The Inga 3 Hydropower Project
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the support of the World Bank proposes to develop the Inga 3 project, which includes a dam and a 4,800MW hydroelectric plant at Inga Falls on the mighty Congo River. The Inga 3 BC hydropower scheme is the first phase in the construction of the Grand Inga hydropower project, located 225 km from Kinshasa, and 150 km upstream of the mouth of the Congo into the Atlantic Ocean. The Grand Inga scheme would have a generation capacity of 40,000MW and would be developed in seven phases beginning with Inga 3, which itself would have two phases. Its two components would displace about 35,000 people (10,000 for Inga 3 “Basse Chute” and 25,000 for Inga 3 “Haute Chute”).
The plan to build the Inga 3 hydropower scheme has been in the cards as far back as the early 1950s. Since that time, developers from several countries have expressed an interest in implementing the project. These have included French, Belgian, Chinese, Brazilian and African companies and investors. In 1972 and 1982, the Mobutu government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, then called Zaire, built the Inga 1 and 2 hydropower schemes, with a total potential generation capacity of 2,132MW. Sadly, these two schemes have never operated to full capacity; in 2013 the dams were reported to have produced only 40% of their capacity.
At the end of the civil war in the DRC and the peace deal of 2003, the country revived its plans to construct Inga 3. In 2004, the Western Power Corridor (Westcor), a consortium of national utilities from five southern and central African countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo), organized and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the DRC government to construct Inga 3, with its power to be distributed to all signatory countries through the Southern African Power Pool.
In 2009 the DRC withdrew from Westcor and decided to try to go it alone on the project. Its first step was to float tenders for the development of Inga 3 with private companies. The international mining corporation BHP Billiton won the tender, with its proposal to develop Inga 3 as well as a 2,000MW rated aluminum smelter in the vicinity of the hydropower plant. When BHP Billiton withdrew from the deal in 2012, the DRC again began looking elsewhere. The World Bank and other financial institutions came on board in May 2013, promising to offer finance for Inga 3. As part of this deal, South Africa committed to buy 2,500MW of the 4,800MW to be generated. A treaty sealing this deal was concluded in October 2013 and ratified by the DRC in 2014, making South Africa the key purchaser of the Inga 3 electricity.
Following the withdrawal of BHP Billiton from the arena, DRC commissioned fresh feasibility studies that were financed by the African Development Bank. These studies recommended a new design for the dam, whereby the new Inga 3 hydropower project would not block the mainstem of the river but instead would divert the Congo River to flow into the Bundi Valley through a 12km open canal with an average flow of 6,000m3/sec. The diversion would be located upstream of the intake works for Inga I and 2. At the end of the canal a 145m-tall dam and a power station will be constructed. There will be a small reservoir behind the dam wall.
According to the design, the dam will initially be built low (Inga 3 Basse Chute or low head) and progressively increased in height as the project proceed to the next phase, eventually flooding 22,000 hectares of land as well as the original diversion canal. The outflow from the turbines will enter the Congo River about 30km downstream of the falls.
Inga 3 is projected to cost US$14 billion and to generate 4,800MW when completed. The Grand Inga itself could eventually have a capacity of 40,000MW – equivalent to more than 20 large nuclear power stations. In addition to building the dam wall and Inga 3 hydropower plant by 2022, the project proposes a power line that would stretch more than 5,000km from the project to South Africa, through Zambia and Namibia.
The development of Inga would be implemented as a public-private partnership (PPP) deal. The African Development Bank, World Bank, French Development Agency, European Investment Bank and Development Bank of South Africa have all shown interest in financing Inga 3. In December 2013 the United States, through its development agency USAID, also expressed interest in contributing to the financing of Inga 3. At of now, no developer had been chosen, but Chinese, Korean and Spanish companies are said to be in the forefront of the bidding put out by the DRC government.
The development of this hydropower project raises a number of concerns. Firstly, the power production from the Inga 3 is mainly for industry users and will not improve the access level for the more than 90% of the DRC population who have no access to electricity. The prospect of local people getting power from Inga in the next 20 years is remote and does not feature in the project as currently planned. Most of Inga 3’s power will travel long distances to the industrial and urban centers in South Africa and large mines in DRC, bypassing Congolese who are not served by the nation’s limited grid.
The Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) has suffered decades of civil war, during which corruption has become entrenched in the socioeconomic fabric of the nation. By many accounts, the country has acquired a reputation as a failed state. It is sad to note that, in this vein, the Inga 3 stands to become a large-scale infrastructure of false ideals. People will have to be relocated and agricultural land in the Bundi Valley will be lost. The development model for the project does not appear to make any considerations to meet the expectations of the locals. On the contrary, the project will only add national debt burden, with very strong prospects of promoting corruption and allowing powerful companies to cheaply exploit and export Africa's vast natural resources. Large volumes of research carried out worldwide have shown that grid-based electrification is not cost-effective for much of rural Sub-Saharan Africa where the population density is low. Renewable energy solutions such as wind, solar and micro hydropower projects are much more effective at reaching the rural poor.
The DRC government and the supporters of this dam need to critically examine their role in this project and to promote transparency and the pursuit of world standards in the development of these projects. There is need for transparency, sincere and committed public engagements, and implementation of an energy development path that addresses the needs of the country.