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Politics over world’s largest hydropower project

The hydropower project on the Congo is unraveling into a political ploy with disregard to the affected people and the environment

By Peter Bosshard
Last Updated: Friday 27 May 2016 | 10:02:23 AM

Even though more than 90 per cent of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s population has no access to electricity, the project will mainly generate power for mining companies and export markets
Credit: International Rivers

The World Bank, the World Energy Council (WEC) and the dam industry have presented the Inga 3 Hydropower Project as a “dream for Africa” and model for lessons learnt from past experience with such mega projects.

Now, the hydropower project on the Congo river is unraveling into a political ploy with complete disregard to the affected people and the environment.

Ambitious target

The Inga 3 dam is the first stage of the 40,000 MW Grand Inga scheme, the world’s largest hydropower complex. Even though more than 90 per cent of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) population has no access to electricity, the project will mainly generate power for mining companies and export markets.

In 2013 and 2014, the African Development Bank (AfDB) and The World Bank approved US $ 141 million in grants for the preparation of the US $ 14 billion project.

Multilateral financiers did not address the questionable benefits of the mega project, but their involvement, at least, offered some assurance that Inga 3 would have to follow international social, environmental and anti-corruption standards.

Australian angle

In September 2015, Australian company SMEC won the contract to carry out the social and environmental impact assessments and resettlement action plan for the Inga project.

According to internal sources, the DRC government was not happy with the selection of the company, and refused to work with SMEC.

Under The World Bank procurement guidelines, companies get blacklisted if they bribe government officials, so we can only speculate that government officials may not have received what they expected from the company.

The Congo river has the second highest diversity in fish species after the Amazon and the Inga 3 Dam would seriously impact the rich fisheries of the lower Congo basin
Credit: International Rivers

No impact assessment as yet

More than two years after the approval of The World Bank and AfDB grants, the social and environmental impact assessments for Inga 3 have still not started.

In early May, Bruno Kapandji, the head of the Grand Inga Project Office, announced that the DRC government would select developers for the mega dam within three months and construction would start by June 2017.

The DRC government said that Inga 3 is under time pressure because the contract with South Africa, the main purchaser of the project’s electricity, will expire in 2021.

The South African government may not be prepared to renew the contract after President Zuma, who promoted Inga 3 against considerable opposition, steps down in 2019. Of course, the DRC government always knew this, so the South African contract alone does not explain the sudden haste.

Maybe more importantly, DRC President Joseph Kabila wants to remain in power after his second term ends at the end of 2016.

Such a move would violate the constitution and Kabila will need to bribe a lot of politicians to make it possible. Signing multi-billion dollar contracts with the developers of Inga 3 will certainly help him to oil his relations with the country’s power brokers.

The Congo river has the second highest diversity in fish species after the Amazon and the Inga 3 Dam would seriously impact the rich fisheries of the lower Congo basin. Despite the plans to speed up project construction, the DRC government is still not moving ahead with the social and environmental impact assessments.

At a meeting held with civil society groups in April, Kapandji argued instead that early feasibility studies (which did not assess environmental impacts in detail) had found that the project would not have any negative impacts.

During a meeting in early May, Kapandji asked global non-profit International Rivers whether NGOs could not “commission or finance these studies”.

It is shocking that the world’s biggest hydropower scheme, the model project of The World Bank and the WEC, can go forward without an assessment of its social and environmental impacts and a resettlement action plan in place.

Silent stand and Chinese factor

The World Bank and the AfDB have so far remained silent on the mess that they have helped create. It is time for them to clarify their positions and pull out of the project.

Kapandji has made it clear that he hopes to award the Inga 3 contract to a Chinese consortium and build the project with Chinese funding.

In early May he said that Chinese companies could complete the project in a “maximum of five years and if they’re free to do whatever they want to do they can even do it in four years”.

The Chinese government has instructed its dam builders not to build any overseas projects without environmental impact assessments.

The China Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro, members of the Chinese consortium, have both committed not to build any projects without carrying out such assessments.

Building the Inga 3 Dam without thorough environmental impact studies will seriously undermine the efforts of Chinese companies to strengthen their environmental track record.

A good thing to ask is why are Chinese actors considering support for Inga 3 even if the project violates basic Chinese and international standards?

Will geopolitical interests, particularly China’s mining interests in the DRC, trump over financial and environmental responsibility? Will the interest of the Chinese government to buttress President Kabila and protect its Congolese mining projects override concerns about the reputation of its companies?

Any investor who puts US $ 14 billion into a project whose main contract may expire before it is even complete will make for a risky bet.

Any dam builder that supports a mega dam without social and environmental due diligence will establish themselves as substandard actors.

In the meantime, the spotlight will continue to be on the Grand Inga.

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