Thursday, May 6, 2010

On the Congo, hydropower colonialism is called "development"

Inga falls, Democratic Republic of Congo.

On paper, few hydro projects in the world make more sense than Inga [1]. The Congo is the second largest river in the world and is also the world's best river for hydropower due to its remarkably constant flow. [2] Inga is a 15-kilometer rapids section on the Congo river, and arguably the largest waterfall in the world. It is situated halfway between the DRC's capital Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean, making it an ideal site for building dams. It is also located in a country where 94% of the population is still not connected to the grid [3] and it is centrally positioned on the African continent, thus making it feasible to serve a large population which is in dire need of electric power. What could possibly be wrong with harnessing Inga's electricity to serve Africa's rural poor?

A perfect site

No doubt, there would be some environmental damage if new dams were built at Inga. But when one realizes that the primary source of domestic energy for the Congolese population today is the cutting down of trees, a couple of dams in order to save the African tropical rainforest appears to be a very reasonable compromise. [4] With a staggering potential generation capacity of 100,000 MW, the Inga site could literally turn the lights on for tens of millions of Africans – that is, if only Inga could be developed with the Africans in mind.

Being one of the poorest and most indebted countries in the world, the DRC couldn't possibly develop such a pharaonic site on its own. And so over the years many partners have stepped forward to offer their help. The World Bank, as part of its Africa development program, is currently in the process of refurbishing two existing older dams which were built in the seventies and eighties, Inga 1 and Inga 2. More significantly, in 2004 a group of neighboring countries – South Africa, Botswana, Angola, and Namibia – have formed a consortium with the DRC to develop a new $8bn ‘run-of-river’ project called Inga 3. Initially planned to produce a relatively modest output of 3,500 MW (at least on the gargantuan scale of Inga projects), Inga 3 was seen as an essential stepping stone towards the realization of a fourth and much bigger development, “Grand Inga”, which was to produce 40,000 MW and cost $80bn, and would have become by far the greatest hydropower facility in the world. [5]

All about export

Inga 3 and Grand Inga have been designed since their inception as export-driven projects. Something to which many social justice activists have voiced their opposition. What is the point of developing the Congolese energy capacity, they asked, if it is mostly going to benefit other countries? [6]

They had a point. The main thrust behind Grand Inga was the European Union, anxious to obtain access to Inga's colossal energy capacity as a way of both increasing and diversifying its supply of electricity. For the smaller Inga 3, the main champion was regional economic giant South Africa. So much so, that initially the DRC was to receive only about 1,000 MW of Inga 3's total production, while South Africa would have got the lion’s share of 2,000 MW and the other small signatory countries the remaining 500. [7] The DRC cringed, but South Africa insisted, and since the European Union was carefully observing the progress being made on Inga 3 with the much bigger Grand Inga project on its radar screen, everyone decided to move ahead in a spirit of pan-African regional cooperation and friendship.

New deal

But in February 2010, plans for Inga 3 brutally collapsed and the pan-African consortium dissolved. [8] The cordial entente made way for an acrimonious and very public fight over which government should take the blame. The Grand Inga project itself was thrown in a state of permanent limbo. What had happened?

Another key player acting in the background is what had happened.

Australian mining giant BHP Billiton had been coveting Inga’s energy for many years. In particular, it needed a staggering amount of energy – 2,000 MW – to power up an aluminum smelter which it planned to open in the Bas-Congo region to process the gigantic bauxite deposits of neighboring Guinea.

And so in 2007, BHP made to the Congolese officials a deal they could not refuse. [9] Forget regional cooperation they said, those are only vain words used by South Africa to screw you and steal your energy. You don’t need a consortium, we will build a new Inga for you in the form of a public-private partnership. (They called it “Inga X” figuring that with the endless suite of stillborn Inga projects, they would soon run out of numbers.) [10] It will be a more modest project, they explained, – a mere 2,500 to 3,000 MW – but 100% Congolese.  Granted, we will use up 2,000 MW of it for our smelter but the rest will be all yours, and our smelter will provide badly needed jobs to Congolese workers. And –oh, [this is Ivan here speculating groundlessly] here is a little something pour vous to help you make the right decision…

BHP’s intention to consume two-thirds of Inga 3’s output was met with consternation by the other partnering African countries. They tried to save the deal by artificially bumping up the project’s output from 3,500 to 5,000 MW and increased the DRC’s share to 2,000 to be on par with South Africa’s, but those new projections were technically unrealistic. And the damage was done anyways: the DRC had already gotten itself a better deal.

Well at least, the DRC officials had gotten themselves a better deal. Because as far as the Congolese people were concerned, they were getting exactly as much out of BHP’s new project than they would have obtained from the pan-African one: zip.

No energy. Inga's local populations will receive no energy from BHP Billiton’s new “Inga X” project, which is no more no less than they would have received from Inga 3. Indeed, expensive substations are required to transform energy from high to low voltage before they can power up a local community. [11] But since none exist nor are being planned for Inga, BHP’s surplus energy will simply pass over the neighboring villages on their way to remote export markets such as South Africa. [12] And so, local populations will remain off-grid and continue to cut down the rainforest as a substitute to electricity.

Displacement. For many of Inga's local residents the question of access to energy is irrelevant anyways, since they likely won’t be around in a few months to worry about it. Approximately 9,000 residents have been put on eviction notice to make room for the Inga 3 and Grand Inga projects. [13] It is likely that those displacement plans will proceed unchanged with BHP’s Inga X. Since those residents are deemed “illegal” by both the DRC government and the World Bank, it is extremely unlikely that they will receive any form of compensation. [14] Uprooted from their traditional lands and means of livelihood, those people will likely end up in large urban centers such as Kinshasa or Matadi where BHP’s aluminium smelter is to be located.

No jobs. Will the displaced populations at least benefit from the jobs provided by BHP's power plant and aluminium smelter? Very unlikely. The Inga X station will create at most 100 highly qualified jobs, when those populations desperately need large numbers of unqualified jobs. [15] The 1000 jobs of BHP's smelter located in the city of Matadi are also mostly out of reach for the same reasons, unless BHP makes a special commitment to specifically employ people displaced from Inga, which it has failed to do so far. Many of those qualified jobs are likely be given out to expats and skilled immigrants brought in for that purpose, and so at best a few hundred jobs may be what the Congolese people will get.

Less revenue, higher debt. Okay but the energy exports and smelter operation royalties will increase the revenue of the DRC’s public utility company, as well as enrich the public treasury, will they not? Um, no. The public utility is in the process of being privatized (as of April 2009), so any revenues that it receives will go to enrich international shareholders rather than the Congolese population. [16] As for the government, it is one of the most corrupt in the world. A considerable portion of all tax revenues simply vanish in thin air every year, siphoned by bureaucrats at every level of the state apparatus. Even if corruption and looting of the state were not an issue, Inga revenues would still be largely offset by the considerable debt burden that the state will have to take with development banks to co-finance the project with its “partner” BHP. Finally, the bulk of the energy produced will be used internally by BHP, going directly from the power plant to the smelter, without producing any sales revenue for the state along the way.

Environmental devastation. I pointed out earlier that maybe a couple of dams on the Inga could be ecologically worth it if they would reduce the number of trees felled every year by the Congolese population to produce domestic energy. Well yes, but only if the population actually has access to some of Inga’s energy. As it stands, the planned Inga projects will not save a single tree and will instead cut down many more, as the transmission lines to South Africa, and later perhaps to Europe via Sudan and Egypt, will have to run through hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of rainforest. WWF representative Peet du Plooy, however, did not appear to lose any sleep over it, as he recently commented that the transmission lines “won't be that big … a cost”. [17] Says what?!

Okay but what about climate change? More low-carbon hydropower surely amounts to something. Yes indeed. it amounts to a lot for BHP Billiton, which will earn lucrative carbon credits for its Inga project. In actuality, however, BHP’s Inga X project will increase, not reduce, carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Indeed, according to Bloomberg, after the collapse of Inga 3 the other partnering African countries started seeking substitute sources of energy, “including nuclear, thermal power plants and natural gas”. [18] And BHP is going to get carbon credits for enabling that?

Privatization, enclosure of the commons. I already mentioned that the privatization of the DRC’s public utility is well under way. But also, more fundamentally, the exceptional site of Inga is being itself rendered private. Once BHP builds its project, not only does the hydro facility become private but so does the country’s ability to produce incredibly cheap energy. There is only one Inga site, and the formidable natural wealth that it provides is not easily replicable elsewhere. The hydrology conditions are so perfect here, that experts have estimated that energy could be produced at 5 cents/kWh. Compare this with Africa’s 18 cents/kWh average, and you will understand the full extent of the plundering of Congo’s natural wealth. [19] No wonder BHP was so eager to get its hands on that site. This is perhaps Africa’s cheapest energy ever produced, but it is now being turned into private property for virtually no compensation to the public, and will be exported out of the country in the shape of aluminium.

Quite the deal!

Sounds like a great deal for the Congolese people? Well that’s because, according to the World Bank, it is! “The sale of power abroad”, the Bank wrote in a recent report on Inga,  “could provide… the DRC with more resources with which to implement its policies and therefore enable it to implement its work plan for the Congolese population.” [20]  Hahaha! Grand.

What we are seeing at Inga is a prime example of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation of capital, [21] and which contemporary Marxist scholar David Harvey [22] refers to as accumulation by dispossession. At its simplest, primitive accumulation is the act of divorcing people from their means of production and livelihood through the privatization and enclosure of a public land or resource. The classical example is the enclosure of the English commons by the nobility in  the 16th and 17th centuries, which in turn provided England’s nascent capitalist industry with the labor power of the populations being dispossessed. But primitive accumulation is not just a historical event, it is happening today in every part of the world. In my own province of British Columbia, for example, primitive accumulation is happening on a gigantic scale as private corporations attempt to privatize our rivers with the assistance of a subdued banana republic government.

Sounds familiar?

Many manifestations of Inga’s primitive accumulation are specific to the DRC and cannot be compared to the situation in British Columbia. For one thing, we are on average an incredibly wealthy people, when most Congolese have nothing. Most of us are connected to the grid and don’t need any more power, when the Congolese are in desperate need of it. More significantly, Canada is a neo-colonial power and as such, we largely benefit in our daily lives from the organized looting of the south by the global Empire, whereas the Congolese people are being systematically raped by it.

Nonetheless, some of the similarities between Congo’s Inga and BC’s ‘run-of-river’ power grab are worth noting:
  • High-voltage lines (think Northwest Transmission Line) [23] passing over the heads of off-grid remote and aboriginal communities on their way to large mining complexes.
  • Export-driven schemes entering in direct conflict with energy-thirsty mining schemes; in other words, rival capitalist factions fighting one another and local government constantly bouncing from one faction to the other.
  • Lack of any meaningful job or wealth creation for local populations.
  • Public utility under the looming threat of being privatized.
  • Increased public debt incurred to finance private ventures.
  • Irreparable ecological devastation; environmental protection bodies and NGOs failing to fulfill even their most basic conservation mandates.
  • Enclosure of the commons, permanent loss of irreplaceable public wealth to the benefit of private interests.
  • Oh yeah. And insufferable corporate bullshit about doing all of this in the name of “saving the planet” from the threat of climate change…

    Troubling similarities indeed. To be continued with another somewhat familiar river far, far away.



    1. Ivan, this is a wonderfully comprehensive report. And yes, it is happening the world over. But learning about this within the context of historic "encircling the commons" gives the grave danger of public private partnerships a new urgency. Water? Oh yes. We must fight and fight some more. Thanks, Ivan

    2. ivan i get the feeling you have turned disaster capitalism on its head or its side
      but the real value is to know where the blows are going to come from
      i keep thinking of the ways of bringing those who are sitting on the fence on so many issues to step up to the plate
      how is it that we can cut through the static?
      to gain traction-if rihanna can get 20,000,000
      hits on youtube how come saving rivers gets 20? or 200?
      or maybe 2000? and what does that say about what
      society wants?

    3. Yes bolivar, I agree. Naomi Klein's Disaster Capitalism is a reformulation of Marx's old theory of primitive accumulation, or if you prefer primitive accumulation was a precursor to Klein's theory. In both cases, we see the capitalist class use government power, rather than traditional "market forces", to appropriate surplus value.

      As such, the proliferation of acts of primitive accumulation in today's world are an expression of a systemic failure of the market. They reveal the capitalist class' increased difficulty to accumulate capital through conventional means, compelling it to use force i.e. "non-market" methods to reach their end. This is in large part due to what Marx called the increase in the organic composition of capital - but we'll keep that discussion for another day! ;-)