By Terri Hathaway
April 22, 2008 — A lucrative hydropower scheme proposed for the Congo River has become Africa’s next great scramble. Led by the World Energy Council, major industries, banks, and governments met in London this week to seek their piece of the US$80 billion Grand Inga project - the world’s largest hydropower installation. The scheme is being promoted as a development venture to electrify the African continent, where two in every three people now lack access to electricity. Nearly a hundred officials and big money interests discussed how to profit from one of Congo’s great natural resources, but Congolese officials disappeared shortly after the meeting commenced with no explanation to organizers. Worse, organizers had refused to invite Congolese civil society and area communities, leaving no voice to defend the country’s interest.
The Council refused to invite Africans monitoring the Inga project, subjecting them - unlike any other participants - to government authorization. Yet the Council invited these same individuals - a small delegation from affected communities and public interest groups - to the last Inga forum. The local peoples’ presence at that meeting provided an essential reality check after one official stated that Grand Inga required no resettlement. In fact, at least 8,000 villagers, possibly more, face displacement. Yet the Council and other project backers are now steadfastly refusing to include African civil society in discussions. If Inga is meant to light up Africa, then why are its backers keeping Africans in the dark over project planning?
For starters, Africa’s unelectrified communities aren’t really Inga’s intended client base. The project’s huge price tag covers only the cost of the hydropower plant and long-distance transmission lines to Africa’s mining and industrial heartlands, and urban centers in South Africa, Egypt and other distant countries. Local distribution lines will not be included, meaning the project’s electricity won’t reach even a fraction of the continent’s half billion people not yet connected to the grid. Building a distribution network that would actually "light up Africa" would increase the project’s cost exponentially. Instead of direct access to Inga’s energy, the project’s social development plan is based on trickle-down economics, a model notorious for its elusive benefits and poor record in Africa’s fight against poverty.
Exploiting Inga could also further fuel Africa’s "resource curse". The project’s enormous budget and bountiful contracts could devolve Inga into a corruption-riddled white elephant. Trying to stop such a fate would require unwavering scrutiny in the tamest of political environments, and is impossible, some argue, in today’s Congo. By design, Inga would centralize a vast store of the region’s electric and financial power, a development model that can foster tensions and civil wars. More decentralized energy development would spread wealth and electricity more evenly within the country, helping Congo move away from its conflictive past.
No stranger to the hydro curse that has afflicted so many African nations, Congo (then Zaire) built two dams at Inga in the 1970s and ’80s, which degraded local living standards despite promises to the contrary. The dams also produced a crushing debt burden for the country rather than a sustainable industrial base. Inga I and Inga II exemplify the history of large dams, which have left a trail of sorrows for affected people and disproportionately small gains for Africa’s poor. One of the many critical lessons learned from past dams is the need for open and inclusive planning from the beginning. While participation alone can’t guarantee success, it is key for improving development outcomes.
Today, thousands of villagers living near the Inga rapids anxiously await information about the project’s potential impacts on their lives, wondering if their rights and needs will again be ignored. Fifty million Congolese, and hundreds of millions more Africans, wonder how long until their communities will be electrified, and if Grand Inga could speed up or slow down that wait. Citizens from Congo to South Africa are wondering who may profit from this $80bn investment and if it is at the expense, rather than the benefit, of Africans. These are Inga’s most vulnerable stakeholders who are barred from participating in the Council’s April forum.
The World Energy Council’s claims that the Inga project will benefit Africa’s poor are undermined by its actions to exclude them from planning. If the Council and other project proponents truly want to develop energy that responds to the needs of Africa’s people, while protecting those at risk, they must bring African civil society players to the table. Without such openness, Grand Inga could be a grand failure at bringing Africa’s neglected majority into the light.
The author is an International Rivers, Africa Campaigner