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Chinese-built dam and hydropower plant to address electricity shortfall in the DRC (Francophone Africa & China series)

By Gabrielle Nina Mitch, first published on Congo Durable  as Partenariat Congo-Chine : le barrage de Busanga attendu dans le Lualaba on 2 January 2018. Translated by Gerard Guedegbe.

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo experiences crippling shortfalls in energy supplies, but a deal signed in 2016 with the Chinese company Sinohydro for the construction of the Busanga dam and hydroelectric power plant is promising to significantly address the country’s electricity supply problems.

Note: In 2017 the Africa-China Reporting Project commissioned a series of investigations on Francophone Africa and China, to be undertaken by Francophone African journalists from Morocco, Benin, Burundi, and the DRC and published in the region. The four investigations focused on Chinese traders in Derb Omarthe looting of Beninese forests, the impact of a revolutionary rice strain in Burundi, and a Chinese joint venture for the rescue of a state-owned electricity company in the DRC (below). 

Sitting on important mining deposits and living next to immense energy potential, the population of Kolwezi, the capital of Lualaba province in southwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), lack the requirements for minimum subsistence, and especially electricity for their domestic needs.

“I lived in a neighborhood where I rented a house and I more or less had power despite the power cuts, but ever since we moved into this house a year ago we have never enjoyed power from the National Electricity Company (SNEL)”, complains a resident of the new Kanina district in Kolwezi.

This illustrates the problem of access to electricity in this part of the country located 3,000 km from the capital Kinshasa. This situation affects mostly rural areas, with very little or no electricity served while there is a huge demand for energy. Even the large urban cities like Kolwezi, which have very densely populated rural neighborhoods, are no exception: electricity supply is very precarious and does not even cover all neighborhoods.

As several newly-built neighborhoods are not connected to the SNEL network, some residents rely on an electric generator commonly known as a dynamo that is used to produce power – a privilege only to those who have the means to honor the bill on a daily basis. The absence of  power supply from the National Electricity Company (SNEL),  the DRC’s national electricity provider, has resulted in this mode of private supply of electricity that only keeps the lights on and does not meet the required safety standards. Cases of electrocution and fire have been reported by residents.

As for households, they find satisfaction for their energy needs by using a variety of traditional commercial fuels including charcoal for cooking food, spending about US$8 on a bag of coal.

“In addition to the financial crisis affecting Kolwezi, we are forced to buy a sack of coal almost every three weeks because SNEL is unable to provide us with stable and reliable electricity”, grumbles Ms. Maguy, a resident of Kanina district.

Electricity creates opportunities to improve economic productivity, but when it is almost non-existent, the whole economy slows down. The food trade is also suffering; housewives can no longer make a minimum reserve of fish or meat and food gets spoiled too quickly in the heat.

Junior Kazadi, a young entrepreneur, could not flourish economically after the closure of his cyber café for young people because of the economic losses he was suffering.

“In addition to having one of the slowest Internet rates in the world, to satisfy my customers I felt obliged to spend US$5 every daily to buy five liters of gasoline to power my small generator. This money could serve me well for other things, for example saving for other projects, so I decided to stop everything and start another business”, Junior resolved.

Patients at a health care center in Kolwezi using a candle during an electricity outage.

In the health sector, some health centers where there is no water or electricity are forced to seek alternative sources of light to receive and care for sick persons. The patients spend the night either with a candle, a kerosene lamp at the risk of being burned, or with a torch. “They help pregnant women give birth with a flashlight or a candle”, says one of the nurses on duty at the health center. This situation contrasts with the enormous potential of the new province of greater Katanga, where more than 2.5 million people live with enormous untapped potential. The local residents and travellers in the region speak only of the beauty of the waterfalls and the rapids that mark the rivers of the country.

The city of Kolwezi is experiencing growth in activity that is causing an explosion in electricity consumption, but the infrastructure is not keeping up with demand and untimely power cuts are increasing. Mining activity is also affected, local people are not spared, barely 10% of the population has access to electricity.

When we talk about the economic foundations of the DRC, we must consider Lualaba, a region where mining giants are concentrated who use up a huge amount of the available energy supplies. The electricity needs cannot be met by the National Electricity Company (SNEL), that manages the entire electricity network in the country.

New hope: Busanga dam and hydroelectric plant

Some companies, in order to continue producing copper, have resolved to import electricity from the neighboring countries like Zambia. This is the case of the Sino-Congolese Company Sicomine, that produces 400,000 tons of copper per year.

This company is the result of a DRC-China partnership under which China is committed to building infrastructure including roads, hospitals, and schools, in exchange for mining concessions in the DRC and loans to the DRC government.

In order to address some of the energy deficit slowing down mining production in the DRC, an agreement was signed in 2016 between the DRC government and the Chinese company Sinohydro for the construction of the Busanga dam and hydroelectric power plant downstream of two other existing power stations on the upper course of the Congo River. This dam will cost more than US$617 million of which US$567 million will be devoted to the construction of the power plant and US$50 for the transportation of the energy. The plant’s capacity is estimated to be 240 megawatts (MW) according to the technical body of the government in charge of investment promotion. 170 megawatts will be distributed primarily to the Sino-Congolese mining company, Sicomine, a consortium of Gecamines (the General Careers and Mines), the public company representing the Congolese Government and the merger of three Chinese companies.

As for excess power, it will be made available to the National Electricity Company (SNEL) to serve greater electricity demand. Located 65 km from the mining town of Kolwezi in the south-east of the DRC, the Busanga dam is the first hydroelectric dam to be built by adapting the new technology in the field of electricity. Previous attempts failed due to lack of maintenance.

“The hydropower project at the Busanga site has already been the subject of detailed studies and preliminary work was undertaken in the late 1960s but did not succeed because of the political situation of the country”, according to Nestor Mwemena, former Director of SNEL.

“This project originally belonged to the Upper Katanga Mining Union (UMHK), now called Gecamine. The studies were conducted by the Belgian design office Traction-Electricity (Tractebel). The end of the works was planned for 1973 but were stopped following the decisions to nationalise the companies. To date, the Busanga project has been awarded by the DRC Government to a Chinese consortium under a contract signed in 2016”, Nestor Mwemena adds.

According to Mr. Lui, Communication Officer of Chinese consortium Sinohydro, 2016 was devoted to the feasibility study that determined the optimal location and development plan of the plant. “The construction work of the dam began only in January 2017. So far, we are doing well, we have done ancillary work such as road development to access the site and continue to do other necessary studies.

“Electricity is crucial in the socio-economic development of populations, I think this project will greatly improve the economic life of the population, because it has already created many jobs. After the electrification of Sicomine factories, the excess energy that will be given to the population will significantly and directly improve the daily life of the population of Kolwezi and balance the demand of other cities of Greater Katanga”, Mr Lui adds.

According to Jean Baptiste Mianza, an expert engineer at the National Electricity Company, experts from China and the DRC have already agreed to 97% of the work to be carried out by the Chinese company, Power China Engineering. “All the studies have already been validated, we have opened the site and we have already started the construction of the factory camp. According to the contract the work of the plant will last 51 months starting from October 2017”, he explains.

Energy deficits are estimated at 961 MW in 2018 and will be 625 MW in 2022 in Greater Katanga. According to Nestor Mwemena, this plant will serve part of the energy deficit with a contribution of 60 MW by 2020, with the total output of the 240 MW plant expected in 2022, according to SNEL’s estimates.

“In 2022, the total capacity available in Katanga will be 1,358 MW, of which 338 MW will be from existing plants, 520 MW from new plants and 500 MW from Kolwezi using the Inga-Kolwezi direct current line. The projected demand for the South Katanga grid is estimated in 2018 at 1,688 MW and in 2022 at 1983 MW”, he explains.

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