The existing Inga II Dam on the Congo River

The world has some very big power plants to supply its enormous hunger for energy. For instance, Itaipu Dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border has an installed capacity of 14,000 MW, and produces more energy than any power plant in the world with 103,098,366 MWh in 2016. There’s also China’s Three Gorges Dam, which has an even more insane installed capacity of 22,500 MW.

Then there’s the Grand Inga. Or rather, there will be the Grand Inga. The proposed dam will be built astride the Inga Falls of the Congo River, near the river’s mouth east of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Once completed, it will have an installed capacity of 39,000 MW. This is more than Itaipu and Three Gorges combined; and more than a third of Africa’s current total installed capacity.

The dam could not come at a better time. The economy of Sub-Saharan Africa has been on a roll in recent years, with an average annual GDP growth rate of 5.4% between 2000 and 2010. The continent’s population is also on a somewhat similar roll. The growth in its energy generation capacity, however, lags far behind these growth trends. As a result, the proportion of Africans with access to electricity, though it has improved in recent times, is still quite low compared to the rest of the world.

This situation needs to be remedied if Africa is to sustain its growth and improve on it. There are several approaches to tackling this challenge. I have written here before, for instance, of the nascent solar energy revolution in Kenya. That story chronicles a bottom-up approach, in which generation is devolved to consumers with small solar panels, who might eventually contribute their excess to the national grid. Congo’s Grand Inga project, on the other hand, is an emphatic statement of the traditional approach – a monstrous piece of infrastructure with a similarly gargantuan generation capacity.

Work has not started on its construction yet, but deals are already being signed on how the power will be shared out. South Africa appears to be the major early beneficiary. A high voltage line will be constructed to siphon away most of the power from the first phase to that country. Much of the rest of the power will be transmitted to the southern part of the DRC, where most of its mining takes place, to help fire an industrial revolution there. The project could also be the centrepiece for a proposed regional power pool involving several countries.

It is estimated the project will cost up to $80 billion. Funding will likely be provided by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the European Investment Bank. A number of feasibility studies have already been carried out, and construction is projected to begin in late 2017 or early 2018. There are no projections yet on when it will be completed.

However, the project faces many major challenges which derive not only from its colossal scale, but also from the dynamics of the country in which it is located. For instance, the reservoir that will form behind the dam, which will cover 220 km2, is expected to displace thousands of people. This is what dams normally do. But this is the DRC, so this could have some rather sour effects.

It is unlikely that the displaced will be adequately compensated. And, it is unlikely that any of them will benefit from the electricity that will be generated, as most of the power will be channelled to heavy industry and consumers in other countries. Neither will most Congolese people. In a country where 91 percent of people still don’t have access to electricity, the irony could not be more striking.

Furthermore, it is expected that, like all development projects involving the Congolese government, the Grand Inga will consume more money than it is worth – lost into the system as bribes and kick-backs – and burden the country’s future with even more crippling debt. The companies that will benefit most from the construction are also foreign, and so most of the money will be funnelled out of the country.

The dam could also cut off nutrients headed for one of the largest carbon sinks in the world – the Congo Plume in the Atlantic Ocean off the mouth of the Congo River. The river valley that will be flooded will also lose its natural ecology.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, The Grand Inga project holds immense potential. If it is professionally implemented, it could be a huge contribution to Africa’s broadening energy deficit and accelerate industrial development in the DRC. If it is not, it will end up as another white elephant sucking the very lifeblood of that country’s future generations. The buck is with the Congolese government and its partners.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near...