World’s biggest dam will leave Africa in the dark

South Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo agree to build the biggest hydropower in the world. At double the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam, the 40 GW Grand Inga hydropower project will be the world’s largest by a wide margin. It will increase Africa’s electricity generating capacity by one-third.

This could be a great opportunity to develop sustainability  and fair market in Africa, but it risk to become again just a new wasted occasion.

The capacity of the project is equivalent to the total installed generation capacity in South Africa, the continent’s biggest producer of electricity.

The project is ambitious because the Congo River, which creates the Inga Falls, drops almost a hundred metres and flows at an enormous speed of 43 cubic metres per second.

The new power grid comes with the promises of a fair distribution of the energy and a new plan of sustainability: “It will enhance energy access to clean and efficient energy across the continent and contribute significantly towards a low carbon economy and economic development,” declared South African President Jacob Zuma.

The Grand Inga hydropower project will be part of a greater vision to develop a power grid across Africa that will spur the continent’s industrial economic development.

The African Continent is endowed with enormous hydropower potential that needs to be harnessed. Despite this huge potential which is enough to meet all the electricity needs of the continent, only a small fraction has been exploited. This could be due to the major technical, financial and environmental challenges that need to be overcome for the development of this resource base.

Until now, the power of the Inga Falls has been largely unused, with the two existing hydroelectric dams, Inga I and Inga II, operating at a low output of mere a 1,775MW. The main reason of this underutilisation is money.

In Fact the construction of Grand Inga ‒ with completion aimed at 2025 ‒ comes with a huge price tag of 80 billion dollars (£51 billion), and connection of Inga to a continent-wide electricity grid will cost at least an additional 10 billion dollars (£6.4 billion).

These are not sums South Africa and the DRC are able to bankroll alone, but help is reported to be near.

The globe’s top development financiers, World Bank, African Development Bank (AfDB), European Investment Bank as well as a number of private, foreign energy companies are all keen to contribute large sums to the Inga project.

In return, they expect to gain vast economic benefits from this mega-project – and are likely to take away attention from the development needs of Africa’s poor majority.

Despite the development-focused marketing hype surrounding the project, the Congolese government and investors have made no plans to open the grid for public use, said Charlotte Johnson a researcher of the Institute for Democracy in Africa.

Instead, it is marketed as a commercial product. And foreign investors will always be able to pay more, instantly removing the poor from the consumer competition.

“Local power grids are not included in the budget. African communities living in darkness are not the intended beneficiaries of Grand Inga, and the 500 million people who have been promised electricity will remain in the dark,”  she added.

After the signing of the agreement, Zuma and Kabila, the Congolese President, ordered the start of negotiations for a treaty over the next six months, which will put into effect the agreement by detailing time frames and implementation stages for the dam construction.

Once completed, the state-owned utility companies of both countries will manage the generated electricity. From there it will be sold to the highest bidders. Africa’s still unconnected poor will certainly not be among those.

“To achieve energy access for all, Africa must maximise clean energy options, emphasise energy efficiency and work with developed countries and development institutions to quickly and effectively channel a more substantial share of climate financing,” concluded Johnson.

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