Report

The River That Swallows All Dams

For 60 years, colonialists, engineers, and dictators have tried to tame Africa’s greatest waterway. Welcome to the Congo River, where dreams go to die.

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In August 2011, the 10 million residents of Kinshasa worked and slept in a thick haze of diesel fumes pumped from thousands of generators running around the clock. The pollution, though, wasn’t the main worry for most in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was what the fumes reflected: the lack of power. During that August, the two hydroelectric dams on the Congo River that served as the country’s major source of electricity were stymied by a combination of broken equipment and unusually low water levels.

But even when the dams — Inga I and Inga II — were producing electricity, it was only a fraction of what the country needed. Two-thirds of enterprises in Congo rely on their own generators. While the data is unreliable, it’s estimated that less than one-third of people in Congo’s urban areas have access to electricity, and that figure plunges to single digits in rural parts of the country. Businesses rank electricity as the major constraint to their growth, coming well ahead of issues like access to finance, taxes, and even corruption and instability — no small thing given that Congo is regularly ranked by Transparency International, in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, as one of the world’s most corrupt countries and that the country suffered one of the most deadly conflicts of the twenty-first century. Congo is near the bottom of the rankings on almost every indicator of development: more than four-fifths of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, according to the latest survey data. Nearly one in 10 children born dies before his or her first birthday. And the link between energy poverty and poor health is compelling: When the dams’ water pumps lack power, homes have to use polluting fuels instead of electricity for light, and when vaccines cannot be properly refrigerated, they fail to work properly.

It didn’t have to be this way. For nearly a century, humans have made plans to harness the power of the nearly 3,000-mile-long Congo River, which originates in the highlands of the East African Rift and flows west into the Atlantic, where its plume can be detected 500 miles from shore. Moving 10 million gallons a second, the volume of water in the river is enormous; its flow is second only to that of the Amazon. In less than 20 miles near Matadi, in Bas-Congo province, the river drops 300 feet, creating what’s known as the Inga Falls. Here, the river rages downward at speeds that top 30 miles per hour, in a channel as much as 750 feet deep — more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.

As large as the promise of the Inga Falls is the failure to deliver on it. War, kleptocracy, and economic collapse have thwarted the dream of the world’s greatest attempted power endeavor. And even the initial parts of the project that have been realized currently lay in decrepitude.

Nevertheless, the allure of the Congo River is once again front and center, and some of the world’s largest construction firms — including Chinese state-owned enterprises Sinohydro and China Three Gorges Corp. — are vying to build a hydroelectricity station at the falls, a project known as Inga III, a precursor to the full Grand Inga Dam project, which would involve a huge dam wall alongside 52 turbines in five additional hydropower stations. The timing for all this remains murky, with feasibility studies and efforts to finance the project still underway. But if all goes according to plan, the Grand Inga Dam would provide enough electricity to power half the continent and would generate double the electricity of China’s Three Gorges Dam (currently the world’s largest). Transmission lines from the project would stretch from the falls all the way south to Pretoria, South Africa, up to Cairo, Egypt — 4,000 miles apart. Africa, long energy-impoverished, would go from suffering some of the most expensive rates for power in the developing world to enjoying some of its cheapest, perhaps even exporting excess generation to Western Europe.

The scale of ambition is certainly astounding. But in one of the world’s most corrupt and politically volatile countries, can today’s planners succeed where so many others have failed?

* * *

The Congo River has been called “the river that swallows all rivers.” When Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao encountered the mouth of the river in 1482, he marveled at its expanse, as if it were in “pitched battle with the ocean” and unwilling to give quarter. Efforts to navigate it were thwarted by a series of 32 plunging waterfalls and rapids along its lower course, surrounded by jagged cliffs and malaria-infested jungle.

It was not until almost 400 years after Cao had sailed past the river that Welsh-born explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley became the first person to traverse the full 2,700-mile length of the river. Shortly after, in 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State — taking over an area 75 times larger than his homeland. Presenting himself as a humanitarian and philanthropist, King Leopold claimed he was trying to end slavery and promote open markets in Congo: “What I do there is done as a Christian duty to the poor African; and I do not wish to have one franc back of all the money I have expended.”

In reality, King Leopold treated most of the Congo basin as his private property and ushered in a toweringly brutal period that ravaged the region of its abundant rubber trees. Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, suggests that the Belgian ruler inflicted a death toll of “genocidal proportions” — about 10 million people died as a result of forced labor and its repercussions between 1885 and 1908.

As early as the 1920s, Belgian colonists began to appreciate that one of Congo’s greatest treasures was the power of the river concentrated in the same falls that had kept the country’s center a mystery for hundreds of years. When the U.S. Geological Survey published its World Atlas of Commercial Geology in 1921, it reported that the Congo basin held a quarter of the world’s potential water power — more than in any other single location. Four years later, at the behest of King Leopold, the Belgian explorer and mathematician Pierre Van Deuren drew up initial plans for construction of a dam at Inga Falls that would be directed for industrial development. By 1929, a private-sector European consortium was evaluating its potential. Yet global depression and approaching war diverted European resources, stalling the attempts to develop Inga.

In 1955, the Belgian vice governor general of Congo brought Inga’s hydro-development back to the foreground. The Belgian government began soliciting proposals from private international firms, which undertook technical studies of the site. Several prominent Americans lent their expertise to the studies. In 1955, the president of the Monsanto Chemical Company led a field assessment of Inga’s economic viability for the U.S. Foreign Operations Administration, the forerunner of today’s U.S. Agency for International Development — the first sign that Washington was interested in the dam’s power to drive development. The team of Americans noted Inga’s potential to dwarf production at most other hydropower sites, with capacity 15 times the electricity consumption of Belgium at the time.

By 1957, a group of experts — including the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a U.S. government-owned power corporation established during the Great Depression — then began to review engineering proposals on behalf of the Belgian government. They concluded that the initial plans were too ambitious given Congo’s limited state of development and argued for a three-phase approach: Inga phase I would involve a modest diversion of river water through a few turbines, and its electrical output would be targeted largely to local consumers. Once it came online, it could help finance the subsequent phases of construction. Inga II would bring additional generator capacity at the same site, and Inga III, the largest of the three phases, would reroute the entire river through a dam. As one history of the period notes, “This would produce fantastic amounts of electricity — but at a cost that was also fantastic.” Even the scaled-back plans remained remarkably grandiose; the initial phase of development alone was expected to cost $320 million, with the full project likely costing upwards of $3 billion (worth about $25.5 billion today).

As Popular Mechanics magazine reported in 1958, “The Belgian Colonial Minister said this dam would give birth to an industrial complex which might well rival the Ruhr in Germany.” And why not? Congo was producing 70 percent of the world’s industrial diamonds and cobalt, along with 10 percent of its copper. To consume the cheap energy that would eventually flow from the river, Belgian officials planned a plant to process imported bauxite into half a million tons of aluminum a year and examined the possibilities of new industries, such wood pulp, fertilizer, and heavy-water production.

In what would become a repeated motif of Inga’s development, the design called for a massive electrification project in which only a small portion of the power generated would reach ordinary Congolese. Instead, capacity was seen as best suited to large industrial uses. The profits from an industrial boom fueled by cheap power would, at least in theory, eventually trickle down to Congolese in terms of jobs and more localized efforts to generate power.

But the people of Congo had an immense need for electrification themselves. Access to electricity in the country during the 1950s and 1960s, other than in pockets of the capital, was limited to industrial facilities and mines. If your work did not have some direct link to foreigners, it was virtually ensured that your daily life did not involve electricity. Even communities only a couple of miles from the dam sites would remain unelectrified under the development plans since transmission lines were all directed toward large industrial users or cities.

On the plus side, though, the design and location of the first dams involved comparatively little displacement of people. In reviewing the earlier plans, International Rivers, a organization opposed to large dams, has suggested the project involved moving six clans, containing two to four families each, and that they were promised 781,000 Belgian francs as compensation in 1958 (worth about $150,000 today) that has never been paid. But beyond this, there aren’t records of any debate about the merits of the dam among the people it was intended to serve.

Belgians may have hoped that investments in Inga would signal stability and the continuity of their rule, but others were far from convinced. The New York Times asked in 1958, “If the project is to be developed to its full capacity, a task that may take 25 or 30 years, who will then be running it?”

The doubts were justified: Congo’s push for sovereignty came rapidly. As independence movements swept Africa, Belgium came under intense pressure from the United Nations to shed its colonies. Early in 1959 there were riots in the capital, then known as Leopoldville, and Belgians increasingly became the focus of anger in the streets. After a series of conferences between Belgians and the Congolese independence movement led by Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu, the Belgian Congo was put on a one-year timetable for sovereignty, with Belgium slated to cut ties by June 30, 1960.

In the rush, remarkably little planning was put into the logistics of handing over power. Moreover, the misrule of the colonial period, compounding two centuries of slave trade, destroyed the legitimacy of governing institutions and exacerbated ethnic divisions. (It was not until 1957 that anyone in Congo, regardless of his or her race, had been allowed to vote in an election. There was not a single Congolese university graduate until 1956. At independence, there were no black officers in the army, there were no native Congolese doctors or engineers, and there were only three African managers in the entire civil service.) Huge numbers of Belgian professionals, concerned for their safety because of riots and violence against them, fled within weeks after independence. The Belgian Congo had achieved a measure of prosperity, but the Belgians were leaving no skills behind to help manage that wealth. That laid the basis for the period of murder and misrule that followed independence — and yet again helped doom efforts to convert Congo’s immense natural wealth into sustained development progress.

* * *

Just days after independence in 1960, Congo suffered a series of interlocking and escalating crises: an army mutiny by Congolese soldiers, riots targeting foreigners, flaring ethnic tensions, and Belgian-backed rebels in the copper-producing province of Katanga threatening secession. A CIA-backed plan in September 1960 led to the ouster, torture, and death of Soviet-friendly Lumumba, who had been elected president. By the end of 1965, Lt. Gen. Joseph Mobutu had declared himself president and had outlawed all rival political parties.

It was a determined President Mobutu who pushed forward the first phase of the Inga dam project even amid all the chaos, following the rough contours of the three-tiered plan from the late 1950s. Construction began in January 1968. Mobutu insisted on using state, rather than international, funds for the project so that he would fully control it. (As it turns out, Congo’s mineral wealth has always ensured a certain level of income for Congo’s government and its projects, though that income has only been incidentally used to improve the lives of the country’s people.) Legions of Congolese laborers and foreign engineers and construction workers swarmed the site. Phase I was relatively straightforward; it did not involve transmitting power great distances, instead offering power to the capital, only 155 miles away. Inga I was considered an early triumph for Congo’s new dictator, completed within four years without any notable disasters at a cost of $140 million.

Once Inga I was running with the capacity to pump out 351 megawatts — about enough to power 200,000 U.S. homes — Mobutu, who had recently renamed the country Zaire, proposed the second phase of the Inga dam project. This would bring online additional generation at the Inga I site; even more ambitiously, it also called for the construction of a 1,100-mile-long high-voltage power line to carry electricity to the restive province of Katanga in the southeast, home to the country’s copper mines and the vital cash cow for the regime. Choosing Katanga as the ultimate destination for the bulk of Inga II’s power supply — the rest would go to the capital — was a political decision as much as an economic one. Mobutu hoped that tying Katanga to the grid would dampen its fervor for secession and promote a greater sense of national identity. Outside the capital, it was still mostly only industrial users that would be on the grid.

The project ran into problems from the start. Mobutu’s government needed to find a large corporate buyer, given that the power was bypassing local users in favor of a potentially more lucrative industrial setup. His administration was so eager to secure a major purchaser that it eventually offered a fantastical series of concessions to Alusuisse, a large Swiss aluminum concern, to set up a bauxite processing facility in Katanga. Alusuisse was exempted from all export duties, granted a veto over any competing aluminum projects for a decade, and guaranteed the lowest power prices in the world. Mobutu’s government also committed to making nearly a billion dollars’ worth of port improvements to facilitate aluminum exports.

As construction began, it became clear that planners at the Société Nationale d’Électricité, the body Mobutu had established to manage the Inga project as he nationalized control of electric utilities, had badly underestimated the difficulty of running transmission lines to Katanga across 1,000-plus miles of unforgiving, undeveloped territory. The price of the lines increased from $260 million to triple or quadruple that figure, with construction — led by the American firm Morrison-Knudsen International — running years behind schedule. International workers and engineers had homes in gated communities in the capital; Congolese workers hacked through jungles for $15 a month with virtually no labor protections.

Mobutu, meanwhile, worked hard to become the ultimate kleptocratic showman. He built a lavish palace deep in the jungle with a nearby runway large enough to land a Concorde jet — which he sometimes rented to fly to Europe. He owned yachts and a fleet of Mercedes that bounced across the country’s crumbling roads. He showered largesse on his friends and family and stashed as much as $5 billion in Swiss bank accounts. But when the price for copper, which provided two-thirds of Zaire’s foreign earnings, dropped from $1.40 per pound to $0.60 per pound in 1974, the floor fell out of the economy. Thanks not least to Mobutu’s anti-communist credentials, lending from the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund still flooded in to fill budget deficits. Nevertheless, in just a few years, the country was essentially insolvent: Exporters to Zaire all demanded upfront payment in hard currency.

In 1980, Zaire’s debt reached 78 percent of GNP, one of the world’s highest rates at the time. Much of that debt was due to Mobutu’s follies, but about a quarter could be attributed directly to the second phase of the Inga project. Additional generator capacity was completed in 1977, and the power lines to Katanga were completed in 1982, as cost overruns edged toward a billion dollars. But the hydropower project wasn’t generating any income to help repay that debt. These exorbitant costs meant that instead of the cheapest power in the world, Inga II would generate some of its most expensive.

Making matters worse, aluminum operations by Alusuisse, which at this point was the only significant buyer of the power, collapsed in the early 1980s due to tumbling global prices for the commodity. That meant only about 20 percent of Inga II’s capacity was ever utilized. And towns and villages along the power-line route scavenged it for wires and spare parts; they had no interest in maintaining the line because there were no substations along the way to direct a portion of production for local electrification needs.

* * *

Projects like Inga became one of the prime reasons that lending for large-scale infrastructure fell into disfavor in the international development community during the 1980s and 1990s. Even monumental proposals often lacked credible feasibility studies to determine whether they would be economically viable under real-world conditions. Too often they were presidents’ vanity projects justified by toadying planners rather than rational investments that would generate large economic returns. Or they were simply too big and too expensive, and countries like Zaire lacked the capacity to manage them.

Dams, as the biggest, most expensive, and often most troubled face of big infrastructure, fell into particular disfavor. And Zaire was Exhibit A: Life expectancy in the country had gone backward, dipping below pre-independence levels at a time when rapid gains in life expectancy were the norm around the globe. And by the early 1990s, the country’s economy was about the same size as it had been at independence, despite having tripled its population over that time. The country’s debt, at $12.9 billion, amounted to $258 per person in a country with an average annual income about one-half of that. Affording food, much less power, was becoming a challenge.

As Inga’s production limped along, Zaire slid into decrepitude, plagued by extreme violence and political chaos. In the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, millions of Hutus, including some of those who had directed the killing, fled into Zaire. Rwandan and Zairian Tutsis, led in part by Katanga-native Laurent Kabila, were angered by Mobutu’s willingness to give safe harbor to Hutu forces, and they launched a bloody rebellion that ousted the president from power in May 1997. When a cancer-ravaged Mobutu died in Morocco four months later, the country reverted to its previous name.

Rwandan forces soon invaded Congo and turned off the power flowing from Inga to the capital, demonstrating control over one of the few pieces of key infrastructure that still managed to work at all. Kabila called in military assistance from Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. “Africa’s World War” that followed, as a confusing stew of actors fought for control of Congo, was one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II, with more than 5 million people losing their lives. Nine African countries and 20 armed groups were involved in the fighting at different points. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 by one of his own bodyguards; his son Joseph assumed the presidency. In 2002, a peace deal was finally struck with Rwanda. From this point, slowly, unevenly, and with the massive support of international aid and a U.N. peacekeeping force, Congo began to look like a country if not at peace, at least considerably less at war. And the dream of taming the Inga Falls began once again to gain traction.

* * *

The renewed excitement over Inga had its genesis not across an ocean, but just to the south. Even as the African war raged, in July 1999 South African President Thabo Mbeki addressed the Organization of African Unity and argued that for the continent to benefit from globalization, it needed to dramatically expand its regional infrastructure and networks. He cited the hydropower potential of Inga as one of a few specific examples. South Africa — as well as the rest of the region — was desperate for cheap, reliable power.

So in 2003, the utilities of Congo, South Africa, Botswana, Angola, and Namibia formed the Western Corridor project, or Westcor, specifically with the aim of better harnessing Inga’s hydropower potential and sharing its benefits. By 2005, South African energy utility Eskom, working in conjunction with the South African government, had unveiled a $50 billion plan for an Inga III project, which would be followed by Grand Inga, the biggest dam of all. (Eskom, keen to move fast because South Africa was increasingly energy hungry, understood that a plan for Inga was unlikely to be forthcoming from a Congolese government that was still largely focused on internal security.)

Inga III would be a new dam located less than a mile from the first two. It would have a relatively simple run-of-the river design; such dams don’t store water like traditional dams. Instead, in Inga’s case, the dam would divert water from the river to a neighboring valley, through turbines, and then back into the river without the need for a huge concrete wall on the scale of the Hoover or Three Gorges dams. Although it wouldn’t generate as much power as traditional dam designs, it would significantly lessen environmental impacts because the scale of flooding from artificial lakes would be minimized. As planned, Inga III would not flood a single home, and it’s projected to create nearly 5,000 megawatts of power, about the same total as all of Nigeria’s current electricity production.

Grand Inga is a considerably more ambitious project. With 52 turbines, it would dam the entire river and flood 22,000 hectares of the Bundi valley, which is home to as many as 30,000 people who would have to be relocated. Five additional hydropower stations would considerably increase the generating potential of the falls. Once these additional hydropower stations were brought online at the dam site, the whole project would dwarf any other hydropower facility worldwide.

Meanwhile, during most of the 2000s, Congo remained consumed with trying to consolidate an uneasy peace and build some semblance of a modern state. The international community poured enormous resources into conducting elections, reforming an army, rewriting the constitution, and trying to restore a sense of order in the country’s largely ungoverned eastern regions, where militia groups still operate and government forces have routinely been accused of their own shocking abuses. Progress was halting and uneven, but over the last decade the country’s life expectancy finally bounced back above pre-independence levels; reviving Inga began to look ever more plausible.

In 2013, a $12 billion proposal for Inga phase III was put forth by the Congolese government, in cooperation with the African Development Bank and the government of South Africa. (The African Development Bank is providing financing for the project’s preparation. South Africa has agreed to buy some of the power generated for Eskom.) The World Bank provided an additional $73 million in technical assistance for the project in 2014. Under the plan, which would require a mix of public and private funds and be run by a private company, about half the power would be provided to South Africa and the rest used domestically. The Mutanda copper mines in Katanga (which suffered 862 hours of power interruptions between May and September 2014) and similar facilities would be major beneficiaries. And 1,000 megawatts of power would be left over for the public utility, primarily to provide power in the capital (though that share might increase under an ongoing revision of usage plans). At a predicted cost of $0.03 per kilowatt-hour, the electricity would cost as little as one-sixth the average cost of production in the region.

Two years have passed since the official announcement, but the plans for Inga III are still developing. Exactly who will own and operate the facilities, how financing will work, who will bid, when construction will commence, and when it is projected to be complete are still to be finalized. (Initial plans for a 2015 start date have been pushed back twice because so many details remain to be worked out; 2017 is the new target for Inga III to come online.)

It is a considerable volte-face that international donors like the World Bank are rethinking their skepticism of large dams — at least in the case of Inga. The emphasis on big projects is back. In part that is because recent research shows energy access can be powerful in addressing extreme poverty, and advocates for infrastructure now include people worried about the poorest of the poor, not just a country’s overall output. Jin-Yong Cai, the head of the World Bank’s private-sector financing arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), called Inga his top priority in June 2014: “If there’s one transaction in my tenure at IFC, if we can break ground on this, it would be fantastic.”

Following this lead, international construction firms are now scrambling back to the region. A small army of consultants and engineers has churned out new feasibility studies at the site over the last three years. A consortium led by China Three Gorges Corp. plans to bid on the Inga III project, along with two other consortia that include members from South Korea, Canada, and Spain. Chinese firms are also suggesting the construction of an aluminum smelter near Inga III to process bauxite imported from Guinea.

* * *

Despite the excitement, the future of Inga is not without challenges. A recent analysis of 245 large dams by researchers at Oxford University’s business school concludes that the average dam costs almost twice what it was budgeted at the outset, significantly driving up the cost of electricity delivered. Add to that the risks associated with one financing model being proposed for Inga III: The winning private consortium will own the power plant and provide power on a “take or pay” basis. That means if the country cannot use the power being generated by the facility — due to delays in constructing power lines or a slowdown in copper or aluminum production, perhaps — it would still have to pay for it. Overpriced, underutilized electricity has the power to suck the country into a debt spiral, even though international officials insist that such an approach is designed to minimize Congo’s financial risk and maximize its gain.

Moreover, the scars from King Leopold’s misrule linger to this day, coloring the notion that big, ambitious projects designed in distant capitals will have the potential to benefit the country’s people. And despite progress, Congo remains institutionally weak and politically fractured. In January 2015, violent protests erupted in several cities across the country after the National Assembly adopted a draft elections law that made a national census the precursor to the presidential election scheduled for 2016. President Joseph Kabila is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, so many read the idea of linking the poll to a census — in a country where it is notoriously hard to count people — as a clear sign that he would manufacture reasons to stay in power indefinitely. The last thing the World Bank and development agencies want is for Congo to have another “president for life” as they are making the case that today’s Inga projects will not be a repeat of the Mobutu years. Congo is also still struggling with armed rebel groups in the often lawless east, and cooperation between U.N. peacekeepers and the government in combating the rebels is foundering after a U.N. human rights official was booted from the country for criticizing rights abuses by Congolese security forces.

Further complicating matters is Washington’s indecisiveness. When the Inga III and other electrification-related assistance projects initially came to the World Bank’s board, the U.S. representative abstained (though the United States did support an Africa Development Bank package of $33 million largely toward the same ends). The U.S. Congress meanwhile has been of two minds on the issue. Sen. Patrick Leahy has been vocally skeptical about Inga, a view shaped in part by advocacy groups against the dam, like International Rivers. The U.S. Senate included language in the 2014 spending bill that specifically instructed the Treasury Department to advise the World Bank and other international financial institutions that U.S. policy is to oppose “the construction of any large hydroelectric dam” — a none-too-subtly-veiled reference to Inga. Appropriators in the House of Representatives countered with language in support of hydropower projects.

Even many in President Barack Obama’s administration think the project is ill advised but are reluctant to speak out given the emphasis on energy projects in Power Africa, the White House’s initiative to drive collaborative investment in electrifying the continent. The most enthusiastic cheerleader of Inga within the U.S. government was Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, but he has now left his post and there is no obvious replacement to take up his pompoms. Power Africa coordinator Andrew Herscowitz came closest to tipping the administration’s cards when he told an audience in Washington in January 2015, “We don’t want the Power Africa brand to be tarnished by one major project that’s going to fail.” (His other comments on the project have appeared more cautiously supportive.)

Some of the U.S. unease reflects mounting environmental and social concerns about the project. International Rivers and other groups argue that Inga III poses risks to migratory fish and could disrupt the flow of nutrients from the river that are vital to the ecological health of the Atlantic. The environmental risks mount with further phases of the Grand Inga project, which will involve considerably larger dams. While defenders suggest the risks to biodiversity are small, International Rivers also highlights the plight of those in the Bundi valley whose homes and lands will be flooded by Grand Inga. They are concerned that they will be left without compensation or new homes; there is considerable historical precedent from Congo and elsewhere to justify such concerns.

Even if Congo can overcome all these hurdles, the direct impact on the country’s poorest people remains in question. In 2013, a consortium of NGOs wrote to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim noting that 85 percent of available electricity in Congo was being consumed by large industrial users while less than 10 percent of the population had electricity access. “We are concerned that the Bank’s proposed focus on large hydropower projects will write off electricity access for the majority of Africa’s poor,” they argued. In response, and with a considerable nudge from Washington and the European Union, Congo recently passed an overhaul of its energy law and is moving ahead with reforms of its rural electrification strategy.

Even still, the first warning signs are already emerging. The ongoing rehabilitation of the existing Inga I and II facilities has taken longer and has been more expensive than expected, with the Work Bank, which is financing the renovations, blaming the delays and cost overruns on the fact that the dams, turbines, and reservoirs were simply in much worse shape than anyone imagined. The bank also recently announced that no work would begin on Inga III until at least 2017, pushing its existing schedule back by at least a year.

* * *

World Bank President Kim, asked about the risks of large dam projects at an August 2014 event, noted that he had once advocated abolishing the World Bank as an institution in part because of its abysmal record on big dams. He insisted things have changed: “We’ve gotten so much better at making sure the environmental damage is limited, that the respect for the rights of indigenous people, respect for the rights of people who are overseeing it. We are so much better at doing it, and anything that will give you 40 gigawatts of installed capacity and take billions of tons of carbon out of the air, you got to figure out a way of making those things work.” Despite all the reasons to doubt success, the potential for regionwide economic benefits from a massive low-carbon energy source make the project hard for a global institution to ignore.

The World Bank is advocating an approach that it suggests will prevent the nightmares of Inga’s past from recurring. It is predicated on the belief that the dam’s management can be largely insulated from, and perform substantially better than, Congo’s government as a whole. The World Bank’s proposals frequently refer to a “ring-fenced development authority.” Some donors even suggest the potential for the management of the Inga project to have broader effects across Congo’s government; they point to the development of an independent authority for Inga, the overhaul of the national electric utility, and increasing emphasis on rural electrification from the government all as major steps in the right direction. But can Inga really be ring-fenced from Congo’s spectacularly messy politics?

It is difficult to escape the sense that Inga remains someone else’s dream. The people of Congo desperately want power and economic development, but other than in a cross-section of the country’s political and economic elite, it is hard to find evidence of a collective belief that Inga is the best way to lead them there.

With so much uncertainty and such a bad track record, there’s skepticism that kick-starting the country’s development with Grand Inga is a bet worth making — no matter Pretoria’s thirst for Congo’s megawatts or Washington’s hopes that Inga can help transform Congo and lift its people out of poverty. The world can’t want Inga more than the people of Congo want Inga; that just won’t work. Until then, the vast power of the Congo churns on, waiting to be harnessed — one day.

Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

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