Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Inga dam deal is a grand delusion


As load-shedding continues to affect lives,and headlines decry the deepening crisis at Eskom, it is deeply worrying that the government is gearing up to bankroll the largest electricity project in Africa: the Inga 3 Dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The dam will have an uncertain environmental and social effect in the DRC and would be more expensive than most other sources of energy available to the South African government. Why should South Africans help underwrite a multibillion rand project in another country with huge risks and meagre potential benefits?

The Inga 3 Dam is to be built west of the capital, Kinshasa, at a place where the Congo River drops by 96m over 14km. Two dams have already been built at this place in the river; Inga 1 in 1972 (producing 351 megawatts)and Inga 2 in 1982 (producing 1424MW).The Congolese government, with a rotating cast of partners, has been trying to build a third Inga dam since the 1990s, with South Africa playing a critical role.

Finally, in October 2013, the two countries signed the Grand Inga Treaty, in which South Africa pledged to purchase 2500MW if Inga 3 was built. This is about 5% of South Africa’s current installed capacity. Last year, the DRC government gave the contract to build the project to two construction consortiums, led by large Chinese and Spanish companies.

These deals have barely made the press in South Africa, yet Pretoria forms the financial backbone of the projects expected to cost in excess of R204-billion.

This conservative estimate will probably be financed through loans from the Chinese government and the private sector.

But,without a guaranteed buyer through a power purchasing agreement, these lenders will not open their cheque books. And because the project would cost more than twice the entire current national budget of the DRC, it needs an outside guarantor: the South African government.

It is difficult to understand why the South African government would accept this role. Last year, when the government presented its draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), intended to shape the country’s energy mix until 2030, it admitted that Inga 3 would cost two to three cents per kilowatt hour more than the lowest cost scenario. That estimate, which would mean an additional R29-million cost to the economy every year, does not take into consideration cost overruns, which are likely.

The parliamentary committee on energy, which is chaired by the ANC, later published a response to the draft IRP. It made clear that a majority of stakeholders had pushed to cancel their purchase of power from Inga and instead to invest in domestic generation of power, which would be cheaper and more reliable, and would create more jobs.

In any case, Inga 3 is not expected to be completed until 2028, by which time the prices for renewable sources of electricity will have dropped even further.

Researchers at the University of California published a study last year arguing that Inga 3 could increase costs to South African consumers by up to R4.3-billion annually, depending on cost overruns to the project and the rate of growth of the country’s energy needs.

It is astounding that a project of this magnitude, the largest infrastructure project in the DRC’s history, would be pushed through without greater scrutiny.

Congolese and international nongovernmental organisations, such as International Rivers, have called for a stop to Inga 3 in its current form, complaining about the lack of transparency in the management of the project, environmental hazardsand the displacement of thousands of Congolese. Many people will be displaced for a second time, having had to move to make way for Inga 1 and 2, for which they are yet to be compensated.

It is currently impossible to assess these risks because information on the project is not publicly available and the major environmental and social impact studies are yet to be carried out. In 2015, then president Joseph Kabila placed the project management — which had until then been led by the prime minister and was relatively open to inputs from civil society and technical experts — under his direct control, where it remains to this day.

This move led the World Bank, which had helped finance the various impact studies, to cut its support.

Yet South Africa persists.

Instead of listening to these objections, Minister of Energy Jeff Radebe sent a letter to the DRC government in December last year, saying it would double its purchase of power from Inga.

The IRP is headed toward legal and parliamentary challenges, not to mention the turmoil of elections, in which electricity is gearing up to be a key issue for voters.

South Africa badly needs more reliable, affordable and sustainable electricity. The growth in renewable energy in the region, along with better management of Eskom, could more than make up for its current shortfalls. The answer is not Inga 3. In its current form, Inga 3 is as bad for SouthAfricans as it is bad for the Congolese.

Jason Stearns is the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University. Bobby Peek is the director of the environmental justice nonprofit, groundWork, the South African member of Friends of the Earth International

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Jason Stearns
Jason Stearns
Political analyst with a focus on Central Africa and other arcadia. Director, Congo Research Group, Center on International Cooperation, NYU

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

R270m ‘housing heist’ bid deprives people of decent homes

After alleged attempts to loot Eastern Cape housing funds, 39 200 people in the province will continue to live in atrocious conditions

Cabinet reshuffle not on cards yet

There are calls for the president to act against ministers said to be responsible for the state’s slow response to the unrest, but his hands are tied

More top stories

R270m ‘housing heist’ bid deprives people of decent homes

After alleged attempts to loot Eastern Cape housing funds, 39 200 people in the province will continue to live in atrocious conditions

Stolen ammo poses security threat amid failure to protect high-risk...

A Durban depot container with 1.5-million rounds of ammunition may have been targeted, as others in the vicinity were left untouched, say security sources

Sierra Leoneans want a share of mining profits, or they...

The arrival of a Chinese gold mining company in Kono, a diamond-rich district in the east of Sierra Leone, had a devastating impact on the local community, cutting its water supply and threatening farmers’ livelihoods – and their attempts to seek justice have been frustrated at every turn

IEC to ask the courts to postpone local elections

The chairperson of the Electoral Commission of South Africa said the Moseneke inquiry found that the elections would not be free and fair if held in October

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…