Science, Tech & Environment

Congo pushes for a mega-dam project, with no environmental impact studies

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Inga 1 power station, the first of what the Democratic Republic of the Congo is planning to have as part of a massive seven-dam hydropower system. 

Credit:

International Rivers

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is pushing ahead with plans to add a new dam to the largest hydroelectric dam complex in the world — without completing the social and environmental assessments required by law.

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The Inga 3 Dam on the Congo River, part of Grand Inga, the world's largest hydropower scheme, has long been touted by the World Bank and the World Energy Council as a model for Africa’s energy sector. Inga 3 would pump out 4800 megawatts of power, and the whole Inga system would generate 44,000 megawatts — bigger than China’s Three Gorges dam system.

But things have not gone smoothly, and after long delays, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is pushing for a rapid start of construction, likely with Chinese dam builders, and without a formal review of its environmental impact — an act that would violate national law, World Bank policies and Chinese guidelines for overseas contractors.

According to Rudo Sanyanga, a dam opponent and the Africa Program Director of International Rivers in Pretoria, South Africa, projects like the Inga 3 require a thorough impact assessment study before moving forward. If the project will displace some of the local population, a resettlement action guide must be attached to the assessment.

“The whole process, especially for such a large project, should not take less than a year, and will involve a lot of experts in various areas — geologists, sociologists, environmentalists, hydrologists, etc. — to make sure the project is implemented with the highest world standards,” Sanyanga explains.

In March 2014, the World Bank approved $74 million for the project and part of those funds were earmarked for technical studies, which included the environmental impact studies, the resettlement action guide and compensation studies. Unfortunately, Sanyanga says, because of a misunderstanding between the World Bank and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the money has not yet been released. Now, the DRC government is becoming impatient and wants to begin construction.

If the dam proceeds as planned, a number of communities that live close by will have to be moved, according to Sanyanga. That number will increase as construction progresses, affecting between 10,000 and 25,000 people. The level of impact will depend on how they are settled, Sanyanga says.

“Sometimes, displacements and resettlements have moved people to a totally different kind of environment where they have no skills to survive,” she says. “We’ve found a lot of communities that have been displaced by dams becoming impoverished because of this.”

The dam could also affect the "Congo Plume," which is the largest carbon sink in the world, Sanyanga says. The Congo River pours its sediment into the Atlantic Ocean. Certain microorganisms feed on nutrients in the sediment and use carbon dioxide from the air in their metabolism. As they do, they absorb a lot of carbon dioxide and release oxygen — and it’s going at a “phenomenal level,” says Sanyanga. “We don’t know what the impacts will be, because sediments will be trapped behind the dam walls and not all sediments will be able to reach the ocean,” she explains.

Supporters of the Inga 3 Dam say it will bring development and energy to an impoverished country. Sanyanga isn’t so sure.

“The DRC needs energy, but the model they are using doesn’t show that the energy will benefit DRC,” she explains. “About 2500 of the 4800 megawatts generated by the dam will go to South Africa. 1300 is going to Katanga, the mining town on the Southwestern side of DRC. And the remaining 1000 megawatts is targeted for Kinshasa.”

During transmission, however, a minimum of 20% of this energy will be lost, Sanyanga says. So, in order to satisfy its agreement with South Africa, the DRC will have to push far more than 2500 megawatts, which means the excess energy promised for people in Kinshasa will not necessarily be available at all times. What’s more, because of outdated infrastructure, this energy may not reach Kinshasa at all.

Even in the best scenarios, people living in villages not connected to the grid — that is, the majority of the country — are unlikely to benefit from the project, Sanyanga says.

“The best way of supplying energy to these isolated villages in Africa is probably to use decentralized energy from perhaps solar, wind, and mini- and micro-hydro,” Sanyanga says. “We are not necessarily opposed to all dams. It’s just there’s no proper plan on the table to show how this project will be implemented and how it will benefit the people.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.