Grand Inga Dam is a titanic hydroelectric project on the Congo River with an enormous electric grid that would start from Inga Falls extending physically, and taking its ramifications with it, from South Africa to Egypt. Started in the 70s, this project has become an obsession for the Congo and a gold mine for foreign investors. Its plans will include the rehabilitation of the Inga 1 and 2 dams, as well as constructing Inga 3 and 4.
Given the fact that only two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity, it’s understandable why this project raises a lot of hope and why the river is considered the lifeblood of Africa.
The serpentine river is like a vein filled with rich nutrients, pumping through the heart of the continent, capable of supporting life for the majority of Africa. But, the wilderness of the Congo River also has the ability to consume the lives of the people who attempt to conquer it. Like the currents themselves, drawing its prospectors into waves of corruption. The Grand Inga Dam unfortunately seems to be no exception.
The Congo first caught my attention when watching the documentary, The Grand Inga Project, a riveting story of the first people to survive kayaking down the river.
The Congo River has the world’s largest rapids, with 6 million cubic feet of water per second. All those who had attempted to conquer the rapids before did not survive. I was fascinated by the epic story of Steve Fisher and his team of kayakers. It filled my mind with images of this wild, powerful river. I started researching more about this famous African dam. The more I learned, the more the magnificent and impenetrable river became, for me, an obsession as well.
Between 1971 and 1982, the Mobutu government began building Inga 1 and Inga 2, with the potential to generate over 2,000MW of hydropower. After the peace deal of 2003 was signed at the end of the DRC civil war, plans for the construction of the Inga 3 restarted.
In 2004, after becoming a gold interest for other African countries, ‘the Western Power Corridor (Westcor) – a consortium of national utilities from Angola, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, organised and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the DRC government to construct Inga 3,’ according to a report by the NGO International Rivers. It continued to explain that ‘along these lines, its power will be distributed to all signatory countries through the Southern African Power Pool.’
Unfortunately, the unstable political situation in the Congo and corruption in other African countries, especially South Africa, makes this magnificent hydroelectric project prone to soaking up the pre-existing profiteering on the continent.
In an email interview, Jérémie Kasongo, Head of Publication and Research Analyst at SunayON mentioned the treaty signed in 2013 between South African president, Jacob Zuma and Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, in relation to the Inga 3. He comments, ‘It is interesting to point out a paradox in this document. Indeed, whereas the treaty stipulates that the Inga Dam will entirely belong to the Congolese, as a national heritage (and hence a property of the country), it is obvious that the citizens will not be the first beneficiaries of the implementation of this dam which will primarily supply foreign countries and firms in Katanga (a mining region in DRC). This problem contradicts the idea of national energy self-sufficiency advocated by the authorities.’
On the positive side, Kasongo highlights one of the benefits of the 2013 treaty as the joint management of technical maintenance between DRC and South Africa. He uses the rundown structure of the Inga 1 and 2 as an example of DRC neglect, whereas ‘South Africa, which has repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness in the maintenance of hydroelectric dams on smaller geographical scales, could support the Congolese government in this task.’
The total cost of the project is also opaque. On 25 July 2016, The World Bank suspended disbursements of funding to the Inga 3 because, according to them, the DRC took the project in a different direction.
In an article on The Market Mogul, Kasongo reveals the cost of the dam is $80bn, which is more than the DRC’s GDP of $35bn in 2015. In my interview with him, he explained that this information was actually misleading. ‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘[new] information about the total cost was only revealed in May 2016, 4 months after the first publication of this article.’
Kasongo continued, ‘The $80bn only represented the cost of Phase 1 without taking Phase 2 into account. As regards for the other phases, there is no information about their development cost. As regards for the funding of the project, DRC government will obviously have to rely on the financial help of other international organisations such as the African Development Bank. But the World Bank withdrawal from Grand Inga funding will probably affect the evolution of the construction of the dam.’
In 1997, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) was established to review the effectiveness of large dams across the globe. As a result of mounting public opposition to numerous dam projects, the commission was tasked with devising ‘internationally acceptable guidelines for the planning, construction and operation of dams’. The WCD’s final report was published in 2000, and while it acknowledged the significant contribution of dams on human development, it also stressed that in ‘too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.’
The WCD’s final report was published in 2000, and while it acknowledged the significant contribution of dams on human development, it also stressed that in ‘too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.’
Rudo Sanyanga, Africa Programme Director from the International Rivers office in Pretoria gave some insight on her experience with environmental preservation as it pertains to building dams like the Inga 3. ‘It’s a stand-up practice with huge projects. We worked on a lot of dams and we know the terrible impact. We work on compensation for people, contribute to change and to improve the situation.’ Their goals revolve around the protection of the rivers and of the communities who live there.
However, the repercussions of the construction aren’t immediate. People will be delocalised far away from the river, rehoused in decent homes but ‘sometimes you discover that they don’t have access to electricity,’ Sanyanga exclaims.
She adds: ‘In Uganda for example, people have to pay to have water, it was their resource and now they have to pay for it.’ Displacing people from the river is complicated because some communities live and survive mainly from fisheries and aquaculture. It doesn’t matter how beautiful their new home is if they are severed from their source of life and income.
According to the Guardian, ‘Critics say it will displace 60,000 people’. Sanyanga thinks the actual number will be higher. ‘It will probably be more people because the dam isn’t finished and it will extend into others sections,’ she explains.
However, when I asked Didace Pembe, former Minister of Ecology in 2007, and the head of his own political party, PECO (Party Ecologist Congolese), about this migratory crisis, his opinion was that the consequences were being exaggerated and denied the magnitude of the situation. He went on to stress that all the people moved were transferred into decent homes.
Kasongo agrees that more attention should be given to environmental factors. ‘Although the Grand Inga Treaty plans to take into account environmental issues surrounding the project, few (if any) details have been disseminated by the public authorities regarding the way field studies were managed and regarding the real environmental cost of Inga 3.’
‘Congo River is the blood of Africa.’ It’s a sentence I have heard repeatedly during my research about the Grand Inga Dam. But there’s something wrong with this story. Is the river a source of lifeblood or blood spilled?
What about the tabooed story of French adventurer, Philippe Dieuleveult, who disappeared in 1985 with his crew, Africa Raft and whose name has been avoided in discussions between DRC and France since. Journalist, Anna Miquel writes in her remarkable investigation, The Crocodiles of Zaire, that it seems Philippe Dieuleveult and his crew may have been assassinated by the government of Mobutu, rather than drown, as originally reported. She writes, that Roland Dumas, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, assured Dieuleveult’s brother that the crocodiles killed and consumed the crew – it was a tragic loss at the hands of nature. However, Miquel believes after an investigation of several years, that President Mobutu himself authorised the murders because he thought they were Inga saboteurs and also officers for the French intelligence service (DGSE).
After a confession from Dieuleveult’s brother that he was affiliated to the DGSE but not on a mission into Zaire, the story fell into oblivion and was dismissed in 2004 by French authorities. To add to the controversy, there have also been reports that the investigation was falsified in order for Dieuleveult’s family to receive a life insurance premium from his death. It seems like the truth will never be uncovered, rather washed away in the powerful currents of the river.
It’s hard to believe the massive dam project will see ever the light of day. Or whether it will always be delayed or drowned in stories of corruption. The environmental factors are still a genuine concern and the project’s completion may live on as fantasy.
The biggest question of all may be: will the construction of the dam bring hope for progression or actually drag Africa further back into the chaos and corruption that has plagued the continent for centuries?
As described by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness: ‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world’.
Zoé is an aspiring journalist who is addicted to travel, politics, movies, gangster stories, fiestas, extreme sports and music.
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