AFRICANGLOBE – The roaring waters of the Congo River have the power to light up much of Africa – such is its huge hydroelectric potential.
It has been a long-held continental dream to harness this renewable energy, but given the Democratic Republic of Congo’s chequered past, it seemed likely to remain just that.
However, thanks to a recent deal signed by South Africa promising to buy electricity from a planned hydroelectric project, in eight years’ time it may start to become a reality.
The Bundi valley, which lies parallel to the Congo River and where some 30,000 villagers live, will be flooded with water and dammed to become a giant lake.
The whole project is known as Grand Inga – and if fully completed would be the world’s largest hydroelectric plant with more than twice the power generation of the Three Gorges Dam in China.
The site for the project is in Bas Congo, a province at the extreme south-west of DR Congo, about 50km (30 miles) from the mouth of the river where there are powerful rapids and waterfalls.
“There will only be one dam wall,” said Bruno Kapandji, DR Congo’s minister of hydraulic resources and electricity.
“But there will be six different hydroelectric power stations around it to produce up to 40,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity.”
Each of these power stations will represent a separate phase in the project, but the electricity is supposed to come online by 2020 when the first, Inga 3, is due to be completed.
It will produce 4,800MW of electricity, 2,500MW of which will go to South Africa and 1,300MW to Katanga, where it will be used in the region’s rich mines.
Mr Kapandji says there are such huge needs across the continent that DR Congo is guaranteed to find customers when the other sections of the dam are built.
“We already have a deficit of more than 300MW today in Katanga,” he says.
“In 2020 we’ll have a deficit of more than 2,000MW in the main mining province, if we stay in this situation, but there is also the deficit in South Africa, the deficit in Nigeria.
“People are waiting for Inga’s energy all the way up to Egypt.”
As well as building the dam wall and Inga 3 hydropower plant by 2020, two new power lines will also be laid.
One will go to South Africa and another to the capital, Kinshasa, as existing cables do not have sufficient capacity to carry the huge volumes of power expected.
The construction works for the first phase of the project will be funded by the World Bank, the African Development Bank and private investors yet to be found.
“Now that we have a credible customer, South Africa, finding investors to build the dam won’t be a problem,” says Mr Kapandji.
The total cost of about $11bn (£6.8bn) for the first phase is under DR Congo’s annual revenue of $17bn.
As for the following phases of Grand Inga, there are no confirmed customers yet, but the minister says Nigeria has already expressed interest in buying 3,000MW.
The 145m (475 ft) tall dam will be adjustable, and as the project reaches its next phases, the wall will be adjusted to let more water flow in.
Preliminary feasibility studies done by Canadian firm AECOM and France’s EDF have been positive.
But trying to provide for the whole continent seems ambitious for a country where barely 10% of the population have access to electricity.
In the capital only wealthy families have power generators at home, and for the vast majority of people, electricity is a luxury.
“We have power a few hours a week, never in the evenings,” says Armel, a student who lives in one of the poorest areas of the capital.