Giant Congo hydroelectric project is a 'betrayal'
09:45 30 September 02, by Fred Pearce
The heart of darkness could soon be lighting up Africa.
There are plans to build the world's largest hydroelectric
project on the Congo river and connect it to a continent-wide
The scheme is the largest of a series of mega-projects
for transforming the continent discussed by African
leaders at the United Nations in New York last week.
But environmentalists and anti-poverty campaigners
say the schemes betray promises made at the World
Summit in Johannesburg earlier in September.
And big projects have a habit of going sour in Africa,
often getting mired in corruption. Only this month
the head of a giant dam project in Lesotho was jailed
for taking bribes.
Many African leaders were in New York for a special
session of the UN on the New Partnership for Africa's
Development. NEPAD is being described as a "Marshall
Plan" for Africa. Set up late in 2001 by African leaders,
it was backed by the G8 club of rich nations in June
and at the World Summit, where Tony Blair called its
fulfilment "my passion".
But what will it mean in practice? Last week South
African President Thabo Mbeki promised that NEPAD
would deliver "a practical programme that changes
the lives of the masses of Africa away from despair",
and that it would meet the targets set at the World
Summit. But the projects discussed behind the scenes
in New York look very different from those envisaged
The biggest, strongly backed by Mbeki, is the creation
of an Africa-wide electricity grid. At its hub would
be the world's largest hydroelectric scheme, at Inga
Falls on the Congo.
Here the river drops 100 metres, promising huge amounts
of energy for powering turbines. The $6 billion Grand
Inga hydroelectric project, the brainchild of South
African energy conglomerate Eskom, would generate
40,000 megawatts of electricity.
That's three times as much as any existing hydroelectric
dam and more than twice that of China's controversial
Three Gorges scheme. Inga could meet the current electricity
demands of the entire continent, which is admittedly
tiny by comparison to, say, Europe's.
Connecting it to Africa's main population centres
would cost more than $10 billion. The first power
lines would link it to South Africa via Angola and
Namibia, a distance of 3000 kilometres. Next it could
go 4000 kilometres north through the Central African
Republic and Sudan to Egypt. Nigeria wants to take
Inga power to West Africa. And Eskom also talks of
exporting power to Europe, via Spain.
Technical advances in high-voltage electricity transmission,
along with the initiatives to end the long-running
civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
have made the project possible. Construction could
begin as early as 2003.
Engineers say the scheme does not require a large
dam, as the river runs strongly all year round. The
Grand Inga project envisages 52 separate generating
units, each the size of a large conventional power
station, with a combined generating capacity 10 times
that of Africa's largest existing dam, Aswan in Egypt.
Meanwhile, the heads of state of Nigeria and Algeria
were both also in New York to drum up finance for
a second mega-project, a $6 billion trans-Sahara gas
pipeline. It would transport natural gas from Nigeria's
oil fields 4400 kilometres to Algeria, and from there
to Europe. The gas is simply flared off at the moment.
The two schemes could gobble up large amounts of
NEPAD's anticipated budget of $60 billion. And they
could scarcely be further from the goal of small-scale
sustainable energy projects discussed at the World
Summit. There, the talk was of bringing electricity
to rural people through local wind and solar power
projects. Power grids, most agreed, will not reach
the hundreds of millions of Africa's rural poor, whose
needs NEPAD is supposed to be addressing.
But most African governments dismiss this approach.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni wants to build
a giant hydro-dam at Bujagali Falls, a popular attraction
on the Nile. He says it will end the cutting of forests
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