Grand Inga Hydroelectric Project: An Overview
The Grand Inga is the world’s largest proposed hydropower scheme. It is the centerpiece of a grand vision to develop a continent-wide power system. The Grand Inga mega-project is a priority project for a number of Africa development organizations, including the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), East African Power Pool (EAPP) and ESKOM, Africa’s largest power utility, among others.
The proposed dam is the fourth and largest of a series of dams that have been built or are proposed for the lower end of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Proponents claim it will be able to generate 39,000 MW, using 52 turbines of a capacity of 750 MW each. This would be double the capacity of the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam in China.
Where is it?
The Inga dams are located in western Democratic Republic of the Congo, 50 km upstream of the mouth of the Congo River, and 225 km (140 miles) south west of Kinshasa on the Congo River. It is also the world’s second largest river in terms of flow (42,000m3/s), after the Amazon, and the second longest river in Africa (4,700km), after the Nile River. The Congo River empties into the equatorial Atlantic Ocean Creating what is famously known as the Congo Plume. The plume is a high productivity area arising from the rich nutrient flow from the Congo River and is detected as far as 800km offshore. The plume accounts for 40%-80% of total carbon productivity and one of the largest carbon sinks in the world.
The river is unique in that it has large rapids and waterfalls very close to the mouth while most rivers have these features upstream. The dam site is on the largest waterfall in the world by volume, the Inga Falls. Inga Falls is a series of falls and rapids that drop in elevation via small rapids. The main falls are 4 km wide, dropping to about 21.37 metres near a bend and forming hundreds of channels and rivulets and many small islands. At the Grand Inga site the Congo River drops 96 meters in a run of 14.5 km and has an average flow of 42,476m3/s.
The falls are currently incorporated into the Inga I and Inga II hydroelectric facilities. The volume of the river diverted is approximately 30% of the average discharge. It is postulated that if the Grand Inga project is built, it will draw as much as two-thirds of the river water, if not more.
The Grand Inga is being called a "run-of-river“ scheme (meant to be one without a large reservoir). Current designs propose diverting the Congo River (postulated to be 2/3 of the flow) to power the turbines before returning the water to the main channel. Run-of-river is a term that is not clearly defined, however, and may not give much indication of the dam’s impacts.
Grand Inga Dam has been estimated to cost US$80 billion, including cost of the transmission lines needed to carry its power across Africa and potentially to Europe. Many consider the amount to be an underestimate.
Potential contributors are the World Bank (it pledged its support in 2009), the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the European Investment Bank. These banks are being scouted for support but as of now there is no confirmation. The AfDB has provided $15 million dollars since 2010 to conduct a feasibility study of both the Grand Inga and Inga-III hydro projects, the study being undertaken by a Canadian /French Consortium. Further to that the Grand Inga is now listed by the G20-Multilateral Development Banks as one of the top 10 “Exemplary Transformational Projects” that is large projects meant to have a significant impact on development. Due to the G20 push for large infrastructure investments the WB has updated its infrastructure investment strategy of which the Grand Inga is being considered. The strategy is to source finances from both private and public sources and fund the project through a Private Public Partnership model.
Why is Grand Inga being proposed?
Africa faces a huge energy gap that has contributed to slow economic development and poverty. On the other hand Africa has a huge potential for all forms of energy, hydropower, solar, wind and fossil fuel energy. The proponents of the Grand Inga project (mainly African governments and development organizations) consider hydropower to be clean renewable energy.
They have put forward arguments that that the Grand Inga hydropower scheme will provide cheaper and readily available energy and allow Africa’s industrial and manufacturing industry to take off. In addition the project is promoted as being good for peace and for the environment. However, a number of concerns that include environment and social impacts of this project have not yet been addressed and all energy options are still to be explored.
What is the current status of the project?
South Africa and the DRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in November 2011 for the development of Grand Inga. The MOU lacks details except to specify that funding and construction details are to be formulated into a bilateral treaty within 6 months of the MOU signing. ESKOM and SNEL, the two power companies from the respective countries are to develop time frames and the implementation framework. The MOU further appoints the management of the system to the South Africa’s ESKOM and the DRC’s national utility, Societe Nationale d’Electricite (SNEL). The multilateral development banks, apart from listing the project as a priority, have not yet publicly committed to support its implementation.
What are the likely negative impacts of the dam?
The Grand Inga is a massive project that will require huge sums of money for its realization and astute management for tendering process and implementation. Based on history there are high risks of corrupt deals, and ever escalation of costs. By its unique ecological systems huge ecological impacts that include nutrient and sediment trapping, loss of the mid Atlantic plume are anticipated. The created reservoir will flood the Bundy Valley, affecting local agricultural lands and environments well as cause huge methane emissions that will contribute to global warming.
Transmission lines always result in huge corridors of forest being cleared. The DRC has the worlds’ second largest rainforest and loss of the forest to create paths for electricity transmission lines will significantly impact on the carbon–absorption capabilities. There are mentions that the power will uplift the DRC but so far there is no strategy on the table to show how the poor communities will access the electricity.
So far three feasibility studies have been done, with the latest having been carried out in 2009. Although officials from SNEL tend to refer to the feasibility studies as an environmental impact assessment (which is a much more detailed analyses), there is no actual EIA study to our knowledge.
Our concerns are that 94% of the people in DRC have no electricity and yet the continent’s biggest infrastructure investment is all for the extractive industries and faraway urban centers. We are further troubled by the impacts the dam will have on sediment transportation and biogeochemical processes in the Atlantic, possible carbon emissions from the reservoir (no matter how little), the Congo Canyon and largely the socioeconomic impacts. The socioeconomic impacts include impacts on the people living on the area that will be inundated and the whole cost-benefit for the poor people of the DRC especially in terms of debt burden and access to modern electricity. The DRC needs to subject the Grand Inga proposal to the standards of the World Commission on Dams standards.