Out of Africa: largest hydro-electric project in history

My son Liam, who is a high school junior in Berkeley, California, volunteers every Tuesday afternoon in the offices of the International Rivers, the world's leading advocacy group on the perils and economic problems associated with large dams. IR's chief, Patrick McCully, is one among the most knowledgeable people on the planet on the subject -- so tuned into trends in dams and hydro-electricity that my nickname for Paddy is "Doctor Dam."

I count McCully as a close friend, and I even share many of his environmental forebodings about large dams -- and especially his considered view that many dams don't make economic sense. But I am not anti-dam, or even categorically opposed to dams. I even think that some hydro-electric projects, so long as they generate economic benefits, ought to proceed even if they adversely impact the surrounding environment.

I'm especially sensitive about criticisms of planned dams and associated hydro-electric projects in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty and high energy costs are serious obstacles to democratic development. Dams and hydro-electricity are greatly needed in Africa -- of all shapes and sizes.

I have elsewhere written with sympathy about small hydro-electric projects -- micro-, pico- and mini-dams that generate electricity from almost any amount of flowing water. I am hardly a bigot about size. I'm even suspicious of especially large infrastructure projects, of any kind in Africa, because they are more likely to fall prey to mismanagement and corruption.

I got to thinking about all this when I read the news about efforts to push forward the controversial Inga dam project in the central African country of Congo. Inga, in all its permuations, calls for a vast expansion of two existing dams on the Congo River, the world's second largest. The estimated cost of the full project -- which would generate twice as much electricity as China's Three Gorges complex, today the world's largest -- is upwards of $80 billion. The cost alone gives many pause, and not the least because large foreign investments in Congo -- among the least stable countries in the world, with a history of extreme corruption -- are exceedingly rare. And actually there are no examples of substantial foreign investments in the country outside of the mining industry.

Yet demand for electricity is no high, relative to supply, in Africa that even the astronomical price-tag on Inga does not frighten its advocates. The "grand" Inga expansion would not provide power for the people of Congo alone but for a half-dozen surrounding countries. Even countries far away, such as Nigeria and South Africa, might use the electricity, according to the project's advocates, who claim the full-blown expansion would double the total electricity generated in Africa.

Last week, the pro-Inga forces met in London. Little was settled at the meeting, but the visible enthusiasm for the project -- at a time of strong economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa and wrenching electricity shortages in many of the region's most important countries -- gave the impression that, if hardly a done deal, the Inga expansion was a live possibility.

That alarms McCully and his staff at IR. The organization's Africa field director, Terri Hathaway, declared that the project "would be a magnet for corruption" and ultimately an economic "white elephant."

I am not so sure that Inga is a grand delusion. For the forseeable future, however, there are many more practical and beneficial African hydro schemes. Talk of Inga is irresponsible and should cease, pending some clear watershed in the Congo's own stability. The country is riven by civil wars, badly governed and fatally wounded by its own sprawling geography. Supporters of Inga should be forced to shelve any financing maneuverings until the Congo sorts out politically and socially. Today, the country is essentially a fiction, propped up by the armed forces of the United Nations and the money of foreign donors.

That will take years -- maybe even decades. In the meantime, hydro-electric enthusiasts in Africa have no shortage of other projects to fund. Let them explore, study, improve, fund and build those projects that ultimately prove worthy -- and forget Inga for now.

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