Power to the people, but not at all costs

A man and a woman carry firewood in Nkaneng township in Rustenburg. Two-thirds of Africas population still rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating. African News Agency (ANA Archives)

Africa is in dire need of electricity and we are – quite literally – dying for it. Two-thirds of the continent’s population, 600 million people spread over 54 countries, rely on firewood and charcoal for their essential daily needs such as cooking a basic meal, and heating and lighting their homes.

This situation is killing people: according to the UN, illnesses that caused by smoke from open fires claim 600,000 African lives per year, the majority being children under five years old. In the time it takes to read this, 21 African men, women and children, will be dead as a result of pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer associated with open fire cooking, heating and lighting.

So yes, Africa is in dire need of electricity. But it needs to be affordable and clean, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be. A 2016 study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) shows that wind and solar energy can supply the bulk of the power we need, at the lowest cost of all energy sources.

There has been much hype around the R200-billion Inga 3 hydroelectric dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its capacity to provide power to the continent. But what many people fail to see is that Inga 3 project near the mouth of the Congo River, the first phase of Grand Inga, will have a disastrous impact on the environment, on the people that live in the DRC and on the price of electricity for both South Africans and the Congolese.

The annual 2500MW that the South African government has pledged to buy from the DRC, once Inga 3 comes online in 2030, will cost South African consumers at least R400 million more every year compared to producing that renewable energy ourselves. Instead of relying on expensive imported energy, we should be generating renewable energy locally, which will deliver more foreign direct investment, more jobs and sought-after skills development.

The 112 projects procured under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement (REIPPP) programme are a case in point. According to Energy Minister Jeff Radebe, these will create 114,266 job-years (years of full-time employment for one person) during the construction phase and 20-year operations period.

This economic cost is compounded when one considers how much South Africa is required to directly invest in the dam’s construction – some 5% of the project’s total cost. That could be as much as R10 billion, based on a construction budget of R200 billion. What that final figure will be is anybody’s guess: exchange rates are volatile, and costs of mega-projects tend to escalate exponentially as time goes by.

Take the Medupi coal-fired power plant, for example. It has been 100% overspent, with cost overruns passed on to the consumer via exorbitant energy prices hikes. These, in turn, have led to food price hikes and contributed to the recessionary environment we find ourselves in. Imagine the financial implications if the Inga 3 project ends up being overspent by over 100%?

But if you think the consequences are bad for South Africa, spare a thought for the people of the DRC. As a global NGO, we work closely with the long-suffering and neglected people around the Inga site – 30 000 of which are set to be displaced should this next and third phase of the project go ahead.

In its drive to build Inga 3, the Congolese government has shown that it cares more about the politicians and business people who stand to get very rich, than the people who will be directly affected. The threat of forced relocation and people losing their homes and livelihoods is very real, and so is the fear of being arrested and imprisoned if one refuses to move. After all, the DRC government’s response to dissent is well known. As the United National Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner has said of the DRC: “Serious violations, such as arbitrary executions, rape, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are pervasive, committed mostly by the army, police and intelligence services.”

The South African government insists that it must deliver on its commitments to Africa and continue with the project. But one has to wonder who the government is more committed to helping: the politicians and businessmen who stand to benefit, or the ordinary African people who deserve clean and affordable electricity.

There is no good reason to go ahead with Inga 3. It will drive up the cost of electricity, it will come at the expense of local jobs, it will be destructive to the environment and it will cause untold human misery. If Minister Jeff Radebe does not rethink his commitment to Grand Inga, he will end up with blood on his hands. And every electricity consumer in South Africa will be complicit in this atrocity, while paying more for the privilege.  Let’s make our voices heard and stop Inga 3 before it is too late.

Rudo Sanyanga is the Africa Program Director for International Rivers, a global NGO dedicated to the global struggle to protect rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them.