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Africa's Chance to Lead

David Appleyard Chief Editor

Stupendous in magnitude, the Grand Inga project envisages 40 GW of hydropower capacity in the Inga valley, some 250 km west of Kinshasa on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Conceiving such a project, which dwarfs even China's Three Gorges, is one thing. And indeed, the first studies on the Grand Inga project were conducted a half century ago. Of course, execution is an entirely different proposition.

Sufficient to power most of Southern and Central Africa and even export capacity to North Africa and Europe, this visionary project has yet to be realized, although some development has taken place. It could achieve continental and even global impact in terms of clean development, but concerns over the significant environmental effects such a project would engender, as well as myriad political, financial and technical challenges, have apparently beset Grand Inga.

This all sounds like a familiar story. That is, it seems, until now.

In late August, the cabinet of South Africa's government approved a draft treaty with DRC to develop an enabling framework for the project, linking DRC and South Africa into the Grand Inga project and allowing the two countries to jointly explore different economically feasible options. The deal also paves the way for South Africa's utility, Eskom, and DRC's Société Nationale d'Électricité (SNEL) to enter into an agreement to facilitate execution of the project.

According to cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi, "The project will form part of SA's government strategy to promote renewable energy in the region‚ contribute to a reduction of carbon emissions‚ ensure security of supply and to develop energy infrastructure on the continent and the South African Development Community region in particular."

Approval of this accord follows the November 2011 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two nations. At that time, South African President Jacob Zuma observed: "The MOU aims at starting the development of large-scale power generation in sub-Saharan Africa, with particular focus on hydropower resources." He added: "The plant would be able to supply electricity to 500 million people on the continent. This partnership is therefore an important milestone for the two countries."

Renewed enthusiasm for Grand Inga and other large hydro projects has in fact been gathering pace for some time. Momentum has been drawn from demands for clean development across Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

As South African Energy Minister Dipuo Peters commented: "Energy access enables improved productivity in the agricultural, commercial, and transport sectors, empowering communities to engage in self-sustaining productive activities."

Not only does Grand Inga represent a tremendous opportunity to take great strides in providing energy access, but by developing this hydropower project the continent could also transform itself and become a global leader in reconciling growth, clean energy and climate change mitigation efforts. All this is possible with the right mix of domestic policies, innovative technologies and international finance assistance.


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