Africa's greatest river is about to be tamed. The River Congo is set to succumb to a series of giant hydroelectric dams with twice the generating capacity of the world's most powerful hydro-plant, the Three Gorges in China.
Last weekend, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Africa announced a treaty to develop a giant hydroelectric project at Inga Falls, just downstream of the DRC's capital Kinshasa. The $9-billion first phase, with a capacity of 4800 megawatts (MW), will generate more power than Egypt's Aswan High Dam, currently Africa's largest-capacity hydropower dam.
Construction will start in late 2015. South Africa will take half of the power, with most of the rest earmarked for Congolese copper mines.
But the eventual aim, say the two governments, is to generate more than 40,000 MW by fulfilling the dreams of engineers since colonial times to harness the full power of the world's second largest river, after the Amazon. At Inga Falls, some 42,000 cubic metres of water rush down a series of giant rapids every second. With the right infrastructure, the force of the River Congo could supply electricity to Nigeria, Egypt and even Europe.
Good news, bad news
The project will not require a large reservoir to store the water needed to turn its turbines, because the river flows unceasingly at high volume. This is good news as it means that land will not need to be cleared and flooded.
The bad news, say opponents such as the California-based NGO International Rivers, is that few Congolese will get any electricity, since they are generally far from any power grids. "The majority of Africa's poor will remain without power, at a time when better solutions are available," says Rudo Sanyanga of International Rivers, who instead backs investing in local solar power and small-scale hydro schemes.
The World Bank said in a statement that the project would "catalyse large-scale benefits to improve access to infrastructure services" in Africa.