Congo’s Inga: Great Power for Whom?

Terri Hathaway
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

World Rivers Review, Aug. 2006

Midway between Kinshasa and the Atlantic coast lies what energy developers see as a panacea for Africa. With an estimated hydropower potential of 40,000 MW, the Inga rapids on the Congo River have engineers and dam builders salivating. Two dams, Inga 1 and Inga 2 (built in 1972 and 1982, respectively) are preparing for an overdue facelift and a new dam, Inga 3 is the next anticipated step. The final stage could be a river diversion scheme called Grand Inga, a dam builder’s mighty jewel, dwarfing every hydro site worldwide.

But the lack of benefits from the existing dams to local communities, and the social and environmental problems left in their wake, are raising questions about who exactly will benefit from the expansion of large hydropower on the Congo River. If future projects do not bring benefits to those Africans most in need, it will have the double effect of making development dollars less available for projects that would better meet their needs.

Currently, only 6% of DRC’s population has access to electricity. Some NGOs are advocating that if future projects are developed, the first priority should be to increase the rate of access to electricity to 60% of DRC’s population. Without such a national benefit from the development, some fear it would cause new civil unrest. They argue that lighting the rest of Africa while leaving most of DRC in the dark would be politically and morally unacceptable.

Let the Moving Begin

Earlier this year, local officials told communities that are home to about 8,000 people to move off their land by May 1, presumably to make way for the new hydro development. Community representatives say they were offered no explanation for the order, and authorities did not provide any compensation payments, social assessment, written agreements, or resettlement plan. The communities were not sure what to do. Authorities have more recently said they will provide resettlement land to those told to move, but rebuilding their homes and their lives will come at their expense. Without further directions, they continue to remain in their homes.

“Things seem tense on the ground around Inga,” according to Nikki Reisch of the Washington-based Bank Information Center, who recently visited to the region with Shannon Lawrence of Environmental Defense. “The local communities lack even basic information about planned rehabilitation and further development of the Inga site, but officials from the electricity utility and local authorities appear unwilling to talk. Political sensitivities are high, and some residents have said they are afraid to speak out or be seen discussing their grievances and concerns.”

Local NGOs report that communities were never consulted about Inga 1 and 2 and have not been consulted about any proposed future developments. If the communities already affected by Inga 1 and 2 are now forcibly displaced, it could further harm their lives and livelihoods.

MagEnergy, a subsidiary of Canadian-based MagIndustries, has signed an undisclosed deal with the Government of DRC to rehabilitate half of the turbines at Inga 2 in exchange for guaranteed power for its industrial operations across the border at Point Noire, Republic of Congo. The World Bank has provided funding to rehabilitate at least three turbines at Inga 1 and is expected to include funding for the rest of Inga 2’s turbines in a loan package that will go to the Bank’s board in March 2007.

The rehabilitation provides an opportunity to rectify the social and environmental problems that have plagued the local communities surrounding Inga. A thorough assessment of the affected community’s needs and documentation of the likely environmental and social impacts attributed to the dams should be completed and the communities given a proper forum to voice their grievances and resolve the issues of this legacy. If the legacy of communities suffering under Inga 1 and 2 is not resolved as the dams are rehabilitated, it could serve as a warning of what is to come with more hydro development on the Congo River.

Westcor, a consortium of five state-owned utilities in the region interested in developing Inga 3 and additional projects, will be operational this year. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is funding a feasibility study for Inga 3, now underway by Canadian consultants SNC-Lavalin. However, there is some interest by officials in DRC to skip Inga 3 and proceed straight to development of Grand Inga.

Lack of Information

Virtually the only available project information is intended to boost the interest of potential investors. For example, a list of companies who are making early investment deals under Westcor for guaranteed power from an expanded hydro supply has been circulated; it includes mining and aluminum giant BHP Billiton and other energy-intensive industries. These companies are likely to be provided with subsidized, long-term power, as incentive to develop factories and industrial plants in Africa. It’s difficult to know for certain, because the agreements will almost certainly be unavailable to the public. More importantly, there is no framework in place to ensure that the revenues to the national budgets, generated by these new industries, actually reap public benefits. The absence of any such mechanism raises concerns, given that pervasive corruption in the DRC’s revenue-generating sectors – diamonds, copper, timber – has yet to be overcome.

In March, a two-day national roundtable was organized by the government of DRC with support from the African Development Bank (AfDB) to discuss the proposed developments of Inga 3 and Grand Inga. While the AfDB stated that local communities were represented at the national roundtable by their local members of parliament, information before and after the meeting never reached local communities. The few local NGOs following the issue had no information about the forum, until some details were disclosed to Reisch and Lawrence while meeting with government officials.

An international forum on future Inga developments is planned for late 2006 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Again with financial support from the AfDB, this forum is intended to help recruit funds for project development. Congolese and other regional NGOs have sought access to the South Africa forum for affected community representatives as well as themselves. At the time of printing, they were still expected to be excluded from this elite gathering.

The lack of transparency or public input, and the high stakes for revenue and industrial exploitation call into question the economic rationale for this project. International Rivers and partner NGOs will work to vigilantly monitor progress on the project, and assessments of the social and environmental impacts of these proposed new projects.