World’s Largest Hydropower Project Unravels

Peter Bosshard
President Kabila visiting China's Three Gorges Dam
President Kabila visiting China's Three Gorges Dam

The World Bank, the World Energy Council and the dam industry have presented the Inga 3 Dam as a “dream for Africa” and a model for the lessons they have learned from past experience with mega-projects. Now the hydropower project on the Congo is unraveling into a political ploy with complete disregard for affected people and the environment.

The Inga 3 Dam is the first stage of the 40,000 MW Grand Inga scheme, the world’s largest hydropower complex. Even though more than 90% of the DRC population has no access to electricity, the project will mainly generate power for mining companies and export markets.

In 2013 and 2014, the African Development Bank and the World Bank approved $141 million in grants for the preparation of the $14 billion project. The multilateral financiers did not address the questionable benefits of the mega-project, but their involvement at least offered some assurance that Inga 3 would have to follow international social, environmental and anti-corruption standards.   

The Inga Falls
The Inga Falls

Or would it? In September 2015, the Australian company SMEC won the contract to carry out the social and environmental impact assessments and resettlement action plan for the project. According to internal sources, the DRC government was not happy with the selection of the company, and refused to work with SMEC. Under World Bank procurement guidelines, companies get blacklisted if they bribe government officials; we can only speculate that government officials may not have received what they expected from the Australian company.

More than two years after the approval of the World Bank and AfDB grants, the social and environmental impact assessments for Inga 3 have still not begun. Yet in early May, Bruno Kapandji, the head of the Grand Inga Project Office, announced that the DRC government would select developers for the mega-dam within three months, and that construction would start by June 2017.

The DRC government says that Inga 3 is under time pressure because the contract with South Africa, the main purchaser of the project’s electricity, will expire in 2021. The South African government may not be prepared to renew the contract after President Zuma, who promoted Inga 3 against considerable opposition, steps down in 2019. Of course the DRC government always knew this, so the South African contract alone does not explain the sudden haste.

Nanochromis splendens - one of the 1269 fish species in the Congo River
Nanochromis splendens - one of the 1269 fish species in the Congo River

Maybe more importantly, the Congolese President Kabila wants to remain in power after his second term ends at the end of 2016. Such a move would violate the constitution, and Kabila will need to bribe a lot of politicians to make it possible. Signing multi-billion dollar contracts with the developers of Inga 3 would certainly help him to oil his relations with the country’s power brokers.

The Congo River has the second highest diversity in fish species after the Amazon, and the Inga 3 Dam would seriously impact the rich fisheries of the Lower Congo. Yet in spite of the plans to speed up project construction, the DRC government is still not moving forward with the social and environmental impact assessments. At a meeting with civil society groups in April, Bruno Kapandji argued instead that early feasibility studies (which didn’t assess environmental impacts in any detail) had found that the project would not have any negative impacts. And in a meeting in early May, Kapandji asked International Rivers and our Congolese partner CORAP whether NGOs couldn’t “commission or finance these studies.”

It is shocking that the world’s biggest hydropower scheme, the model project of the World Bank and the World Energy Council, could go forward without an assessment of its social and environmental impacts and a resettlement action plan in place. The World Bank and the AfDB have so far remained silent on the mess that they have helped create. It is time for them to clarify their positions and pull out of the project.

Bruno Kapandji, the head of the Grand Inga Project Office, has made it clear that he hopes to award the Inga 3 contract to a Chinese consortium, and to build the project with Chinese funding. In early May he said that the Chinese companies could complete the project in a “maximum of five years and if they’re free to do whatever they want to do they can even do it in four years.”

Bruno Kapandji, Grand Inga Project Director
Bruno Kapandji, Grand Inga Project Director

The Chinese government has instructed its dam builders not to build any overseas projects without environmental impact assessments. The China Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro, the members of the Chinese consortiums, have both committed not to build any projects without such assessments. Building the Inga 3 Dam without thorough environmental due diligence would seriously undermine the efforts of Chinese companies to strengthen their environmental track record.

Why are Chinese actors considering support for Inga 3 even if the project violates basic Chinese and international standards? Will geopolitical interests – and particularly China’s mining interests in the DRC – trump financial and environmental responsibility? Will the interest of the Chinese government to buttress President Kabila and protect its Congolese mining projects override any concerns about the reputation of its companies?

Any investors who put $14 billion into a project whose main contract may expire before it is complete will make a risky bet. And any dam builders that support a mega-dam without social and environmental due diligence will establish themselves as substandard actors. The public spotlight will continue to be on Grand Inga.

Peter Bosshard is the Interim Executive Director of International Rivers. He tweets at @PeterBosshard.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016