A dream of building the world’s biggest hydroelectric project in the heart of Africa may be inching closer to reality.
For decades, plans have been made and discarded to construct a series of hydroelectric power stations on Africa’s second-longest river that would generate almost twice the power of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest. If completed, a Grand Inga Dam could go a long way to addressing one of the most debilitating obstacles to development across Africa from Nigeria to South Africa: electricity shortages.
Late last year there was a sudden burst of activity around Grand Inga. Then-President Joseph Kabila signed an accord in October with two groups of Chinese and Spanish investors, who committed to funding technical studies before building and running an 11,050-megawatt facility called Inga III at a cost of $14 billion. The consortia, which include AEE Power Holdings SL and China Three Gorges Corp., also pledged to attract lenders and find buyers of the electricity elsewhere in Africa.
That could be news of revolutionary import to Congo’s 80 million people, who make do with about 1,500 megawatts, about as much as typically needed for a city of 1 million in industrialized nations. Grand Inga could single-handedly generate more than 40,000 megawatts upon completion.
Much will depend on China’s attitude. While President Xi Jinping’s government supports the project, he’s increasingly working to ensure that his Belt and Road Initiative doesn’t leave poorer nations with unsustainable debt. The uncertainty surrounding China’s approach has caused dislocations in projects across Africa.
In Kenya, construction of a flagship railway from the coast to Uganda was halted after China withheld some $4.9 billion in funding. In Zimbabwe, a giant solar project hit a cash shortfall after China’s Export Import Bank backed out due to the government’s legacy debts. In Ethiopia though, Chinese contractors were hired earlier this year to accelerate work on the long-delayed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which had been mired for years in design and management conflicts.
Inga III “has to be a project that guarantees repayment of loans because the financial budget of the government is very limited,” said Wang Tongquing, China’s ambassador to Congo. “According to the information I have, the plans of this project are not yet very mature, above all the plan for the consumption of the electricity after construction.”
Not all Congolese are however convinced that the dam will solve the nation’s desperate lack of energy. In its current form, most of the power it will generate is meant for other countries.
More than 30 civil-society leaders published an open letter to the president in March, saying Inga III risks loading Congo with debt and won’t provide help for most of its people. They urged the government to focus on connecting rural areas to the grid. And, while parliament approved a bill five years ago to liberalize the energy sector, Congo still lacks an independent energy regulator.