The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) controls the headwaters of the Congo River, the deepest and second-most powerful river in the world, and therefore a powerful potential hydroelectric resource. But less than 10% of the DRC’s population has access to electricity.
The proposed Grand Inga Dam would produce 40 000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, roughly twice the capacity of China’s Three Gorges Dam and equal to the entire installed generation capacity of South Africa. The dam and its distribution network are expected to require $80-billion in funding.
Who will benefit?
Planners and policymakers envision the dam at the heart of a continent-wide network. This network will build on regional power pools that link many countries, allowing them to buy, sell and move electricity through an international grid. The Grand Inga Dam would provide electricity to the Southern African Power Pool, established in 1995 by the Southern African Development Community, a regional grouping of 15 countries spanning from the DRC to South Africa.
But the current plans raise serious social and economic concerns. Its advocates claim the network, anchored at Grand Inga, will directly address the problem of energy poverty in the DRC, will contribute to the energy security of the DRC and the continent as a whole, and will contribute to regional economic co-operation.
Its opponents claim that the project is not focused on the DRC and its citizens but on mining interests in the DRC and the Southern African region as a whole. In other words, it may be prone to the resource curse.
This refers to a distinct historical pattern: countries rich in resources often perform worse than resource-poor countries in terms of economic development, social wellbeing and good governance.
So far, the Grand Inga Dam proposal shows many of the warning signs: foreign ownership of extraction and distribution, an economy given over to a “monocrop” export and an unknown impact on local communities and ecologies.
The project could well benefit Africans, and planners are probably correct to argue that the project could contribute greatly to rural electrification and regional integration.
But two things need to be considered. First, planners need to focus on creating a positive local impact – a blessing rather than a curse. Investors should consider the possibility that Africa’s second-largest country might be left behind, even as it powers new growth and that, in a worst-case scenario, economic and political stagnation could contribute to the DRC becoming a source of chronic instability at the heart of a new, stronger and wealthier Africa.
Second, with widespread electrification as a goal, and an under-developed infrastructure a primary obstacle, the DRC and other African countries present an ideal setting for decentralised and distributed electricity production, where energy is produced on a small scale close to users.
Energy technology is rapidly advancing, including micro-hydro dams and solar batteries. With the political will of African leaders and the support of the international community, smaller-scale electrical grids, locally managed and easily integrated, could be a boon to the African people and break the cycle of rich African resources being used for futile and unnecessary projects.
Nathaniel Green is a Shaw fellow and a master’s of law candidate at the George Washington University law school. Benjamin K Sovacool is professor of business and social sciences at Aarhus University. Kathleen Hancock is associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines.