Giant dam projects aim to transform
African power supplies
June 19, 2007 Sarah J Wachter International Herald
PARIS: As the world's political leaders debate ways
to alleviate poverty in Africa, industrialists are
moving ahead with their own designs for pan-African
development - including the building of the world's
largest hydroelectric dam at a bend in the Congo River,
between Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic
of Congo, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Called Grand Inga, this giant dam will cost $80 billion
to build and will have twice the installed generating
capacity of the current record-holder, the Three Gorges
Dam in China. Grand Inga would produce enough electricity
to serve all of the more than 500 million Africans
who currently go without.
While it remains to be seen whether recent leaps
in transmission technology are sufficient to carry
electricity over Africa's vast distances and physical
barriers like the blistering sands of the Sahara,
power-hungry countries as far away as Egypt and Nigeria
are interested in Grand Inga's potential supply.
"This is a Marshall Plan for Africa," said Gerald
Doucet, secretary general of the World Energy Council,
the overseer of the project, which is being developed
with Westcor - a consortium of power companies from
neighboring countries including Namibia, Angola and
South Africa - and with international power and engineering
giants, including ABB of Sweden, E.ON of Germany,
EDF of France, Union Fenosa of Spain and SNC-Lavalin
Grand Inga is one of a growing list of large dams
under development or serious discussion in Africa,
where private investors and development banks are
re-examining the potential of "big hydro" to help
counter a worsening power shortage.
The World Bank and its lending arm, the IFC, along
with the African Development Bank, private investors,
power companies and, increasingly, Chinese hydroelectric
concerns are the major players.
The amount of hydropower under construction in Africa
jumped 53 percent from 2004 to last year, according
to the Hydropower & Dams World Atlas and Industry
Guide, an industry reference journal. But environmental
watchdogs and other nongovernment organizations say
that, unlike oil and gas development, the planning
process for hydropower lacks transparency and the
number of dams under development in Africa is difficult
Armed with a wealth of experience in constructing
large hydro dams, Chinese companies are signing on
to projects in many African countries, often as elements
of infrastructure investment packages in oil-producing
countries. For example, China plans to build and finance
a $1.5 billion, 2,000-megawatt plant in the Mambila
Plateau in Nigeria, in a deal that also includes Chinese
imports of the country's oil and rights to exploit
four oil blocks.
Apart from Chinese projects, the World Bank recently
approved a $360 million package of loans and guarantees
for Bujagali, a 250-megawatt hydro plant on the Nile
at Lake Victoria in Uganda that will cost $799 million
to build. Uganda, with the fastest growing population
in East Africa, has regular rolling blackouts and
only one percent of the rural population has access
The World Bank also made a $297 million grant to
refurbish two existing hydropower plants on a site
near Grand Inga last month, as part of a $500 million
package co-financed with the African Development Bank
to repair damage and silting that occurred over the
past decade, during Congo's civil wars.
"Interest in the importance of hydropower has been
slowly re-emerging over the past five years," said
Philippe Benoit, Inga project manager at the World
Large dams became controversial in the 1980s and
1990s as environmental and civil rights organizations
focused attention on issues like the damage done to
rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems, poorly
designed resettlement strategies, failure to share
economic benefits with affected communities, weak
government controls and corruption.
Compensation claims from past projects linger. For
example, 50 years after the Kariba Dam was built on
the Zambezi River, in what is now Zambia, 57,000 people
who were resettled to make way for the dam are asking
the World Bank and other parties for compensation
because their new agricultural lands are less productive,
according to the International Rivers Network.
To address such issues, industry associations and
lending institutions have retooled their evaluation
procedures for large hydro dams, and have started
to apply new construction guidelines developed by
a discussion forum, the World Commission on Dams.
The World Bank also takes more account of environmental
and social issues in its planning. It has developed
a strategy to evaluate water use in all its aspects
rather than considering energy production in isolation,
and has established a complaints procedure for affected
"Certainly within the Bank there is a trend now
towards large hydro, and also internationally," said
Daryl Fields, a water researcher at the World Bank.
"Industry has stepped up to the plate - they are more
confident that people are looking at environmental
and social issues more rigorously."
But environmental watchdogs, like Environmental Defense
and the International Rivers Network, still question
whether these new mega-dams will significantly improve
electricity supplies to the rural and urban poor in
Africa, or whether the power will primarily serve
large industrial users and the urban affluent.
"An acceptable balance of funding and timing for
energy development in rural versus urban and industrial
regions has to be reached," said Terri Hathaway, Africa
campaigner for IRN.
Environmentalists also say the huge investments required
for giant dams will leave fewer funds available for
small-scale power generation. They say micro-hydro
and other renewable energy sources would be better
options to increase electricity access in remote rural
areas, where hooking up to the grid is economically
As a part of an overall funding package to increase
power production in Congo, where only about seven
percent of the population has access to electricity,
the World Bank's money will cover construction of
a new transmission line to Kinshasa, rehabilitation
and extension of the electricity-distribution network,
and delivery of electricity to Kinbanseke, a suburban
district about 12 miles, or 20 kilometers, east of
Kinshasa with 1.5 million residents.
The World Bank says that it is working with SNEL,
the national power utility, to help the company develop
more transparent practices and better financial procurement
methods, and it is also financing a medical project
to help prevent river blindness near the Grand Inga
Still, compensation claims stemming from the construction
of the existing dams, Inga 1 and 2, have never been
paid by the government, said Jacques Bakulu, leader
of a local social and civil rights organization, Cepeco.
Two activist groups, Environmental Defense and Bank
Information Center, which visited the neighborhood
of the Grand Inga site last year, called the local
climate "tense." Local organizations say they are
not being adequately consulted by the project's partners.
Now the government is beginning a census to determine
how many people will need to be resettled. These should
include at least 8,000 people from villages near the
site, Bakulu said.
It remains to be seen how a country still barely
recovering from war can take on such a huge infrastructure
project. Corruption continues to plague the new government
of President Joseph Kabila, who shifted from heading
a transitional administration to an elected one in
December, forming what has been billed as the first
truly democratic government in the country's history.
Despite the first signs of a return to political
normality, peace is still maintained only by the most
expensive peacekeeping force operated by the United
Nations anywhere in the world.
The country's infrastructure, from its battered electricity
system to its battered roads, keeps Congo's people
among the poorest in the world.
Planning for Grand Inga is still in the early stages,
and no final decision will be made until 2014. The
World Energy Council and the World Bank say that they
see the project advancing in tandem with government
efforts to develop a national energy plan, while assuring
that all necessary checks and balances will be in
place to enable the project to be undertaken successfully.
"Energy projects are key to the peace process," Doucet