Power Africa tiptoes around Inga 3 dam

Andrew Herscowitz, coordinator of Power Africa. U.S. President Barack Obama’s energy initiative will not “officially” endorse the controversial Inga 3 dam project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by: Center for Strategic & International Studies / CC BY-NC-SA

How do you support a massive energy development project without “officially” supporting it? In Africa, the U.S. government may have found a way.

Construction of the Inga 3 dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while controversial, could, by some experts’ estimation, achieve U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambitious goal for Power Africa in one fell swoop and provide 40,000 megawatts of energy to a power-starved continent. A chorus of African developers want Inga 3 to happen, but the dam is riddled with risk and could “tarnish” the U.S. initiative’s brand.

So Power Africa will not “officially” endorse the massive and controversial dam project, but instead support a process by which African leaders will prioritize and “rally around” their top regional power priorities, likely including the megadam project on the Congo river.

Power Africa Coordinator Andrew Herscowitz — “at the risk of … making an announcement” that was not really his to make — told attendees at Thursday’s Powering Africa Summit in Washington that African delegates currently assembled across the Atlantic for the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa are likely to announce soon a few priority energy projects for the continent’s leaders to focus on, as part of an ongoing strategic Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa.

Herscowitz offered the information in response to an audience member’s question about why Power Africa has not gotten involved in Inga 3 and a fellow panelist’s comment that the dam is the “one project that Power Africa should really have consulted on,” giving the impression that the dam might be among those few projects prioritized under the PIDA “Energy Vision.”

“We have concerns about Inga,” Herscowitz said of the power project some believe could supply an energy-poor region with twice the amount of hydropower as is produced by China’s Three Gorges Dam.

Despite Inga’s potential, skeptics have sounded the alarm over potential human rights concerns, environmental impact, and questions about whether energy generated via the series of dams collectively known as Grand Inga would actually reach people currently without access. Governance challenges and regional conflict further complicate the project — and bestow increased risk on any potential supporters or investors.

“We don’t want the Power Africa brand to be tarnished by one major project that’s going to fail,” Herscowitz said Thursday, in reference to Inga 3 and other high-risk projects investors might be considering. Herscowitz noted that Power Africa is playing a “supporting role” as African leaders identify their own high-priority projects.

That the topic of Inga 3 came up in the first panel discussion of the summit’s first day is hardly surprising. The long-imagined Grand Inga dam complex, of which Inga 3 would be a part, has been held up as the silver bullet to defeat energy poverty on a continent where 622 million people lack access to electricity.

The discussion of Inga came on the heels of a conversation about Power Africa’s measurable accomplishments to date. Some observers have questioned whether the initiative has contributed significantly to Africa’s energy production, or whether it is simply “repackaging” power deals that would have proceeded anyway and stamping them with the Power Africa brand. Herscowitz called some of the assertions in a recent Reuters article, criticizing the initiative’s slow start and general lack of demonstrable success, “not true at all.”

Paul Hinks, CEO of Symbion Power, a major Power Africa partner, similarly defended the initiative against its detractors.

“Whoever wrote that [article] knows nothing about power infrastructure,” Hinks said, noting that he has “been involved in Power Africa since the very first time it was discussed” and has witnessed the creation of a “huge infrastructure” of “hundreds of people” within the U.S. government in support of the initiative.

“They’ve set up this monumental organization, which will have the capability to deliver something that nobody’s ever done before,” Hinks said, adding, “Which government anywhere has given this level of attention to the power problem in Africa?”

Hinks called the notion that results could be seen today for an initiative that was announced only in July 2013 “just ludicrous.”

What’s your take on Power Africa’s future and track record so far? Chime in by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.