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DR Congo and South Africa sign pact to implement 40,000-MW Grand Inga Dam

November 23, 2011

Rapids near the Inga Dam on the Congo River, Democratic Republic of Congo. Image courtesy of R. Schelly

A press release circulated today states that energy ministers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Africa have signed a memorandum of understanding to start development of the first phase of the proposed 40,000-MW Grand Inga hydroelectric project on the DRC’s highly biodiverse Congo River.  However, this is the latest development in a lengthy process of debate and negotiation over the environmental effects of such a large-scale project on the Inga Falls, and the energy and economic benefits such a dam may provide (for example this and this).

South Africa President Jacob Zuma states:

“The agreement aims at starting the development of large-scale power generation in sub-Saharan Africa, with particular focus on hydropower resources,” Zuma said. “If further seeks to realize the biggest hydropower project, which will not only benefit the people of Congo but will also benefit the entire African continent. 

The Grand Inga complex, falling within the Bas-Congo Strategic Development Corridor that forms part of the SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, could potentially generate 40,000 MW,” Zuma said. “The plant would be able to supply electricity to 500 million people on the continent. This partnership is therefore an important milestone for the two countries.”

Current hydroelectric development on the Inga Falls. Image: Wikipedia

An ongoing debate

As Kate Showers, a researcher at the University of Sussex, explains in a 2009 paper on the subject, the idea of using the River Congo— the second largest river on earth – for electricity production has existed for nearly a century, originally in response to post-World War II industrial pressures on colonial powers.  The energy production potential of the 96 metre high Inga Falls is now attracting attention as a means of generating low-carbon, renewable power as a catalyst for socioeconomic development.   There are already two, small and relatively inefficient dams at the location, generating around 1,775 MW of electricity. However, Showers raises concerns over the potential environmental impacts of large-scale hydro-power development on the Inga Falls, stating (2009: 31): “Rivers across the continent (Africa – ed) have been dammed in the name of ‘development’, benefiting elites and international corporations with scant regard for environmental consequences.”

Nymphaea Lotus Lily on the Congo river, from Aaike De Wever's article. Image: Bart Wursten

Congo basin biodiversity

The Congo river is highly biodiverse, home to at least 686 fish species, including the incredible Goliath Tiger Fish, at least 80% of which are found nowhere else on Earth (a phenomenon known as endemism).  A recent article by BioFresh partner Aaike De Wever described the amazing diversity of aquatic life found on a recent scientific expedition through the Congo Basin.  However, as research such as this 2001 IUCN report suggests, large dams may negatively impact freshwater biodiversity by affecting river flows, sedimentation, flooding patterns and migration routes.

Showers also suggests that changes to the Congo’s river flow may also have global scale impacts on climate.  The river’s influence does not stop where it meets the sea, as Showers states: “A vast submarine canyon extending 730 km from the coast and ending in a 300,000 km2 fan on the ocean floor serves as a major conduit of terrestrial minerals and carbon to the deep sea. On the surface, the river’s plume has been detected 800 km offshore. Accumulating marine evidence indicates the Congo’s significant influence on the equatorial Atlantic, which, in turn, is central to many climate change models.”.

Weighing up the debate: energy and environment

It is clear that there are many issues to weigh up in this debate.  Where are the trade-offs between energy production, socio-economic development and environmental degradation?  How can the multiple scales that these processes play out at be understood and managed?

What is your opinion?  Add your voice to the debate in the comments below.

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