuing conflicts in Sudan and Somalia.

It will probably take 10 to 15 years to reap any harvest from the Inga plants, but it seems there is much to be done for that harvest to be affordable and available to those who need it most.

Women's role in climate change
Climate change is no longer debatable; it is a scientific fact and needs urgent action.

Indalo Yethu believes climate change adaptation is an essential part in addressing the challenges and opportunities associated with climate change. The long-term mitigation scenarios (LTMS) -- strategic options for South Africa -- refers to mitigation measures to limit the human-made causes of climate change, whereas adaptation addresses the impact and opportunities resulting from a changing climate.

The LTMS inform long-term national climate change policy and provide a solid basis for the country's position in multilateral climate negotiations to a post-2012 climate regime.

Studies reveal that poor communities are the most vulnerable when exposed to extreme changes in weather patterns. In celebrating this year's Women's Month more efforts should be dedicated to ensure that gender equality is at the forefront of climate change initiatives, because women are often the first to be affected by our changing climate.

Although sustainable development demands recognition and value for the ways in which women live with environmental realities, unfortunately there is lack of information about women in rural areas on the imminent dangers posed by climate change. Many women depend on these threatened natural resources for food, energy and water to survive. Despite these limitations women are key actors in ensuring their communities adapt to climate change.

Indalo Yethu recommends climate change adaptation that include effective measures to minimise, adjust to and take advantage of the consequences of climate change. -- Indalo Yethu