Inga I dam built in 1972 with spill-over to Inga II dam. Photo by I, Alaindg.

If it is completed, the Inga IV dam on the Congo River at a capacity of 39,000 MW would be by far the largest dam in the world. It would almost double the capacity of the current largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam in China which has a capacity of 22,500 MW. The total hydro power capacity in Africa today is 35,339 MW so this would also exceed the total current hydropower capacity of the continent. A discussion of Inga dams will illustrate some of the potential and drawbacks of electricity generation in Africa. Since this is dam number IV, we also need to discuss the first three dams.

Livingstone Falls include 220 miles of the Congo River where the river drops 900 feet. These rapids were what prevented the early European explorers from sailing upcountry into the interior of Africa. The Inga Falls are at the lower end of this stretch of the Congo River near where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The rapids fall 315 feet in 9 miles, an eye-popping amount of hydro power potential.

What is interesting about this site, unlike most hydro power dams in the world, the Inga dams do not require a large reservoir behind them to collect the water. The energy is produced in “run of the river.” This is due to the exceedingly large amount of water flowing down the rapids. 

Map of four Inga Dams. Photo by Sémhur

Inga I dam was built in 1972 and has a capacity of 351 MW. Inga II dam was built in 1982 with a capacity of 1972 MW. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) current total electric capacity is only 2677 MW, almost exclusively hydro power. Due to mis-governance and corruption of the country during the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko (1965 to 1997) and the subsequent Laurent and Joseph Kabila regimes (1997 to 2019), these two dams, due to lack of maintenance, were only generating about half of their capacity. In the last few years, the generators have been replaced so power production is now closer to capacity. One of the important issues therefore is how can a major project can succeed in a country with a poorly performing government.

Inga III dam is in the development stage. It had a proposed capacity of 4800 MW, but recently it was increased to 10,000 MW to 12,000 MW.  A consortium between the China Three Gorges Corporation, which manages the Three Gorges Dam in China and a European group, managed by Cobra Instalaciones y Servicios, a subsidiary of the Spanish construction group, Actividades de Construcción y Servicios (ACS), have signed a contract with the Congolese Government to begin construction of the dam. They are now raising the necessary funds. The original 4800 MW dam was supposed to cost $14 billion with another $4 billion for transmission lines. With the upgrade the cost will at least double. Like nuclear power plants, large dams usually have large cost overruns. Originally the World Bank was going to contribute almost $1 billion to the project but later pulled out due to problems with the Congolese Government and how they were managing the project.

In addition to the governance issue, there are others. These include environment problems. Also less than 10% of the Congolese population is connected to electricity and most of the output from the Inga III dam will go the Congolese and Zambian copper belt and South Africa, leaving little for the more than 80 million Congolese. The vast sums of money to be spent on this dam could be better spent on much smaller projects throughout the country. Moreover people in the United States and Europe have turned against large-scale damming of rivers. International Rivers has a scathing article on why Inga III should not be built.

There is, though, a strong pro-Inga III lobby. This begins with the Congolese government itself which strongly supports the project. Part of this is the prestige this would give the DRC – “Make Congo Great Again”, to paraphrase another world leader. Moreover all the African countries and African organizations are solidly behind Inga III. It is a priority project of both the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, NEPAD and the Southern Africa Development Community, SADC.

But most important is the fact that one of the companies building the dam is China’s Three Gorges Dam Corporation. As China is turning more towards internal consumption, as the working force ages, and as Chinese wages increase, China and its state-owned companies are looking to Africa to obtain raw materials and manufacturing sites for Chinese companies which will need much more electricity than is currently available in Africa. I suspect that these forces are going to overcome the negative forces from the western countries and the dam will be built with funding from China.

This leads to a discussion of the gigantic Inga IV dam. In order for this dam to succeed it will need to distribute its electricity to South Africa, Nigeria and West Africa, Egypt, and perhaps even to Europe itself. Proposals to develop these transmission lines are in the development stage. With an estimated cost of $80 billion for the dam alone and the high likelihood of inflation and cost overruns, the dam is expensive. If Inga III is constructed, Inga IV’s development will quickly follow. There was so much opposition to the Three Gorges Dam that I thought it would never be built. I was wrong because it was completed in 2012. In this case, though, by the time Inga IV would be in development, wind, solar, and storage will be so much cheaper that this megaproject will probably be shelved. “Probably” because mega projects have a life of their own due to tremendous backing from governments and large corporations.

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David Zarembka

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Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com

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