Skip to main content

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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


  1. In the twelfth century, letters began circulating in Europe about a Christian kingdom in the East free of vice and crime with rivers that ran of gold, ruled by Prester John, but besieged by infidels. The fourteenth century location shifted from Asia to Abyssinia (Ethiopia); Portuguese explorers hoped to find and rescue him.

  2. DRC was formerly colonial Belgian Congo, becoming independent Congolese Republic in 1960, Zaire in 1971 under Joseph Désiré Mobutu, and DRC in 1997 under Joseph Kabila. Namibia was colonial German South West Africa (1884–1915), South African protectorate South West Africa (1915–1990) before independence in 1990. For historical consistency, place names will be used which reflect the era under discussion.

  3. One unit of electricity is a kilowatt hour (kWh), which is 1 kW (1,000 watts) of power expended per hour.

  4. One kWh = 1.34 horsepower (hp), the unit of measure for energy before the mass production of electricity.

  5. Water volume and height produce huge potential power.

  6. See footnote 1 for explanation of names.

  7. Comparison was made with the world’s largest aluminium factory Kitimat, northern British Columbia, Canada. This ALCAN plant imported ore from Jamaica—9,000 km away. French Guinea’s bauxite was only 3,500 from the mouth of the Congo (L’aménagement hydro-électrique …: Vers … 1957).

  8. Sydelco included: La Société des Force hydro-électrique de Sanga, la Société coloniale d’Ėlectricité (Colectric) le Bureau d’Ėtudes industrielles F. Courtoy, la Société Ėlectrobel, la Société Ėlectrorail, la Société Traction et Ėlectricité and la Société Sofina.

  9. Including a semi-permanent research site with a 20-km road connecting it to Boma, an airfield across the river at Matadi, and 26-km network of paths providing access to the river’s curve.

  10. Became independent Ghana.

  11. For perspective, the Province of Ontario set a record for daily power consumption on August 1, 2006 when the demand reached 27,500 megawatt (MW) at 5 pm (IESO 2006).

  12. In 1957, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the United States sold electricity produced from its dams at 3 mills per unit; Inga promised the rate of 1.3 mills per unit of electricity. For units of electricity see footnotes 3 and 4. One mill was a thousandth of an American dollar (Congo Scheme for Cheapest Electricity 1957).

  13. Milliard, in American English, is equal to the term billion, or 109 (Weisstein, undated).

  14. The Congo River enters the Atlantic Ocean between Banana Point, DRC and Sharks Point, Angola.

  15. Became independent Ghana as Inga was being discussed.

  16. The I.B.R.D. (World Bank) had shown reluctance to make a loan (Scott Laing 1957).

  17. The company’s initial capitalization was Frs. 260 millions (approximately ₤1,850,000) subscribed as follows: Société Générale de belgique 30%, Société de Bruxelles pour le Finance et l’Industrie (Brufina 30%, Banque de Paris et paysbas 30% and Société Commerciale et Minière du Congo ‘Cominière’ (Nagelmackers Group) 10%) (Lockhart 1957a).

  18. Colonial Leopoldville became Kinshasa.

  19. Kariba Dam, completed on the Zambezi River in 1959, represented a technological breakthrough: 330-kilovolt (kV) transmission lines connected a remote, undeveloped site with urban and mining areas more than 550 km away (Federal Power Board 1959).

  20. Losses from long-distance transmission lines were estimated at 70% in the 1950s (Cotton 1957b).

  21. British groups were not invited, a British embassy official noted, because Belgians believed that ‘other countries had more experience in the elaboration of such schemes’, although ‘for the provision of machinery we could compete with the best’ (Scott Laing 1957). British were building the French designed dam at Kariba gorge, on the Zambezi River.

  22. The four were: la Société comerciale et minière du Congo (Cominière), le Syndicat d’Ėtude de l’Aménagement hydro-électrique d’Inga (Sydelinga) [composed of La Sofina, l’Électrobel, la Société Traction et Électricité, Le Bureau Courtoy, L’Ecetra (emanation de l’Électrobel)], la Compagnie africaine des ingénieurs-conseils (Cadic), and Vattenbyggnadsbyran (V.D.B) of Stockholm. Congo (Cominière), invited two American companies to join them—Harza Engineering International of Chicago and the New York consulting firm Ebasco Services, Inc.

  23. Committee consisted of: Clarence E. Blee (American), Chief Engineer, Tennessee Valley Authority; Lawton (Canadian), Chief Engineer, Aluminium Ltd; Claudio Marcello (Italian) Chief engineer of the Italian Edison Society; Vogt, Director General of the administration of Kingdom of Norway Water and Hydro-Electricity; H Julliard, consulting Engineer from Berne; F Campus [chair of the group], Professor Civil Engineering, Université de Liège; I. de Magnee, Prof. Geology, Université Libre de Bruxelles; L Dupriez, Professor of Economic Sciences, Université de Louvain; P Fourmarier, Junior Professor of Electricity at the Université de Liège; J Lamoen, Professor of Université de Liège et de Université Libre de Bruxelles (L’aménagement …: Un comité … 1957).

  24. Grand Inga: Preliminary Investigation on the Development of Inga (NEPAD 2002).

  25. British Protectorate Northern Rhodesia became independent Zambia in 1963; colonial Southern Rhodesia became Rhodesia in 1965 and independent Zimbabwe in 1980; Nyasaland became independent Malawi in 1963; German East Africa’s Tanganyika (1865) became British Tanganyika Territory in 1922, independent Tanganyika in 1962 and the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964.

  26. In 1965, Ian Smith, head of the British Colony of Southern Rhodesia, proclaimed the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of the nation of Rhodesia. Rhodesia was expelled from international institutions and became the object of economic sanctions and boycotts.

  27. Original members: Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia (and, briefly, Nigeria). Zimbabwe in 1980, served as chair (Schoeman 2002).

  28. SADCC membership: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (Schoeman 2002).

  29. Republic of Upper Volta became Burkina Faso in 1984.

  30. Carried out by EDF (France) and Lahmeyer (Germany), assisted by two African consultancy groups, BETEC of the DRC and Electrical Power Systems Eng.Co (EPS) of Egypt (World Energy Council 2003).

  31. Original membership: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. South Africa joined after 1994 democratic elections, Mauritius in 1995, DRC in 1997, and the Seychelles in 1998.

  32. ESCOM rejected models of private electricity development from Britain and the United States in 1922, choosing instead that of Canada’s Ontario Hydro—a public provider of cheap electricity for development (ESCOM 1949).

  33. Angola’s Empresa National de Electricidade (ENE), Botswana’s Botswana Power Corporation (BPC), Democratic Republic of Congo’s Société National d’Électric (SNEL), Lesotho’s Lesotho Electricity Corporation (LEC), Malawi’s Malawi Electricity Supply Commission (MESC), Mozambique’s Electricidade de Mozambique (EDM), Namibia’s Nampower, South Africa’s Eskom, Swaziland’s Swaziland Electricity Board (SEB), Tanzania’s Tanzania Electricity Supply Company (TANESCO), Zambia’s Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO), and Zimbabwe’s Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) (Southern African Power Pool, undated).

  34. SAPP is the first formal international pool created outside North America and Western Europe; designed as a ‘loose pool’ along the lines of NORDEL/Nord Pol (Scandinavia), UCPTE (Western Europe) and US Pools such as Midcontinent Area Power Pool before 1996 restructuring of the US market. It is based on agreement, not law (see O’Leary et al. 1998).

  35. In July 2001, the Organization for African Unity (OAU) became the African Union (AU).

  36. Also Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal.

  37. See Figure 2.4 on p. 15 of NEPAD 2002 (ABB 2005).

  38. By the early 1990s, HVDC (High-Voltage Direct Current) lines could transmit electricity for about 6,500 km, and HVAC (High-Voltage Alternating Current) lines for 4,800 km (Hammons and Falcon, undated).

  39. 1997 marine cable between Morocco and Spain vi Gibraltor; plans for Tunisia-Sicily cable.

  40. Rural electrification is never considered with Inga Power. It is intended solely for areas of high demand—large cities and industrial areas—and to produce an export commodity.

  41. Estuary location is 6.05°S, 13.30°E.

  42. Technologies are referred to as run of the river as long as they do not involve storage dams and do not cause appreciable change to river flow. However, run of the river projects require installation of structures in rivers—barrages or low dams which, although not altering the overall flow regime of the river, could change other river properties. Proposals to capture and store river floods (‘higher than normal flow’) would be a significant intervention in flow regimes, since floods—as well as low flow—are essential components of flow patterns.

  43. Varying from 3-km width and 400-m depth near the river’s mouth to 15-km width and 1,300-m depth at the continental shelf break, the Congo Canyon (globally oriented east–west around 6°S) descends to approximately 5000 m, and ends in a fan (the Congo cone) on the ocean floor (Angola abyssal plain—see foot note 46) estimated to cover 300,000 km2. Its channels can be traced for 900 km (Rojas 2007; Normark and Carlson 2003).

  44. Abyssal plains are the vast, flat, mostly unexplored areas of ocean bottom that constitute about 40% of the total ocean floor.

  45. Including Zemchug, Bering, Navarin, Monterey, Amazon—see Normark and Carlson (2003).

  46. These images are available on the Internet—see Pérez et al. (2005) at

  47. Available on the Internet in Pérez et al. (2005) at

  48. Proposed filters would protect machinery from sediments, but would still result in the release of sediment-starved water.


Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kate B. Showers.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Showers, K.B. Congo River’s Grand Inga hydroelectricity scheme: linking environmental history, policy and impact. Water Hist 1, 31–58 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: