A little more about the lower Congo.
So there are these immense rapids, the largest in the world, cutting off most of the Congo basin from the lower river and the Atlantic. Nothing larger than a kayak can descend the lower Congo to the sea, and even kayakers don't always get through. In some spots the river runs through narrow gorges, flowing at over 50 km/h and becoming for a while the deepest river in the world at over 200m (650 feet) deep. The rapids are so powerful that they create microenvironments that can create new species of fish. There's one medium-size dam on the river already -- the Inga Dam, built in the 1970s as a showpiece for Mobutu's Zaire -- but it's not tapping a tenth of the river's potential.
A full-size hydroelectric system plus locks for shipping would utterly transform the region. The amount of electricity that could potentially be generated is boggly-huge -- basically, the lower Congo is like the Mississippi dropping the height of the Chrysler building. And locks or a canal would allow oceanic shipping far into the center of Africa. It's such an obvious idea that it's been floated since colonial times, and it's still being discussed today.
But I'll be very surprised to see it happen. The amount of money required is fairly immense -- much larger than Congo's current government budget, or indeed its entire GDP. And while the project could, in principle, be quite profitable, the administrative, economic and social difficulties are at least as huge as the engineering ones.
Apropos of which, I met an interesting engineer in Lubumbashi.
This guy was the provincial minister for infrastructure. Which is really a godawful job, since Katanga province's infrastructure is in a very advanced state of decline. In a province the size of California, there are no paved roads outside the major cities. One rail line works, but only barely. The drinking water is dubious in the extreme; cholera has made a comeback in the last fifteen years. And then there's electricity.
"You could drop a gigawatt generator in the middle of Katanga -- right here in Lubumbashi -- and, today, we would not be able to use it. Why not? Because, one, our distribution system is tres dilapide, almost destrui. And two, because nobody but businesses and large companies will make regular payments for electricity. The electric company can push to collect, but if they push too hard, or if they try to raise the rates, the people will riot. It has happened. So there is no money to be made in electricity here."
He seemed to be sincerely trying to do his job, that guy. I felt for him.
I mentioned in an earlier post that there were four hydroelectric dams generating power for eastern Congo. Here are their construction dates: 1958, 1952, 1950, and 1930. That last date is Nzilo Dam (formerly Commune Dam), on the Lualanda River, a tributary of the Congo. It still has the original turbines. Turbines can last a long time, but eighty years seems a bit much.
Anyway. Back in the 1970s, Mobutu caused an immense power transmission line to be built all the way across the country from the Inga Dam to Katanga. The Inga-Shaba line made no economic sense, but then it wasn't built for economic reasons. It was built to keep Katanga, a province with a history of secessionism, on a leash. The idea was that as Katanga's economy grew, with more mines needing more power, Katanga would outgrow its local power supplies and would become ever more dependent upon power from Inga, far across the country. And if Katanga made problems, the government in Kinshasa could flip the switch and turn the rebel province's lights off.
It didn't work out that way. Mobutu's corruption was so great that he managed to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs: by the time he fled the country, Katanga's mining sector had been sucked dry. The state mining company had collapsed into bankruptcy and most of the major investors had packed up and gone away.
So Katanga never became dependent on electricty from Inga. But the great transmission line is still there, and it's somewhat warping the thinking of Congo's planners and politicians: instead of looking to build small, affordable dams in Katanga, they're still tantalized by the vision of a single enormous dam on the lower Congo. After all, it could send electricity to Katanga with ease! The transmission line is already built!
Meanwhile, of Katanga's 7 million people, less than half a million have access to electricity.
It's a classic development chicken-and-egg problem. Electrical problems are a huge drag on development. But to fix them requires massive investment. A half-competent government can manage it, but Congo doesn't have that. Private investors could step up, in theory, but who will guarantee them a return on investment in a desperately poor country where it's very hard to collect electrical bills?