Seven African governments and the world’s largest banks and construction firms met in London this week to plan the most powerful dam ever conceived – an $US 80 billion hydro power project on the Congo River.

The Grand Inga dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo would generate twice as much electricity as the world’s current largest dam, the Three Gorges in China. The dam would be about 145 kilometres from the mouth of the Congo, the world’s second largest river, where the river drops 100 metres in about 14 kilometres of rapids. One proposal is for a dam 150 metres high with 52 turbines each producing as much electricity as a nuclear power station. The total output would be 40,000 MW – enough to supply all of Southern Africa.

Some 500 million Africans, including 94% of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are not connected to the electricity grid. According to Gerald Doucet, Secretary General of the World Energy Council, which convened the London meeting, this will be “the greatest sustainable development project, offering Africa a unique chance for interdependence and prosperity”.

However, Terri Hathaway, Africa campaigner with International Rivers, a watchdog group monitoring the project, argues that  the project’s electricity is unlikely to benefit those not yet connected to the grid because of the enormous cost of building the necessary distribution system. It is more likely that the electricity would be exported to South Africa and Egypt, and even to Israel and Europe, or used in exploiting the mineral wealth of Katanga.  Already the output from two small dams on the Congo River is going exclusively to the Katanga mines, bypassing the local people who have no access to electricity.

The Congo River watershed
The Congo River watershed