Every time South African officials get together with their Congolese counterparts, the subject of the Grand Inga Dam is on the agenda.
The mammoth hydroelectric project, on the Congo River in the western Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been in the works for more than a decade and could power the whole of southern Africa, claim its supporters —if it ever gets built.
South Africa is a key partner, having pledged repeatedly to buy the excess electricity produced by the dam. The government has even signed the Grand Inga Hydropower Project Treaty, which commits South Africa to buying 2 500 megawatts (MW) of electricity if the Inga 3 Dam actually gets up and running. As the department of energy told Parliament in 2016, according to the parliamentary monitoring group: “Without South Africa, the project would not go ahead. South Africa was anchoring it.”
But sources in the department of energy say that buying hydroelectric power from the DRC and transmitting it across three international borders is not based on a need. South Africa has enough electricity because the economy is growing sluggishly and demand is the same as it was in 2007. And South Africa’s new energy plan, the Integrated Resource Plan 2018, calls for a mix of wind, solar and gas to complement existing coal-fired power stations.
The provision to buy power from Inga 3 has apparently been forced into the energy plan by policymakers. It is acknowledged as politicking in the Southern African Development Community, giving South Africa influence with the Congolese government, and especially President Joseph Kabila, though energy planners don’t expect that any electricity will actually flow south.
South Africa’s military is also understood to be uneasy about the Inga plan. Having critical energy infrastructure outside a country’s borders is a national security problem. To get power from Inga 3, power lines (which haven’t been built yet) will have to span thousands of kilometres, which is likely to traverse the DRC, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It will make Inga’s electricity unfeasibly expensive, according to a rare piece of research on this topic by the University of California, Berkeley. The study, Renewable Energy Alternatives to Mega-hydropower: A Case Study of Inga 3 for Southern Africa, says South Africa’s commitment could end up costing the country an unnecessary R13-billion a year, assuming it is late and over budget. But this is the amount South Africa could save if it built 2 500MW of renewable energy capacity, the study notes.
Complicating things even further is the likely effect of climate change and shifting rainfall patterns — all hydropower projects are dependent on a steady flow of water. But the Congo River basin has had three decades of declining rainfall. Research based on satellite photographs of the region shows that the vegetation is steadily becoming less green, indicating lower rainfall and higher temperatures. The basin is also shared by six countries, each with their own plans for using the water.
For political reasons, the Grand Inga Dam will remain part of South Africa’s energy plan. For practical reasons, South Africans should be grateful that it’s unlikely to happen.