By Rudo Sanyanga
A blog by Rudo Sanyanga. Rudo is the Africa Program Director at International Rivers, one of our partners within our freshwater portfolio. The blog which will be in three parts looks back on a scoping trip that was undertaken as part of the project we are supporting – Protecting the Congo River.
Africa’s poorest nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), plans to build the world’s largest (and most expensive) hydropower dam, Grand Inga on the Congo River’s Inga Falls. A day before I set forth for the DRC, the huge project took a significant step forward with the signing of a “cooperation treaty” by the DRC and South African governments. The treaty makes South Africa the principal purchaser of the power generated at Inga III power plant, the first phase of the Grand Inga. The country will buy 2500 MW of the total 4800 MW from the proposed dam. The balance will be sold to mining companies in Katanga in southeastern DRC. As expected, the signing event, held in Paris in May, attracted a lot of media coverage and excitement within the government circles in the DRC and internationally. It made headline news within the DRC for a week running. My mission was to see for myself what challenges that damming the Congo River at Inga Falls would bring.
The DRC capital of Kinshasa is huge and full of contradictions. There are over 10 million people and less than 30% have access to electricity, in a country with so much potential to generate electricity. Connections are intermittent and less than 10% have electricity for 24 hours a day. So what do the rest use? Charcoal trading is common in most African cities but in Kinshasa it tops the list. It was everywhere, being sold in street kiosks, loaded on lorries and trucks along the roads and its smoke billowing out of homes.
But on the other hand, electricity was being used wastefully where it was available. I tend to be quite conscious of water and energy saving in all the establishments that I come across. I was warned that I would experience lots of power cuts here, so I was pleasantly surprised when this hardly happened. I even found out that there were so many air conditioners in all the places I went to and that no one bothered to turn them off, even in an unoccupied room. Some buildings were over-equipped with the gadgets to an extent that it was too cold to be inside for more than five minutes. I had to carry a cardigan with me just in case the meeting room got too cold. I found out that the reason for the cold meeting rooms and the need for wearing a cardigan at the Equator was due to the fact that there was no motivation to save electricity. Electricity charges are fixed for about 90% of the consumers as only 10% of local consumers have meters. Secondly, in the area I stayed – Gombe Commune – people had their own huge generators and so had electricity all the time. Those at the lower end of the “totem pole” used wood charcoal. All contributed to carbon emissions in their different ways.