The Hydro Power Boom That Will Power Africa

Africa’s economic prospects are getting brighter as countries work to boost their hydroelectric production.

Africa lacks electricity and its future growth hinges on developing a steady supply. A Chinese led boom in hydroelectric infrastructure investment is reinvigorating one of the continent’s least utilized resources which runs now at roughly 5 percent of potential.

Current projects, such as the Gibe III in Ethiopia, the Kajbar in Sudan, and the Bui dam in Ghana are all much needed additions to Africa’s power sector. These dams range in size and power either a small portion of the country or entire regions of Africa.

Many of the current dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s and are no longer working at full capacity. Inga I and Inga II in the Democratic Republic of Congo are prime examples with production at roughly 25 percent of total capacity. Decades of poor maintenance and conflict that saw power lines cut have left the continent’s energy sector in a feeble state.

China is currently driving this infrastructure development with nearly $10 billion in hydropower projects. Chinese financing has proven ideal for many African countries because deals can be made quicker with less red tape, no political strings attached and engineering and construction knowhow is provided. All in all, these projects are a win-win for all involved. China essentially pays itself to build these projects and Africa gets the electricity it needs to fuel continued growth.

Although China is an important figure both in terms of financing and construction, other players are jumping into these projects as well. Ethiopia is the continent’s second largest potential producer of hydroelectric power behind the Congo. The construction of the 1870 MW Gibe III is an important project there but the construction of the Grand Millenium Dam even more so with an estimated capacity of 5250 MW. Financing for the $4.8 billion project is unclear but reports have the Chinese contributing $1.8 billion and construction will handled by Italy’s Salini Costruttori.

These larger dams have the ability to increase regional stability and integration. Growth in African countries has been hindered by a lack of electricity and the prospect of a steady supply is bringing leaders together.

The biggest of these dams is the Grand Inga dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The project has an estimated capacity of 40,000 MW and the potential to power more than five hundred million people across Africa. The world’s current largest dam, the Three Gorges Dam in China, has a capacity of 22,400 MW and Brazil’s Itaipu is the second largest with a capacity of 14,000 MW. The entire hyrdopower potential in the DRC is estimated at 100,000 MW.

South Africa and the Congo recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding that looks to finally move this stalled project forward. The project has been in the planning and negotiation stages for several years and was headed by the regional Western Power Corridor (Westcor) under the Southern Africa Development Community.

Westcor’s focus was mainly on development of the 5,000 MW Inga III project, seen as a first step toward the Grand Inga, but planning and construction have been delayed by disputes from community members who have been excluded from the project.

Westcor was comprised of the DRC’s Société Nationale d’Électricité Société, Angola’s ENE, Namibia’s NamPower, the Botswana Power Corporation and South Africa’s Eskom.

The signing of the memorandum comes on the heels of the decision to dissolve Westcor in favor of a more regionally inclusive structure that is even looking to bring in its North African neighbors to the project. The agreement is expected to produce a legally binding treaty within the next few months to solidify a framework for financing and implementation of the project. Even though many of these dams will not come online for some time, Africa’s future gets brighter with each one.