The view from the Inga overlook, upstream, could be of Africa’s Eden. The Congo River flows towards you down a broad valley with jungle and green farmland on both sides. It feels like the lushest place on Earth and the scale is hard to grasp. This is the world’s second most powerful river, draining nearly half a continent.
Turn to look downstream and that power is on spectacular display. More than 40,000 tonnes of water pass the overlook each second and enter the Inga Falls. By volume these are 13 Niagaras. Topographically they are a ten-mile run of rapids, carrying water from an area six times the size of France and churning it into a never-ending storm.
Here on the lower Congo a newly-elected government plans, with the help of Chinese and European funds and labour, to build the biggest hydro-electric power plant on the planet. Opponents say that if the project goes ahead it would be an ethical and environmental disaster of mythic proportions. As one campaigner puts it, Inga 3 would be the biggest ever investment in one of Africa’s least transparent countries, and it would “still not bridge the energy poverty gap experienced by millions of Congolese”. Equally, it could change Africa forever.
Spark of nature
The first two Inga dams were completed in 1982 and have provided power for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital and mining industry ever since. The next dam, Inga 3, would treble the country’s electricity supply but even that would harness only two thirds of the river’s potential.
The boldest plan, “Grand Inga”, would harness it all with a total of eight dams. It would flood at least 20,000 hectares of jungle and farmland, force the relocation of thousands of people and radically alter a remarkable piece of oceanography – the Congo Plume, a zone of nutrient-rich water fed by the river that can stretch up to 800 km out into the mid-Atlantic. At the same time it would produce nearly twice the output of the world’s next largest hydro-power plant, the Three Gorges Dam in China.
We have, it’s true, been here before. The first engineering studies for the Inga Falls date back to Belgian colonial times, and multiple Congolese governments have nurtured dreams of power spreading in all directions from the Inga Falls. A dusty old canvas at the overlook shows Grand Inga as the departure point for electricity highways heading north, south and west from the DRC: the northern corridor powers the Central African Republic, Sudan, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, with arrows pointing beyond the shores of the African continent towards Europe and Central Asia. The southern corridor supplies Angola, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. To the west and north-west are Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon and Nigeria.
South Africa has promised to buy at least a quarter of Inga 3’s power. Millions of dollars have been spent on feasibility studies and many of those millions have been lost in the mire of corruption that Congo became under presidents Mobutu (1965-97) and Kabila (Laurent and his son Joseph; 1997-2019); a curse that has its roots in the 17th-century slave trade.
The World Bank lent the scheme its support in 2013, and withdrew it three years later when the younger Kabila began to entertain offers of cooperation from China. Western contractors have stepped forward and then back. One prime contender, the Canadian firm SNC Lavalin, became engulfed in a domestic corruption scandal. Others lost faith or have been deterred by the prospect of a high-risk project in a country tortured by wars of grudges and greed.
So what has changed? Construction of Inga 3 now seems at last to be a matter of when, not if, for at least four reasons:
- Nigeria’s signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area this month creates the prospect of low or no tariffs across a market of 1.2 billion consumers – including for electricity.
- After an election last December in which the result appears to have been manipulated by the outgoing president, Joseph Kabila has at least stepped down. He has been replaced by Felix Tshesekedi, who did not win the popular vote but has pledged to fight corruption.
- Unmet demand for clean energy in the DRC and its neighbours has reached critical levels – from a mining industry trying to ramp up production of cobalt and other exotic metals for a global car industry switching to batteries, and as a result of broader expansion in some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
- China has made multi-billion dollar commitments to power generation projects in at least ten African countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda – and the DRC.
It is China to which Ethiopia has turned to complete its Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile; China that has pledged to fund the long-delayed Mambilla dam in eastern Nigeria; China that built the $560 million Isimba dam on the White Nile in Uganda.
Each of these projects adds urgently needed power to Africa’s overall supply, and millions of tonnes of concrete to China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road initiative. But of all of them, Inga 3 is by far the most ambitious.
Geographically, it is unique; the only steep drop on any big river so close to its mouth and therefore moving so much water. Not surprisingly, it has required a pooling of resources. Last year China’s Three Gorges Corporation and Spain’s Actividades de Construccion y Servicios SA (ACS) joined forces to make a joint bid that the Kabila government accepted and that remains on the table. Funding of the order of $13.9 billion has yet to be confirmed, but one development watchdog has compiled a 61-page dossier of potential investors and their shareholders, among them the African Development Bank (AfDB), the US asset managers BlackRock and Vanguard, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund and the Postal Savings Bank of China.
Ange Asanzi, an Africa spokesperson for International Rivers, says Tshisekedi’s arrival in power makes it more likely that Inga 3 will be built. “It’s a priority project for the president,” she says.
Indeed, at a recent lecture in Washington, Tshisekedi mentioned mining and the Inga project in the same breath, and his interpreter tellingly corrected himself in what came next: the dam “could produce between 45 and 50 megawatts,” he said, “if we – when we – are able to fully implement all phases of the project”.
On a visit to Inga last month Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, pledged $73 million for further feasibility studies and casually doubled the project’s potential output compared with previous estimates – to 100 MW. “When Inga works and is fully completed, Africa will be totally different,” he said. “When Inga is completed, the whole of Africa will have electricity.”
That is Inga’s promise; to transform a continent held back by centuries of exploitation and under-investment. A lot of people don’t believe it.
Too big to succeed?
For as long as it has been a dream of colonial powers and post-colonial presidents, Inga has been spoken of as a nightmare by those who claim to speak for the voiceless. Experience tends to support their view. The construction of the first two dams has done little for the 90 per cent of Congolese still without power. And there is not much reason to believe a third would change that, not least because most of Inga 3’s output is already earmarked for industry.
“No one believes that the Congo will grow better off,” an incoming member of the Congolese parliament told me. “That’s why we say it’s complicated. It’s a war between the big guys, and we in Congo as a nation are the little guys.”
The big guys include foreign firms and governments offering to underwrite Inga 3 by promising to buy its power. Chief among them is South Africa, with an initial standing order for 2500 MW of power, mainly for its mining sector, that was raised to 5000 MW last December.
Environmentalists warn of a lose-lose proposition. To connect a single big new source of power to those who need it most would require a web of high-voltage transmission lines to be built – at a further cost of up to $4 billion – across the last great tropical wilderness in Africa. According to Bruno Kapandji, longstanding head of the Grand Inga Development and Promotion Agency, the new line to South Africa alone would cost $3 billion.
Kapandji, now in his 80s, is an evangelist for Congolese hydropower as a change agent with an almost unlimited ripple effect. It will create up to 20,000 jobs in the Inga region alone, he says. It will bring refrigeration to people who desperately need it, including, for example, to preserve life-saving vaccines. “All of Africa will move,” he says. “The impact will be electrical first, because people will have more access; industrial because industries will come; financial because the banks will come to offer loans to people finally have incomes.”
For consumers, Kapandji has championed the idea of a distributed generation system using small-scale renewable sources. Under Kabila several small hydro-power dams did come onstream in the east of the country but most Congolese remain without power. Eventually, Kapandji believes, the DRC’s revenues from electricity exports will exceed those from its mines, ending the mining industry’s unchallenged dominance of the country’s political economy.
A new law creating a statutory framework for Inga 3 was passed at the end of last year. Kapandji hopes the joint bid’s subcontractors and financing will be confirmed by the end of this one.
In the meantime, workers wait. They live at Camp Kinshasa or Camp Kin, a micro-city built for 5000 workers and their families at the Inga site.
Conditioned by the Kabila regime to suspect outsiders, no one at Camp Kin is willing to talk on the record about Inga. “It is such a sensitive issue. It is like a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. We are in Kabila’s gun-sight,” one official told me, five months after Kabila vacated the presidency.
Bordered by picket-fenced gardens, the official accommodation for civil servants contrasts sharply with the workers’ quarters, where some of the fishermen displaced by Inga I and Inga II still live.
By Congolese standards even the workers are lucky. Camp Kin boasts banks, a supermarket, a police station, school children in uniform, a large church with nuns and priests living on site, a hospital, offices for the national intelligence agency and immigration ministry, a cemetery, a landing strip, an army barracks, a water treatment plant, several vacant lots used as football pitches, a presidential villa, a stadium under construction and orchards with mango trees.
Everyone living in Inga gets free education, healthcare, running water, electricity and pensions.
Western resistance to Inga 3 picked up in 2015 when President Kabila, a military officer trained in China, visited the Three Gorges dam. “That’s when cooperation with Chinese took off,” says the head of a local NGO who asks to remain anonymous. “At the time the project was estimated to cost $12 billion to be built in five years. The Chinese… showed him what they had done. They said they could build the dam in four years at a cost of $9 billion, a third cheaper.”
It took another three years for the Chinese-Spanish joint bid to emerge and win approval from Kapandji and Kabila. A backlash started immediately, and last month anti-Inga activists, many of them funded at least partly by the US, announced their intention to sue the AfDB, the African Union and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for failing to insist on suitable environmental impact assessments.
Centuries of seduction
Very little has changed about Inga’s hypnotising power since Captain James Tuckey of the Royal Navy became the first European to set foot in the Bundi valley in 1816.
According to colonial archives, the Inga plateau was then the heart of an important chiefdom of 70 huts and some 300 souls. As a place of passage, Inga’s markets are said to have thrived by levying a right of passage on slave caravans headed for the Atlantic coast as well as British, Portuguese, French and Belgian slave traders going up river.
Half a century later, by the time the Welsh-American explorer and mercenary Henry Morton Stanley reached Inga, the abolition of the maritime slave trade had reduced it to penury.
In the race to establish dominion over the Congo on behalf of his patron the Belgian King Leopold II, Stanley established a string of trading stations connecting the port of Matadi to Kinshasa. For apprehensive native populations the growing movement of European agents and African workers along this section of the river brought back some of their lost prosperity.
Echoes of that time in today’s manoeuverings are hard to miss.
“China is trying to better its image around the world by posing as a champion of the environment and human rights,” says an activist who is also a native of Inga. In reality, according to an official who oversaw the privatisation of the national electricity company, “Inga is all about the big bucks from big lobbies. For decades we have been doing this North-South cooperation with Europe, yet poverty has only increased in Africa.”
What’s new is China’s muscular new self-appointed role as investor and builder in a region where for decades the norm has been more talk than action. “Europeans make promises but they don’t have the money to deliver on them,” this official continues. “China gives in terms of billions and, they are capable.”
For many Congolese, the Chinese are the lesser of two evils. “Look,” says an MP in Kinshasa. “There are things we cannot attain with you Westerners. A fisherman has a mobile phone he bought $10 to $16 that the white man would sell for $500. Even if you tell me that after six months the telephone will stop functioning, I don’t care. For now, it is a result: I can call my family.”
If Grand Inga gets built he might be able to charge it, too.