Inga Dam. Picture: SUPPLIED
Inga Dam. Picture: SUPPLIED
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A dream of building the world’s biggest hydroelectric project in the heart of Africa may be inching closer to reality.

For decades, plans have been made and discarded to construct a series of hydroelectric power stations on Africa’s second-longest river that would generate almost twice the power of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest. If completed, a Grand Inga Dam could go a long way to addressing one of the most debilitating obstacles to development across Africa from Nigeria to SA: electricity shortages.

“There’s not a single place in the world where you find such a concentration of hydropower as here,” Omer Kawende, an engineer with the national electricity company, said. “This is absolutely exceptional.”

The problem? It’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

A country two-thirds the size of Western Europe, the DRC is one of the most difficult places on earth to get anything done. It’s ranked 184th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s latest Doing Business report and regularly tops Transparency International’s index of most corrupt nations. It’s been brought to its knees by dictatorship, rebellions and head-splitting bureaucracy since the end of Belgian colonial rule in 1960.

Late in 2018 there was a sudden burst of activity around Grand Inga. Then-president Joseph Kabila signed an accord in October with two groups of Chinese and Spanish investors, who committed to funding technical studies before building and running a 11,050MW facility called Inga III at a cost of $14bn. The consortia, which include AEE Power Holdings and China Three Gorges Corporation, also pledged to attract lenders and find buyers of the electricity elsewhere in Africa.

That could be news of revolutionary import to the DRC’s 80-million people, who make do with about 1,500MW, about as much as typically needed for a city of 1-million in industrialised nations. Grand Inga could single-handedly generate more than 40,000MW upon completion.

For now, though, outages are a near-daily occurrence in the capital, Kinshasa, and in huge swathes of the country there’s no power at all. About 19% of Congolese have access to electricity, the lowest percentage among African countries after Burundi, according to the World Bank.

Two dams built on the same stretch of the Congo River more than three decades ago, Inga I and Inga II, still provide most of the nation’s power but have often run below capacity due to poor maintenance, while rehabilitation has proved slow and costly.

All eyes are now on Kabila’s successor, Felix Tshisekedi, who has vowed to connect half of the population to the national grid over the next decade. Inga III, his advisers say, is one of his priorities — even though Tshisekedi has not confirmed he will stick with the Spanish and Chinese consortia, which have yet to be awarded a concession contract.

“We’re going at cruising speed,” said Michel Eboma, Tshisekedi’s chief adviser for mines and energy. “The president has the general interest of the people at heart and Inga III aims at improving the life of the population.”

China’s approach

Much will depend on China’s attitude. While President Xi Jinping’s government supports the project, he is increasingly working to ensure that his Belt and Road Initiative does not leave poorer nations with unsustainable debt. The uncertainty surrounding China’s approach has caused dislocations in projects across Africa.

In Kenya, construction of a flagship railway from the coast to Uganda was halted after China withheld about $4.9bn in funding. In Zimbabwe, a giant solar project hit a cash shortfall after China’s Export Import Bank backed out due to the government’s legacy debts. In Ethiopia, though, Chinese contractors were hired earlier in 2019 to accelerate work on the long-delayed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which had been mired for years in design and management conflicts.

Inga III “has to be a project that guarantees repayment of loans because the financial budget of the government is very limited”, said Wang Tongquing, China’s ambassador to the DRC. “According to the information I have, the plans of this project are not yet very mature, above all the plan for the consumption of the electricity after construction.”

Not all Congolese are convinced the dam will solve the nation’s desperate lack of energy. In its current form, most of the power it will generate is meant for other countries.

More than 30 civil-society leaders published an open letter to the president in March, saying Inga III risks loading the DRC with debt and would not provide help for most of its people. They urged the government to focus on connecting rural areas to the grid. And while parliament approved a bill five years ago to liberalise the energy sector, the DRC still lacks an independent energy regulator.

“The need for electricity among the population is enormous and Inga III could — I say could — improve the situation,” said Madeleine Andeka, one of the letter’s signatories. “It’s not bad in itself that we would supply power to mining companies and other countries, but I’m not sure how we would benefit as a host country.”

Today no country in the region is more interested in the development of Inga III than SA, which is struggling with power shortages from its ageing coal-fired plants.

In 2005, state power utility Eskom Holdings developed a $50bn plan for both Inga III and Grand Inga, but it never got off the ground. SA has since signed a treaty with the DRC to buy 2,500MW from the facility and said in 2018 it might double that amount.

The AU now wants to be involved too. Inga “must be a pan-African project” because more than 70% of its power will go to consumers outside the DRC, said a spokesperson for the organisation’s high representative for infrastructure development, Raila Odinga, who visited the site in May.

“We need to develop Inga as a continent and link it to the different power pools that already exist,” Odinga said.

Inga’s potential was recognised as far as back as 1921, when the US Geological Survey estimated that the basin had a quarter of the world’s hydroelectric potential.

The construction of the first two dams, Inga I and Inga II, in the heady, post-independence years under then-president Mobutu Sese Seko, generated power that lit up the capital and supplied the mining industry, the DRC’s only source of export revenue.

While Inga I began operating in 1972 and was considered a success, Inga II required transmission lines over thousands of kilometres of rainforest to reach the mines of Katanga province and loaded the country with huge debt as copper prices were plummeting in 1982.

The slow collapse of Mobutu’s dictatorial regime and a subsequent civil war paralysed progress on Inga III. After peace returned in 2003, several investors lined up to work at Inga, only to get squeezed out or withdraw later. Just one dam has been completed since the 1980s, a 150MW plant built by China’s SinoHydro Corporation. But construction took three years longer than planned and transmission lines still have not been built.

While the nation awaits progress on Inga, some Congolese businessmen are forging ahead with plans for smaller dams. Among them is Yves Kabongo, CEO of Great Lake Energy, who recently finalised a contract with PowerChina for a 900MW facility on the Congo River that is designed to supply the mining industry.

Bloomberg