Congo Powers Tech Revolution While Mired in Energy Poverty

Ange Asanzi

Inga transmission line, Lualaba

I traveled across Katanga in southeastern DRC, and all I found were transmission lines and a string of broken promises.

Earlier this month, I had a chance to return to Lubumbashi in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a bustling city where I had lived as a child. What struck me when traveling in the countryside were the power lines – they were everywhere, crossing over villages, cities and forests, transmitting power to the mines and urban centers in the former Katanga province. After seeing so many power lines and poles, I learned to spot the Inga transmission line: a tall structure shaped like the Eiffel Tower, with two bars hanging on one side, and one bar on the other side.

As one villager told me, “I know that this power is coming from Inga, on the other side of our country….” But he wouldn’t see a kilowatt of that power in his village.

Katanga, which was among the wealthiest provinces in DRC, was split into four provinces in 2015. It’s a rich mining region that supplies cobalt, copper, tin, radium, uranium and gold to the developed world for everything from cell phones to nuclear power. Because of the mining activity, there’s always been a higher demand for energy in southern DRC.

The Inga 1 and 2 dams were built in the 1970s and ‘80s to power the mines, with a 1,700-kilometer transmission line connecting the power plants in western DRC to the mineral fields in Katanga in the southeast. The transmission line bypass millions of Congolese along the way, leaving them in the dark. Near the dams, the rights holders of the land were displaced without compensation and robbed of their livelihoods, impacts from which they have still not recovered.

Fast-forward nearly 50 years later, and the same story is unfolding

DRC is a textbook example of the resource curse: It’s abundant in natural resources, but poor in development outcomes and governance. Today, over 65% of Congolese are living below the poverty line, while tons of their resources are looted and the revenues misappropriated.

Since the civil war in DRC officially ended in 2003, the World Bank has poured over $1 billion into the country to rehabilitate the Inga power stations and the transmission line to Katanga to spur mineral extraction. (More recently, the World Bank cancelled its support for the proposed Inga 3 Dam because of political interference by the government.) The Bank also funded a new stretch of the transmission line, which crisscrosses urban centers and impacts villages along the way, to connect Katanga with the mining areas in Zambia.  

Transmission lines route, Haut Katanga

Citizens cried foul, criticizing the Bank for routinely funding transmission lines that bypass affected populations. So the World Bank made arrangements to provide basic infrastructure to seven villages located along the new transmission route. They built a school and hospital in each village, and installed basic public lighting on the main road through the villages. Local communities were initially happy with the new facilities: A young man from Shinga told us that their local hospital even attends to patients from neighboring Zambia. However, many of the promises made have not been kept, and this truth resonates across all the seven villages.

 “We had a number of meetings with [DRC’s power company] SNEL. They promised that they will come and install electricity in our houses. We haven’t seen them since then. All we have is public lighting, but inside we are in the dark,” said a local community member.

On our first stop at Nguba, we saw the chief carrying a solar panel that got damaged while it was being moved. “Many people here changed their house structures, hoping that they will get electricity,” says the chief. But the promised electricity never materialized.

Household energy access is not the only failed promise. People who were affected by the transmission lines in the village of Shinga told us they have not received any compensation for giving the right of way, and they were told that the funds had been embezzled.

Now these villages, which were forced to cede their lands for these power lines, are bracing for yet another round of displacement. As currently planned, the transmission lines from the proposed Inga 3 Dam would trace the same route through their villages – this time destined for cities and mines in South Africa – and the cycle repeated.

Suffering at the source

For me, it’s impossible to dissociate these power lines from the people at Inga or the Congo River, where the power is generated.

I have been to Inga several times, and I have seen the landless people who were forcibly evicted from their lands and have never recovered. I have spent time in the Inga evictee settlements of Kilengo, Mvuzi 3, Lundu, Lubwaku and Camp Kinshasa, and heard and seen the distress of people cheated by their own government. They have no electricity, yet they are the closest to the Inga dams, closer than any of us. It burns me up to think about it. A thousand miles away, their fellow sisters and brothers under the power lines in Katanga are suffering from the same predicament: no energy.

All the while, the government and financiers fail to answer a simple question: How can these so-called development projects deliver development if they fail to provide for the basic needs of the people?

I once attended a meeting with Bruno Kapandji, the head of the government agency in charge of Inga 3, who was asking civil society to become ambassadors for Inga 3. Mr. Kapandji did not know that he was preaching to a staunch supporter of people-oriented development, and a lover of the Congo River. After all I have seen, heard and experienced, the only people I could ever represent or whose cause I can promote in this regard, are the Inga people – the people of Kilengo, Lubwaku, Mvuzi 3, Camp Kinshasa and Lundu living in uncertainty about when or whether Inga 3 will finally overturn their lives, and also the people of Nguba, Shinga, Kampemba, Tumbwe and the other villages who live underneath the power lines. These lines transmit enough electricity to power more than 10 million households, yet all of it is destined for the mines and none of it for ordinary people. These are the people who will not benefit from Inga 3, but whose livelihoods will be impacted. These people are united in saying No to Inga 3, but yes to electricity and yes to development.

History shows, in our own country and elsewhere, that dams regularly leave behind a trail of poverty. Billions of dollars have been invested into Congo, yet most people still lack even basic amenities. So while others are promoting Inga 3 Dam, we are saying no to development that will not benefit the people.

Monday, February 19, 2018