Congo River Hydropower Plan Gains Momentum

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 25, 2005 (ENS) - Plans to use the Congo River to generate enough electricity to power Africa's industrialization are being drawn up by one of Africa's biggest energy companies, a high level meeting of business and international officials was told Thursday at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council meeting. The plan was announced by Reuel Khoza, chairman of the South African power company Eskom Holdings.

The proposed hydroelectric plant at the Inga Rapids, near the river's mouth in the western Democratic Republic of Congo, would cost some $50 billion and could generate some 40,000 megawatts, twice the power of China's Three Gorges dam, now the world's largest power project.

Eskom plans involve creating what Khoza called a "run-of-river" plant in which water is siphoned off, channelled through turbines and then fed back into the river. Khoza said at least half, if not more of the electricity can be generated in this way which, he said, makes the project environmentally friendly. The rest would be generated by a smaller dam.

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The might of the Congo River makes power generation possible. (Photo credit unknown)
Monique Barbut, Director of UNEP's Division of Technology Industry and Economics, said, "To help Africa meet the Millennium Development Goals, the continent needs energy. Technology, both large and small, has its role to play. But we must ensure that this is clean and environmentally-sound technology whether it be coal or oil or wind or solar. Hydro-electricity can also play its part."

Khoza is part of a delegation of business leaders attending the Africa Business and Sustainable Development meeting taking place at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi where some 100 environment ministers have gathered for UNEP's 23rd Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

Today, only 64 percent of Africa's population has access to a reliable clean water supply. An estimated 526 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity.

The situation in rural areas is expected to worsen over the next two decades if current patterns continue. According to the ministers and business leaders attending the meeting, this water and energy crisis threatening much of Africa will only be solved if there is greater investment in relevant infrastructure and services by the private sector.

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Reuel Khoza of Eskom Holdings presents the Congo River power plan at the UNEP Governing Council (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
UNEP is ready to offer help and advice to companies like Eskom and governments in Africa on developing these technologies so that environmental issues are balanced with the economic and social ones, Barbut said.

"Africa urgently needs energy to lift its people out of poverty and deliver sustainable development," Khoza said. "The Congo River offers enormous opportunities for doing this. We calculate that hydro electricity 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."

Surplus electricity can be sold to places like Spain and Italy in southern Europe via an inter-connector under the Mediterranean Sea.

The idea has been suggested in the past, but it is now gaining real political momentum under the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

Khoza said that prospects for peace in the region after decades of strife means plans to draw power from the Congo River have a better chance of moving forward.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force last week, developed countries can offset some of their emissions at home by clean energy schemes in developing countries.

Khoza said it had been agreed that the Congo project would qualify for such carbon offset projects which are run under the Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism.

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The Congro River flows through the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo courtesy USAID)
Environmentalists see problems if the Inga development goes ahead. In its December 2003 report on the Inga project, the Uruguay based World Rainforest Movement, said, "The Inga project departs from the goal of small-scale sustainable energy projects discussed at the World Summit, where the talk was of bringing electricity to rural people through local wind and solar power projects. Megaprojects like this more than often imply social, economic and environmental disruption of people’s livelihoods, lands and life."

Co-organized by UNEP with the International Chamber of Commerce, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the World Energy Council, the meeting examined how the provision of water and energy underpins the sustainable development needs of Africa and can contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.

From building boreholes for water to the development of solar power in remote villages, business must play a key role in working with local entrepreneurs, public authorities and financing institutions in Africa, business leaders said.

World Energy Council Secretary-General Gerald Doucet said that the business organizaitons are poised to launch the Business Action for Energy initiative at the next session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York.

This will prepare the business contribution to the Commission's discussions on energy in 2006 and 2007.

Doucet welcomed the opportunity to meet with environment ministers as well as ministers with other portfolios.

Representatives of the United Nations Development Programme, Global Environment Facility (GEF), The Commonwealth Secretariat and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie also attended the event.

Discussions were facilitated by Mohamed El-Ashry, Senior Fellow with the United Nations Foundation and former chief executive of the GEF.