BOX 4: Grand Inga, grand illusions

BOX 4: Grand Inga, grand illusions


By Terri Hathaway, World Rivers Review, 20, 2, p. 6-7


Grandiose plans are being made to develop the world’s largest hydropower project in one of the most politically volatile and corruption– plagued areas of Africa. In 2009, Reuel Khoza, the chairman of South Africa– based electricity provider Eskom, announced plans to develop the massive Grand Inga hydropower project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ‘Hydroelectricity from the Congo could generate more than 40,000 megawatts, enough to power Africa’s industrialization with the possibility of selling the surplus to southern Europe…’

Inga’s centralized grid system is likely to do little to ‘light up’ Africa for the 90 percent of people now living without electricity, most of who live in rural areas outside the reach of power grids. Grid expansion is quite costly, and trying to reach scattered rural communities would significantly increase project costs as well as the cost of electricity. Long transmission and distribution lines also increase electricity losses (older systems can lose up to 30 percent through transmission and distribution losses). Based on historical trends, the trickle–down effects in the form of jobs and taxes will likely be minimal for Africa’s poorest, while also increasing unsustainable national debt loads. Potential direct impacts to locally affected peoples are unknown at this time, but remain of concern.

While run–of–river projects can have less damaging consequences than storage dams, they are often far from environmentally benign. The term ‘run–of–river’ is undefined, and is often therefore used to ‘greenwash’ projects. In fact, many run–of–river dams have large dam walls, major social and environmental impacts, and even reservoirs.

The extent of barriers and diversion canals involved in this colossal project is still unclear, but the cumulative impacts of Grand Inga’s 52 turbine installations, as well as Inga 3, on the river’s flow could be considerable. Impacts to fisheries, riverine forests and river ecology will need careful study. As more studies of GHG emissions from hydropower are conducted, scientists are finding increasing evidence that emissions from dams, especially methane, are a legitimate concern, particularly in tropical areas. The Inga projects will also need careful, independent study of their emissions impacts.

Project proponents have indicated they hope to gain a revenue stream for Inga 3 from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Projects like Inga 3 turn the CDM into a subsidy mechanism for hydro developers and a carbon accounting loophole for industrialized countries, instead of a tool for climate protection.

CDM credits for Inga 3 would also be a double blow to renewable energy in Africa. First, project investment attracted by CDM credits would divert potential investment from renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal to large hydro. Second, revenue from CDM credits would divert additional CDM investment from truly sustainable projects, effectively crowding out funds for new renewables in Africa.

Development of Inga could also reduce the planet’s ability to absorb carbon emissions which cause global warming. The Congo river is an important planetary source of nutrient flows into the ocean, which feeds microscopic organisms that consume carbon, then die and sink to the bottom of the ocean. A 2009 study on the Grand Inga Complex says that ‘plans to divert, store or otherwise intervene in Lower Congo River dynamics are truly alarming’ and ‘ignore the river’s significant influence on the equatorial Atlantic, which, in turn, is central to many climate change models.’ Despite its potentially huge impact on this carbon drawdown cycle, Grand Inga’s proponents hope to garner carbon credits to offset some of its huge price tag.

Political instability is a very real concern across the region where the transmission grid would be built. The ongoing violence in DRC was recently rated the world’s most forgotten crisis by Reuters. Over three million people have died since 1998 as a result of the civil war and ongoing strife in DRC. The Inga mega– project would centralize much of Africa’s electricity source and require a grid of transmission lines through many of Africa’s most politically unstable regions. Dams, power plants, and transmission lines are often made targets in political conflicts. The dependence of more countries’ economies on Inga would increase its attractiveness as a target for sabotage by rebel groups. In 1998, rebels seized Inga II and cut its power to Kinshasa, the capital of DRC.