While discussion of hydroelectric power on the Congo River is dominated by the massive Grand Inga project and the dream of power for the entire continent, construction of a series of smaller dams to benefit local communities may produce tangible results much more quickly.
Grand Inga could generate as much as 39,000 megawatts of power. Earlier in February, a two-year, 13.4 million dollar contract was awarded to Aecom Technology Company and Éléctricité de France to carry out feasibility studies for the hydroelectric generation complex and transmission lines to carry power as far as Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. But the Grand Inga project has already encountered setbacks and attracted criticism. Westcor, a consortium of state-owned power companies from five Southern African states, had a proposed 10 billion dollar, 4,000 megawatt project for a site known as Inga 3 rejected by the Democratic Republic of Congo government in February 2010. The DRC authorities instead agreed to a smaller project with mining giant BHP Billiton on the same site that would principally supply a new aluminium smelter being constructed the company 150 kilometres away.
This project has been criticised by environmental justice groups such as International Rivers. Just six percent of Congolese have access to electricity, says International Rivers, and the BHP Billiton project would prioritise supplying energy-intensive industry rather than the needs of the population. The environmentalists are also sceptical of the promise of the larger plans Aecom is now studying as well, arguing that the continent lacks a distribution network to carry power from a single mega-project to the majority of those who need it; they argue that the estimated 80 billion dollar price tag would be better spent on decentralised generation, including wind, solar and micro-hydro plants. They also cite the risk of corruption and mismanagement, a warning given teeth by the 2008 disappearance of $6.5 million intended to rehabilitate one of the two aging power stations already in place at the Inga site.
While the debate swirls around the larger projects, February finds work under way on a dam at Kakobola, one of the first of up to 315 much smaller dams planned for sites around the country…The Kakobola dam will also contribute towards securing regular access to drinking water, particularly in Kikwit, where 800,000 people lack access to safe water…”I hope that the work on this dam won’t stop mid-way,” said Emery Raphaël Mikolo, a nurse in Idiofa. “We have seen it many times in our country – the work starts briskly, but then a gloomy silence takes over.”…Though small-scale dams such as this one at Kakobola do not answer the question of powering energy-intensive industry in DRC and beyond, if the dam delivers the expected benefits for the region it sits in, it may create alternatives to a development path that relies so heavily on resource extraction.
Excerpts from Badylon K. Bakiman, Small Is Beautiful – And Electrifying, Inter Press Service, Feb. 24, 2011