The World Bank has approved a $73.1 million grant for the massive and controversial $80 billion—by conservative estimates–Grand Inga’s first stage in a project that has so far spanned five decades to tap the Congo River’s massive energy potential. The Grand Inga has the potential to supply energy to half of Africa’s 1 billion people–only 40 percent of whom have electricity today. The Grand Inga is expected to provide 40,000 MW of electricity—twice that of the world’s current largest hydroelectric project, China’s Three Gorges Dam.
In addition to the World Bank’s grant, the African Development Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) approved $33.4 million last year. These funds will go towards establishing a legal framework and state authority to oversee the construction of the first stage of the project and operations in the infamously politically volatile and corrupt nation.
Inga III is the first stage of the Grand Inga, the overall plan comprised of six stages for the development of a power grid across the African continent. The international community has hopes that the prospected 40,000 MW will nourish Africa’s industrial economic development. This number is almost double China’s Three Gorges Dam–currently the world’s largest hydroelectric project–which harvests 22,500 MW from the Yangtze River.
South Africa has involved itself in Inga III. South Africa made a deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in May of last year which provides for the majority of the power to be generated by Inga III—2500 of its 4800 MW–to be purchased by South Africa, in exchange for funding of the project. According to technical assistance documents for the project, besides the 2500 MW allocated to South Africa’s Electricity Supply Commission (ESKOM), 1300 MW has been set aside for mining and related industry in the DRC’s southeastern Katanga province and 1000 has been set aside for Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. Of the 1000 MW for Kinshasa, 600 MW is firm power.
The total price tag for Inga III has been estimated between $50 billion and $80 billion USD, but these estimates are considered optimistic underestimates. The DRC and Africa in general is historically a location where construction projects are characterized by corruption, ever-escalating costs and ever-lengthening completion dates.
The Inga III project has many critics. Prominent among the criticisms of the project are potential ecological damage and socioeconomic impacts. There is currently no strategy to distribute electricity to the poor—94 percent of the DRC’s population has no electricity at all. Access of the poor to the electricity generated by even the Grand Inga has been questioned because it is not considered to be bankable. The massive funding and construction business required by the project will create deals that exclude the poor, critics say. The value of energy exported from Africa is also a concern of those who wish to see energy distributed to the DRC’s and Africa’s poor.
Even the economic benefits of construction have been questioned. Critics say that foreign companies will benefit from the project. Three contractors are being considered for the project: one is Chinese, one is Canadian-Korean and one is primarily Spanish.
Earlier stages of the project to dam the Congo River were completed in 1972 (Inga I) and 1982 (Inga II). The combined energy produced by these projects is 2,000 MW, but, due to poor maintenance, only 25-40 percent of this capacity is harvested. The people displaced by these projects have since the 1960s been struggling without success to receive compensation.
The Congo River is the world’s second longest, after Egypt’s Nile River, and is also the second largest in terms of flow, after the Amazon of South America. By some reckonings, the Amazon is longer than the Congo as well. The Congo is known for is rich nutrient flow, creating a high-productivity area and great biodiversity, and as one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, accounting for 40-80 percent of total carbon productivity in the area. The Congo River has the third largest hydropower potential in the world, after China and Russia, with 100,000 MW potential.
Construction of Inga III is scheduled to begin in 2016 and is expected to be completed by 2020, according to Congolese government estimates.
By Day Blakely Donaldson