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Giant hydro project could illuminate half of Africa.

Inga (Congo): Deep in the bowels of the giant Inga hydroelectric dam that straddles the mighty Congo river stands a fading map named "The motorways of electric power from Inga". From a dot in western Democratic Republic of Congo, lines extend across the African continent. They run southwards through Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and northwards via Sudan and Libya, reaching as far as Morocco. For decades, governments dreamed of harnessing the Congo river's enormous energy at the Inga rapids with an expansion of the dam large enough to power half of Africa. Years of conflict and misrule in Congo meant the project was never realised. Instead, in the cavernous halls of Inga's two dams, water drips from the ceiling and rusted pipes sit above puddles. Five of the 14 turbines no longer spin at all, a sign of the decay. Fast-growing economies Now a deal with South Africa to buy electricity from Inga has revived talk of the giant hydro project that could illuminate a continent whose economies are rapidly expanding but lack the power supply to sustain it. "We had to find a buyer for this energy. Otherwise we cannot build Inga," Bruno Kapandji, Congo's minister of energy and hydro power, said. "South Africa is a solvent and credible buyer." Following a year of talks, South Africa has promised to buy at least half the electricity from Inga III, a $12 billion dam that, once built, will produce 4,800mw of energy. Much of the rest may go to Congo's power-starved mining industry. This is nearly three times the amount produced from Inga's two existing dams, which are decades old and have been crippled by neglect, government debt and risk-averse investors. Success for Inga III would help to raise investors' confidence in the remaining five stages of the Grand Inga project. At an estimated cost of $50-80 billion, Grand Inga would produce 44,000mw, dwarfing all other hydro-electric projects in the world, including China's Three Gorges Dam. "This incredible feat of human ingenuity, when completed, will have the capacity to power Africa and indeed to export electricity beyond the continent," South African President Jacob Zuma said at a signing ceremony in Kinshasa. Talk of progress at Inga comes at a time of fresh optimism in Congo. Its army, backed by South African troops in a UN peackeeping mission, has defeated the most serious rebellion to plague the mineral-rich east in a decade. Ethiopia building dam It also comes amid a drive to ensure Africa's era of growth isn't brought to a halt by lack of power. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa, with its 800 million people, produces the same amount of power as Spain, home to 45 million. Uganda has recently completed the 250mw Bujagali dam near the source of the Nile. Ethiopia is building the 6,000mw Grand Renaissance dam, which will be Africa's largest once completed. To the west in Sierra Leone, hydro-electric power is central to a $3.5 billion plan to increase power production tenfold by 2017. None come close the scale of Grand Inga. But experts urge caution, even for just the first stage of the process. In February 2012, the previous plan for Inga III fell through when the dam's main source of cash, an aluminium refinery planned by BHP Billiton, was shelved. This led to talks with South Africa to secure a market for Inga's power. "The major issue is whether the financing for the project will come through. The cost of Inga III is twice the official voted state budget, and is actually four times the executed budget," said a Congo-based diplomat who follows the issue.

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Geographic Code:60SUB
Date:Nov 27, 2013
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