Water History

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 31–58 | Cite as

Congo River’s Grand Inga hydroelectricity scheme: linking environmental history, policy and impact

  • Kate B. ShowersEmail author
Original Paper


The idea of using the second largest river on earth—Africa’s Congo—for electricity production has existed for over 100 years. Plans first proposed in 1928 were more fully explored during the European (and colonial) post-World War II industrial expansion. The idea of diverting the entire Lower Congo through electricity generators, Grand Inga was embraced by Apartheid South Africa, the Arab Republic of Egypt, and nations of post-Apartheid southern Africa. In the twenty-first century, as Europe seeks to mitigate carbon emissions, non-carbon producing electricity generation is defined as ‘green’ and ‘renewable’. The Inga Falls on the Lower Congo River are again attracting attention. This perception of Grand Inga as a saviour of European economies is not new. For centuries, Europeans have viewed Africa as a source of raw materials for economic expansion. With the advent of electrical power and its generation by flowing water, African rivers entered the domain of European extractive relations. Moreover, the trivialization of potential environmental harm that hydro-power development could cause is not new. Rivers across the continent have been dammed in the name of ‘development’, benefiting elites and international corporations with scant regard for environmental consequences. Plans for a massive Grand Inga Dam were replaced by studies of a Grand Inga Cascades in 2009 when engineers recognized catastrophic local consequences. Grand Inga is eligible for finance under Kyoto as a renewable technology. This designation was surely made without consideration of the river’s geomorphology, function and biogeochemistry as major constituents of the tropical Atlantic Ocean. This is because the Congo—and its influence—do not stop at its coastal mouth. A vast submarine canyon extending 730 km from the coast and ending in a 300,000 km2 fan on the ocean floor serves as a major conduit of terrestrial minerals and carbon to the deep sea. On the surface, the river’s plume has been detected 800 km offshore. Accumulating marine evidence indicates the Congo’s significant influence on the equatorial Atlantic, which, in turn, is central to many climate change models. Analysis of the development of electricity, its infrastructure and policies at a continental scale articulates the global political economic context of Grand Inga’s long environmental history, while environmental impact analysis at an Atlantic Basin, rather than at strictly local scale, indicates potentially serious global consequences.


Grand Inga Hydro-electric dam Congo River Atlantic Ocean EU Electricity Climate change 


  1. Abazza M (1994) Africa–Europe electrical interconnection and prospects of world-wide interconnections. Minister of Electricity and Energy, Arab Republic of Egypt, CIGRE Keynote Address, Paris, 28 Aug 1994Google Scholar
  2. African Unification Front (undated) Hydroelectric energy: sharing energy in the African Union. Accessed 21 April 2009
  3. African Union Commission and European Commission Launch an Ambitious Africa–EU Energy Partnership (2008) Memo/08/555. Brussels, 8 Sept 2008. Accessed 21 April 2009
  4. America’s Library (undated) The world’s first hydro-electric power plant. America’s Library, Library of Congress. Accessed 21 April 2009
  5. Ashe B (2002) Eskom’s reach in Africa, 16 Aug 2002. EarthLife Africa eThekwini. Eskom’s African privatisation footprint 2000–2002. CorpWatch: holding corporations accountable website. Accessed 21 April 2009
  6. Bakken Library and Museum (undated) Catalogue. Accessed 21 April
  7. Braga ES, Andrié C, Bourlès B, Vangriesheim A, Baurand F, Chuchla R (2004) Congo River signature and deep circulation in the eastern Guinea Basin. Deep Water Res I 51:1057–1073CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Byatt HA (1920) From HA Byatt, Administrator, Dar-es-Salaam to Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies, London, 9 June 1920. Tanganyika Territory No. 224, PRO T 161/1049Google Scholar
  9. Carlton J (1955) From John Carlton, British Consulate-General, Leopoldville, Belgian Congo to Harold Macmillan, M.P., Foreign Office, 6 June 1955. Confidential. No. 43e (1531/6/55). PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-Electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/113570Google Scholar
  10. CBC News (2007) All industry eyes will be on N.L.’s Orphan Basin oil exploration. 31 July 2006. Accessed 21 April 2009
  11. Congo Scheme for Cheapest Electricity (1957) Daily Telegraph, 22 August 1957. PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  12. Cotton JR (1957a) From JR Cotton, Counsellor (Commercial), British Embassy, Brussels to RL Pitt, Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, Queen Anne’s Lodge, London, 6 Nov 1957. B.S. No. 1006 (54315/57). PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  13. Cotton JR (1957b) From JR Cotton, Counsellor (Commercial), British Embassy, Brussels to JB Smith, Board of Trade, London, 6 Nov 1957. Confidential. P. No. 153 (54316/57). PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  14. Coynel A, Seyler P, Etcheber H, Meybeck M, Orange D (2005) Spatial and seasonal dynamics of total suspended sediment and organic carbon species in the Congo River. Global Biogeochem Cycles 19:GB4019CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Crossland JI, Crossland CJ, Swaney DP (2006) Congo (Zaire) River Estuary, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Accessed 21 April 2009
  16. Davie K (2007) A dirty energy cauldron. Mail & Guardian. Business 2:1, 9–15 Feb 2007Google Scholar
  17. Davies BR, Day J (1998) Vanishing waters. University of Cape, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  18. Deerpalsing N, Deva N (2006) Report on the problematics of energy in the ACP countries. Committee on Economic Development, Finance and Trade. ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, 20 Feb 2006. Accessed 21 April 2009
  19. Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (2005) South Africa. Country report. Fourteenth session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, Sept 2005. Accessed 21 April 2009
  20. duPlooy P (2007) Build windmills in the calm. Mail & Guardian:4, 9–15 Feb 2007Google Scholar
  21. Electrical Power (1929) Electrical power: national and regional schemes. Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th edn, vol 8, pp 144–150Google Scholar
  22. Elmissiry M (2000) The southern African Power Pool and its impact on billing and metering. Metering Africa. In: Proceedings of Africa 2000 conference and exhibition, Nairobi, Kenya.
  23. Energy Information Administration (2006) Southern Africa SADC. Electricity. Country analysis briefs. Department of Energy, U.S. Government. Accessed 21 April 2009
  24. ENS (2005) Congo River hydro plan gains momentum, 25 Feb 2005. Accessed 21 April 2009
  25. ESCOM (1949) Twenty-five years: a record of the origin, progress and achievements of the Electricity Supply Commission, Union of South Africa, 1923–1948. Rhodes House 610.441 s.21Google Scholar
  26. Eskom (2006) Director’s report. Eskom annual report. Accessed 21 April 2009
  27. Everwyn G (1962) Which way in Katanga? Afr Aff 61:149–157Google Scholar
  28. Federal Power Board (1959) Annual report and accounts for the year ended, 30 June 1959. Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Salisbury. Rhodes House 740.14 s.37/1958/59Google Scholar
  29. Government of Ethiopia (undated) Power supply for speedy development. No. 3, February 2005. Accessed 21 April 2009
  30. Gyory J, Bischoff BH, Mariano AJ, Ryan EH (2004) The Angola current. Accessed 21 April 2009
  31. Hammons T, Falcon J (1992) Remote renewable energy resources made possible by international electrical interconnections: a priority for all continents.–a-priority-for-all-continents/index.shtml. Accessed 21 April 2009. Published as Hammons T, Falcon J Remote renewable energy resources. Power Eng Rev IEEE 12:3Google Scholar
  32. Hammons TJ, Taher E, Gulstone AB, Blyden BK, Johnston R, Isekemanga E, Paluku K, Calitz AC, Simanga NN (1997) African electricity infrastructure, interconnections and exchanges. IEEE Power Eng Rev 17:6–16Google Scholar
  33. Hathaway T (2005) Grand Inga or grand illusion? International Rivers Network, April 2005. Accessed 21 April 2009
  34. Heezen BC, Menzies RJ (1964) Congo submarine canyons. AAPG Bull 48:1126–1149Google Scholar
  35. IESO (2006) Ontario sets new record for peak demand. Independent Electricity Systems Operator, Ontario. Participant News, 1 Aug 2006. Accessed 21 April 2009
  36. Inga-Shaba (undated) Accessed 21 April 2009
  37. Khripounoff A, Vangriesheim A, Babonneau N, Crassous P, Bennielou B, Savoye B (2003) Direct observation of intense turbidity current activity in the Zaire submarine valley at 4000 m water depth. Mar Geol 194:151–158. Accessed 28 April 2009
  38. Laboratorie d’Océanographie et du Climat: Expérimentation et Approches Numériques (2009) CO2 variability in the tropical Atlantic. Institute de Recherche pour le développement.
  39. L’aménagement hydro-électrique du site d’Inga: Un comité d’experts est créé pour étudier les avants-projects. (1957) La Libre Belgique 21 April 1957. Enclosure. Cmm’d No. 54316/57, May 3, 1957. PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  40. L’aménagement hydro-électrique du site d’Inga: Vers l’éxploitation d’une prodigieuse resource énergétique du Congo (1957) La Libre Belgique. 14 April 1957:11. PRO FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  41. Library of Congress (undated) Zaire. Country studies/area handbook program. Federal research division. Accessed 21 April 2009
  42. Lockhart SA (1957a) From SA Lockhart to JB Smith, Commercial Relations and Export Department, Board of Trade, London, 25th June 1957. Confidential. O.T. 112 (312/16/57). PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  43. Lockhart SA (1957b) From S.A. Lockhart, British Consulate-General, Leopoldville, Belgian Congo to J.H.A. Watson, Africa Department, Foreign Office, 20 Nov 1957. Confidential. 312/16/57. PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  44. Lünsche S (2006) Power drive. Eskom special report. Financial Mail, special reports, 03 February 2006. Accessed 27 April 2009
  45. Mazeika PA (1967) Thermal domes in the eastern tropical Atlantic Ocean. Limnol Oceanogr 12(3):537–539Google Scholar
  46. Mbuere va Mbuere DJ, Musaba L (2004) Inga: promise, 18 May 2004 business in Africa online. Accessed 27 April 2009
  47. Morris GL, Fan J (1998) Reservoir sedimentation handbook. McGraw Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  48. Muller C (1945) The aluminum monopoloy and the war. Political Sci Quart 60(1);14–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Murtugudde R, Beauchamp J, McClain CR, Lewis M, Bursalacchi A (2002) Effects of penetrative radiation on the Upper Tropical Ocean Circulation. J Clim 15:470–486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Naidoo P (2009) New strategies for harvesting large scale bulk energy from the Congo River without a conventional dam. In: Presented at IEEE PES general meeting, Calgary, Canada, July 2009Google Scholar
  51. Ndaba D (2007) Big backing for Inga generation and transmission study. Creamer Media’s Engineering News Online, 26 January 2007. Accessed 27 April 2009
  52. Nelles HV (1974) The politics of development: forests, mines and hydro-electric power in Ontario, 1849–1941. Macmillan of Canada, TorontoGoogle Scholar
  53. NEPAD (2002) NEPAD: new partnership for Africa’s development. Executive summary (Draft). Short-term action plan, infrastructure, May 2002. Accessed 27 April 2009
  54. NEPAD (2005) NEPAD website. Accessed March 2007
  55. Nexant, Inc. (2001) Guidelines for environmental impact assessment (EIA) for thermal power plants in the SAPP region. Rev. 4.1, 20 Dec 2001. Contract No. LAG-00-98-00006, Task Order 4. USAID Bureau for Global Programs, Field Support and Research, Center for the Environment. Office of Energy, Environment and Technology, and the USAID Regional Center for Southern Africa. Accessed 27 April 2009
  56. Nhamo G (1998–1999) Eight SADC countries share the Zambezi River Basin. The Zambezi Newsletter 1. SARDC IMERCSA, Harare. Accessed March 2007
  57. Normark WR, Carlson PR (2003) Giant submarine canyons: is size any clue to their importance in the rock record? Geological Society of America Special Paper 370. spe370-10Google Scholar
  58. O’Leary D, Charpentier J-P, Minogue D (1998) Promoting regional power trade—the Southern African Power Pool. Public Policy for the Private Sector, Note No. 145, June 1998. Finance, Private Sector and Infrastructure. The World Bank Group. Accessed 27 April 2009
  59. Olivier H (1976) Great dams in southern Africa. Purnell, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  60. Pérez V, Fernández E, Marañón E, Serret P, García-Soto C (2005) Seasonal and interannual variability of chlorophyll a and primary production in the Equatorial Atlantic: in situ and remote sensing observations. J Plankton Res 27:189–197. Accessed 27 April 2009Google Scholar
  61. Probst JL, Nkounkou RR, Krempp G, Bricquet JP, Thiébaux JP, Olivry JC (1992) Dissolved major elements exported by the Congo and the Ubangi Rivers during the period 1987–1989. J Hydrol (Amsterdam) 135:237–257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Purdue University (2001) Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) project: modeling electricity trade in Southern Africa. Global Partnerships, Discovery Park Energy Center. Accessed 27 April 2009
  63. Reed J (2006) The Inga hydroelectric plant: coincidence inspires hope. Financial Times, 20 Nov 2006. FT.Com.,dwp_uuid=1f2588a0-765d-11db-8284-0000779e2340.html?nclick_check=1. Accessed 28 April 2009
  64. Rojas R (2007) Over 5 years of CRX at INTEC. Q J (INTEC Eng) Q4:1,5. Accessed 29 April 2009
  65. SADC Energy Programmes and Projects (2006) Gaberone, Botswana October 2006. Accessed 29 April 2009
  66. SADC Protocol on Energy (1996) Accessed 28 April 2009
  67. Salomao T (2005) Speech by executive secretary Dr. T. Salomao on the signing of WESTCOR shareholders agreement, Gaborone, Botswana, 7 Sep 2005. Southern African Development Community. Accessed 28 April 2009
  68. Schoeman M (2002) From SADCC to SADC and beyond: The politics of economic integration. In: Thirteenth economic history conference, Buenos Aires. Accessed 29 April 2009
  69. Scott Laing WJ (1957) From WJ Scott Laing, British Embassy, Brussels to JB Smith, Commercial Relations and Exports Department, Board of Trade, London, 3 May 1957. Confidential. P. No. 65 (54316/57). PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/125403Google Scholar
  70. Shepard FP, Emery KO (1973) Congo submarine canyon and fan valley. AAPG Bull 57(9):1679–1691Google Scholar
  71. Sholkovitz ER, van Grieken R, Eisma D (1978) The manor-element composition of suspended matter in the Zaire River and estuary. Neth J Sea Res 12:407–413CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Southern African Power Pool (undated) Southern African power pool website. Accessed 28 April 2009
  73. Sparrow FT, Bowen BH, Yu Z (2005) The future of SAPP, WAPP, CAPP, and EAPP—with Inga. IEE PES GM 2005 Panel Session, Paper 05GM0597, San Francisco, 12–16 June 2005. Accessed 28 April 2009
  74. Tollintos B (1955) From B Tollintos, British Council, Leopoldville, Belgian Congo to Sir Anthony Eden, K.G., M.P., 19 June 1955. Confidential & Guard. No. 5 (1531/1/55). PRO Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906 to 1966. Hydro-electric Power Project Congo River. FO 371/113570Google Scholar
  75. Tortell PD, Martin CL, Corkum ME (2006) Inorganic carbon uptake and intracellular assimilation by subarctic Pacific phytoplankton assemblages. Limnol Oceanogr 51:2102–2110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (2006) Harnessing energy for development. Accessed 28 April 2008
  77. US Geological Survey (1921) World Atlas of commercial geology: Part I. Distribution of mineral production; Part II. Water power of the world. U.S. G PO, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  78. Utilipoint International (2004) White Paper: the history of the energy trading, transaction and risk management software industry, 29 Sep 2004. Utilipoint International, Inc., Albuquerque. Accessed 28 April 2009
  79. vanZyl G, Goldstuck MeA (2005) The South African electricity industry: the rationale for reform and exposing some myths. Accessed 28 April 2009
  80. Vassett P (ed) (2003) Mbeki calls on EDF for Inga Dam. Africa Energy Intelligence No. 358, 26/11/2003. Accessed April 28 2009
  81. Weisstein EW (undated) Milliard. MathWorld—a wolfram web resource.
  82. World Commission on Dams (2000) Dams and development: framework for decision-making. Earthscan, London. Accessed 28 April 2009
  83. World Energy Council (2003) The potential for regionally integrated energy development in Africa: a discussion document. WEC work programme 2002–2004. World Energy Council, London. Accessed 28 April 2009
  84. Worth D (1998) Lighting the darkness: the gas supply industry in 19th century Cape Town and its role in the formation of an industrial landscape. Accessed 28 April 2009

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for World Environmental History and Department of GeographyUniversity of SussexFalmer, BrightonUK

Personalised recommendations