The Inga 3 Hydropower Project

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) controversial Inga 3 hydroelectric project was announced in 2013 to great fanfare with World Bank support, at an estimated cost of $14 billion. The project was supposed to deliver 4.8 GW of power, primarily for export to South Africa and to power mines in eastern DRC. However, the World Bank canceled its involvement in 2016, throwing the project into disarray as investors have shied away. In part to address criticism of the project’s flawed economics, the government announced in 2017 that it would redesign the project, with intentions to more than double the generation capacity to over 10 GW. It is unclear who would purchase the additional power; Nigeria has been mentioned as one destination, though the challenges of transmitting the power would be considerable. Meanwhile, the government has asked the two competing consortia that bid to develop the project, one consortium led by China Three Gorges Corporation and another that includes Spain’s ACS, to submit a joint bid.

After initial optimism in 2013 that Inga 3 would finally get off the ground, it has since gone back to the drawing board, with major questions marks about whether a larger project would be viable, and whether they can secure the billions of investment dollars necessary to proceed. At the same time, Congolese citizens continue to suffer from stubbornly low energy access rates as more modest solutions are ignored in favor of Inga 3, which may never be built.


The DRC has long pinned its hopes on the vast hydropower potential of the Inga Falls on the Congo River to serve as a battery for the region’s power needs. The Inga 3 Dam would be the first phase of the ambitious Grand Inga hydropower scheme, whose generation capacity is estimated at 40 GW. However, the DRC’s ambitions for Inga have been beset by problems for decades.

The plan to develop the Inga site for hydropower has been in the cards since as far back as the early 1950s. In 1972 and 1982, the Mobutu government of the DRC, then called Zaire, built the Inga 1 and 2 Dams, with a total potential generation capacity of 2,132 MW. Sadly, these two schemes have never operated to full capacity; in 2013 the dams were reported to have produced only 40% of their capacity.

At the end of the civil war in the DRC and the peace deal of 2003, the country revived its plans to construct Inga 3. In 2004, the Western Power Corridor (Westcor), a consortium of national utilities from five Southern and Central African countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo), signed a Memorandum of Understanding to construct Inga 3, with its power to be distributed to all signatory countries through the Southern African Power Pool. 

In 2009 the DRC withdrew from Westcor and decided to try to go it alone on the project. Its first step was to float tenders for the development of Inga 3 with private companies. The international mining corporation BHP Billiton won the tender, with its proposal to develop Inga 3 to power a proposed aluminum smelter in the vicinity of the hydropower plant. When BHP Billiton withdrew from the deal in 2012, the DRC again began looking elsewhere. 

The World Bank and other financial institutions came on board in May 2013, promising to offer finance for Inga 3. As part of this deal, South Africa committed to buy 2,500MW of the 4,800MW to be generated. A treaty sealing this deal was concluded in October 2013 and ratified by the DRC in 2014, making South Africa the key purchaser of the Inga 3 electricity. However, in September 2016 the World Bank cancelled its support for Inga 3 after Congolese President Joseph Kabila wrested control of the project from the assigned technocratic agency, raising significant concerns around governance and corruption.

Concerns about Inga 3

The development of this hydropower project raises a number of concerns. Firstly, the power production from the Inga 3 is mainly for industry users and will not improve the access level for the more than 90% of the DRC population who have no access to electricity. The prospect of local people getting power from Inga in the next 20 years is remote and does not feature in the project as currently planned. Most of Inga 3’s power would travel long distances to the industrial and urban centers in South Africa and large mines in DRC, bypassing Congolese who are not served by the nation’s limited grid. Meanwhile, the change of leadership in South Africa raises doubts about whether the original agreement, set to expire in 2021, will be renewed.

The DRC has suffered decades of civil war, during which corruption has become entrenched in the socioeconomic fabric of the nation. By many accounts, the country has acquired a reputation as a failed state. It is sad to note that, in this vein, the Inga 3 stands to become a large-scale infrastructure of false ideals. Tens of thousands of people would be displaced. The development model for the project does not appear to make any considerations to meet the expectations of the locals. On the contrary, the project will only add national debt burden, with very strong prospects of promoting corruption and allowing powerful companies to cheaply exploit and export Africa's vast natural resources. Meanwhile, a recent study found that the DRC is endowed with abundant wind and solar potential that could transform the country’s energy sector. The report demonstrates that the DRC can harness its considerable renewable energy potential to power the country faster and more affordably than current planned projects like Inga 3 Dam.

The DRC government and the supporters of this dam need to critically examine their role in this project and to promote transparency and the pursuit of world standards in the development of these projects. There is need for transparency, sincere and committed public engagements and implementation of an energy development path that addresses the needs of the country.