Exploiting the Inga Rapids could make a lot of money and electricity, but there's a snowball's chance that the people of Democratic Republic of Congo will see much of either....
From Matadi, the country's main port and capital of Bas Congo Province, we headed towards one of the Congo's great riches: the Inga Rapids. The paved road continued, curving lightly past steep hillsides of brilliant green dropping downward into deep valleys. It was a sight I might expect to see amongst the foothills of the Alps. Below me to the right, the Congo River lay calm and wide. The serenity of the landscape gave no hint of the exploitation, conflict and injustice that have shrouded the country for more than a hundred years.
Last month, after two years of semi-serious planning, it was time for me to finally visit the Bas Congo Province, future home of Grand Inga. The trip had frightened me, more so than similar trips I've made to Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, or Nigeria. I was concerned about security and being able to navigate my way through a country whose reputation for chaos and corruption matches its sprawling size. But after a few days in Kinshasa, I knew that my guides were trustworthy companions, and heading into the beauty of the Bas-Congo was just an added assurance that I was making my visit at the right time.
It was the right time in large part because I was scheduled to show up in London only a week later for a meeting on financing more hydropower projects at Inga. The meeting would discuss the rehabilitation of the existing Inga 1 and 2 dams; the proposed Inga 3 (expected to cost up to US$8 billion), and how to move forward on the increasingly infamous Grand Inga (estimated to cost $80 billion at last count).
Hosting the meeting was the World Energy Council, a group made up mostly of industry and government interests, whose innocuous-sounding mission is "to promote the sustainable supply and use of energy for the greatest benefit of all people." WEC has taken it upon themselves (on behalf of its African country members, it says) to make Grand Inga a reality. Not surprisingly, big contracts from Grand Inga would likely benefit more than a few northern WEC members.
In interview after interview, WEC reiterates its mantra that Grand Inga "offers a unique opportunity to provide affordable and clean electricity access to more than 500 million Africans who do not have it today." Such a statement is a total fallacy, since the project will not increase Africans' access to electricity. Distribution lines - the least profitable (and increasingly costly) part of an energy supply system - are the critical missing link of the Grand Inga scheme. If the goal were to actually increase access to electricity for Africans, and to do so in the most cost-effective way, Grand Inga would certainly not even make the top ten.
While Inga has been causing a stir in international press, people I spoke with just kilometers from the project site had little knowledge of government and international plans to jumpstart Inga 3 and Grand Inga. But they do know Inga 1 and 2. Regardless of their failed track record to bring power to the people, Inga 1 and 2 are a source of pride, part of the country's wealth, its heritage. One local reminisced about the construction of Inga 2: "It was so powerful, the whole country was going to have power for free. There was a surge of excitement everywhere. Imagine that!"
Up to today, communities have never received any of the payment which they were promised as far back as 1958. In the 1970s, the community, six clans in total, even took SNEL, the state utility, to court. SNEL assured the communities it would settle out of court. The case was withdrawn, but payment never came. Fifty years after the original agreement, the communities are still waiting. While WEC made sure to repeatedly acknowledge this in London , I didn't see a single step taken to start to resolve this.
WEC's conference at the swanky, Sofitel St. James Hotel in London was a world away from my visit to Bas Congo just a week before. I feared I was walking into the lion's den, but few participants batted an eye at my attendance. Any frustration in the room was directed elsewhere, not at me. Why hadn't the African Development Bank, which has approved millions to finance a new Inga study, decided not to attend? This received multiple comments by participants. My inputs received a much more mundane response. Heads nodded gently in agreement that such concerns were legitimitate... but should be shelved until a later, more appropriate date. Clearly my audience was all wrong. Everyone's eyes were on the money.
Shockingly, French-English translation wasn't provided. Could this have caused the only two Congolese representatives to skip most of the meeting? Who knows, as even WEC seemed caught off guard by their unexplained disappearance. Their discreet exit was not only frustrating, it was disheartening, since I had written repeatedly to WEC, along with Pastor Bakulu and a few other Congolese, to seek invitations for African civil society participants. For two months before the meeting, we wrote; WEC said no. So, who in the room could hold these Congolese officials accountable when they decided to spend the rest of the meeting AWOL? No one.
But maybe that's just fine for WEC and friends. The fact is, Inga 3 and Grand Inga are meant to be privatized initiatives, which would minimize the role of the Congolese government. As long as they can get the government to sign on the dotted line, Inga ownership and most of the project money would be kept far from government's meddling hands. But, time and again, governments have been given shoddy royalty deals at the urging of private companies and their lawyers, ultimately transferring public assets into private hands for pennies. (In just one example, Paraguay's new president wants to renegotiate its poor deal on Itaipu Dam royalties, one of the main financial models being used for Inga.)
Minimizing the Congo's official role may make a better business venture, but would do nothing to strengthen its fledgling democratic governance. If anything, it will shrink the space civil society has to monitor their government's role in the project, as international partners and financiers draw a clear line to separate themselves from the role of the government, improving their ability to turn a blind eye to the goings-on between the government and the people.
Another revelation at the meeting was the skyrocketing prices of transmission lines. Half of Grand Inga's price and at least a third of Inga 3's are for transmission systems. While power would be remarkably cheap at its source, it will be increasingly costly the further it must travel, and transmission tariffs will need to be implemented. Three years ago, Grand Inga was estimated at $50 billion, today it's $80 billion-what will it be seven years from now? If the power can't be absorbed near Inga, will it really be that competitively priced for Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa?
WEC and other project promoters seem ready to ignore the terrible track record of the existing Inga dams, and the pathetic rate of access to electricity in DRC. Only 6% of the whole country has electricity, most of that in Kinshasa. Funders have already stepped in to rehabilitate Inga 1 and 2 dams and Congo's transmission system, but delays are mounting. In 2003, the World Bank approved $178 million to rehabilitate the transmission line from Inga to the country's copper mines, but delays have caused a $150 million cost increase.
Assuming the rehabilitation work gets done, doesn't it make sense to make Grand Inga and Inga 3 contingent on successful rehabilitation of the old dams, including sound management of energy revenues, and turning those revenues into local investments for Congolese benefit? Why not set an aggressive but realistic target to increase community access to electricity before building Inga 3 or Grand Inga? Maybe the most fundamental condition: a new compensation agreement with the ancestral land rights holders should be negotiated and paid immediately.