A Clash of Visions Over the Congo River and Africa’s Biggest Dam Scheme

Rudo Sanyanga

It’s been three years since the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Africa signed a bilateral treaty to develop Inga 3, one of Africa’s largest dam projects. The treaty stipulates that South Africa will be the principal buyer of power generated at Inga 3 Dam when it’s constructed on the Congo River. 

By all accounts, however, there has been little noticeable progress on the ground – other than discussions and the establishment of agencies such as Agence pour le Développement et la Promotion de Grand Inga (ADPI, formerly ADEPI). Meanwhile, the majority of people in the DRC continue to experience energy poverty—estimates of Congolese with access to electricity remain stubbornly low at just 9-15% of the population. 

The DRC government is determined to meet the 2021 deadline for the project’s completion as stipulated in the treaty, however. And it’s understandably getting impatient with the World Bank, which they claim is slowing Inga 3’s development. 

I had the good fortune to attend an enlightening energy access workshop in Kinshasa in late March, hosted by local civil society groups. I learned of the DRC’s latest plans for Inga 3, the first stage of the much larger Grand Inga scheme. 

Energy Access workshop in Kinshasa, March 2016
Energy Access workshop in Kinshasa, March 2016

Grand Inga: Stabilizing the Continent?

At the conference, it quickly became apparent that civil society and the government have wildly different views of Inga 3 and Grand Inga.

The politicians in attendance made it clear they believe Grand Inga must be built. Many suggested that it’s the only vehicle that will spur meaningful development in the country. 

The government is also fiercely proud of the fact that the DRC has the largest potential for hydropower in Africa—estimated at over 100,000 MW, including the mighty Congo and small micro hydro sites in smaller watersheds around the country. The Inga site alone has a potential of 50,000 MW. 

Most politicians seem to believe that developing this huge hydro potential will make the DRC extremely powerful, and that it will be a game changer for the entire continent. One after another, politicians and government officials repeated this mantra during the workshop: “It [Inga 3] can stabilize the continent from conflicts and transform the economics of Africa.” Mr. Kabwe, a senior government official in the Ministry of Energy, said:  “The Grand Inga will enable us to extract vast amounts of minerals, encourage other investors and help us develop the country.” 

Ignoring the Writing on the Wall?

The government’s position is in stark contrast to civil society’s view of Inga 3, energy delivery and development in the DRC. Various groups at the workshop expressed dissatisfaction with the totally dysfunctional state of the energy delivery system in DRC and the level of corruption in the country, and expressed doubts that the grand vision of this massive project would ever be realized or that it would benefit Congolese.  

Government officials met this criticism – whether it was about the dam’s impacts, the country’s capacity to handle such huge projects, finances, or corruption – with very simple answers. When presented with any negative aspects of the project, officials gave the short and unsatisfactory answer that  “all impacts will be mitigated” and noted that “every project has some impacts, but these are small issues because the benefits are huge.”

The facts about the project thus far do not bear out this strange combination of denial and optimism. 

One official claimed that Inga 3 would bring over US$60 billion per year in revenue – a chance not to be missed, if it were true. But I listened with a distinct sense of déjà vu. In 2004, the World Bank justified rehabilitation of Inga 1 and 2 by stating that the DRC would earn US $19 million in foreign currency within four years of completing the refurbishments. 

Today, 12 years later, the rehabilitation has gone more than 400% over budget – and it still isn’t finished. The DRC continues to import electricity, while Inga 1 and 2 operate at below 50% of capacity. Sadly, the expensive, never-ending rehabilitation of Inga 1 and 2 never factored into the government’s analysis of Inga 3. 

Civil society groups asked how corruption would be contained. Mr. Kapandji, the minister in charge of the Grand Inga development agency ADPI (formerly ADEPI), repeated that there will be “zero corruption” for Inga 3. 

Then, to the amazement of many in the audience, he stated that he and the French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Madame Marie-Ségolène Royal, had flown over the Inga site and the Bundi Valley where it will be built, and said that “there are no communities there, no villages, no fields, just rolling mountains.”  

Lubwaku, Inga
Lubwaku, Inga

This was an astonishing statement to those of us who had personally visited the communities in the Bundi Valley. 

He quickly retracted the statement after representatives of NGOs, including International Rivers, took him to task on this assertion. Said one participant, “views from an airplane must be different from views from the road.” The conflicting visions—one from groups working with people on the ground, who see their poverty and powerlessness, and the other from government officials who are looking at the project from high above the ground—symbolizes the problems of how development projects are decided upon in Africa

Mr. Kapandji continued and categorically stated that nothing was going to stand in the way of Grand Inga, starting with the construction of Inga 3. He accused NGOs of following western lobbyists’ agendas, suggesting that NGOs were “fabricating” stories about Inga 3’s social and environmental impacts. 

Surprisingy, in the same breath, he confirmed rumors that there were disagreements between the DRC government and the World Bank over project start dates. His government objected to further delaying the project and opposed the dates announced by the Bank, which suggested that Inga 3 would only start late 2017 or 2018.  To comply with the terms of the treaty with South Africa, he said it was critical that Inga 3 starts by the fourth quarter of 2016. 

Surprising News

The workshop also yielded some surprising revelations. 

Mr. Kapandji told participants that DRC would select a contractor by June 2016 from the two remaining bidders for the project: the consortium of China Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro (China) or a consortium of ACS and Eurofinsa (Spain). To the surprise of all present, he revealed that the Congolese National Electricity Company (SNEL) had joined the Three Gorges and Sinohydro consortium as one of the two bidders for Inga 3. Both the World Bank and the DRC government had dismissed this possibility in 2013 in discussions with International Rivers. 

In those discussions, the DRC government admitted it was dissatisfied with SNEL’s poor level of operational efficiency, and was proposing to establish a new, efficient, independent company for the construction and operation of Inga 3. Under that arrangement, SNEL would buy electricity from this entity and distribute it to customers. Scandals, poor governance, weak systems and lack of capacity have for years plagued SNEL. 

The government also said that it is considering floating shares to raise capital for the project and hopes to raise  $3-4 billion dollars this way. The government would also contribute an equal amount to the project.  Inga 3, including transmission lines to the border with Zambia, will be financed as a private–public-partnership (PPP) to the tune of  $14 billion dollars (2013 estimate)—not including expected cost overruns. Mr. Kapandji revealed that he had planned mission visits to Ethiopia and Kenya to learn from the experience of the two countries, which have both financed infrastructure through public shares.

What Does the Future Hold?

The Minister’s message was loud and clear. The Grand Inga project would be a momentous opportunity for the DRC to show its greatness once more. He gave his presentation with a lot of optimism and determination. He appealed to the Congolese to seize this opportunity with zeal, occasionally invoking nationalism to bolster his support.  

Is there sufficient strategic coordination to ensure increased energy access for the people of DRC? The grand plan hinges on Inga 3 generating enough revenue to finance alternative energy options in the country – mainly small microhydro plants. The potential for microhydro is there – the impressive “Renewable Energy Atlas for the DRC,” published in 2014, clearly shows the tremendous potential renewable energy options for each of DRC’s eleven provinces. Such energy projects would be much cheaper and quicker to build, and would supply electricity to more communities and individual households spread through the vast country much sooner than Inga 3 ever could. The current national grid network is antiquated and not extensive enough to supply all parts of the country, but microhydro does not need to rely on it to begin supplying power locally. Unfortunately, there is insufficient effort to obtain financing for renewable energy projects. Unless independent power producers take the initiative to develop the nation’s renewables potential, it won’t happen. Without investment, DRC’s vast clean energy potential will remain a pipe dream for a long time. 

The sad observations notwithstanding, the workshop created an excellent opportunity for dialogue between the civil society and the decision makers in the DRC government. It was impressive to witness the highly candid discussions and the courage of local civil society groups, who challenged government officials without fear. Civil society organizations have unanimously agreed to push for increased energy access. International Rivers is committed to support this cause – energy access for all.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016