August 16, 2011 / 5:09 PM / 9 years ago

Low water on Congo River triggers Kinshasa blackouts

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo’s main hydro-power plant is running at half capacity due to low water levels, triggering long blackouts in Kinshasa and causing havoc for the city’s businesses.

Problems with the Inga I and II dams come as Congo struggles with broken equipment at the decades-old plant, which could lead to continued outages even after water levels come back up, officials said.

The issue is a potential worry for President Joseph Kabila in an election year.

“Production is limited to around 350 MW (megawatts) following this natural calamity which has struck the Congo River,” Inga’s director, Mbuyi Tshimpanga, told Reuters, adding that Inga should be producing around 800 MW from its four working generators.

Businesses in Kinshasa have complained that the outages have forced them to run diesel generators at high cost, and a civil society leader said he was organising a demonstration to protest the blackouts this weekend.

The start of the rainy season in September will improve the situation, but capacity remains constrained by equipment problems at the plant and transmission capacity to the city that could take years to fix, according to Daniel Yengo Masampu, the director of the country’s electricity supplier, SNEL.

SNEL is carrying out $50 million of emergency repairs to mend sub-stations in the capital and the 14 generators at the dilapidated Inga dams, eight of which have broken down.

Inga 1 and Inga 2 were built by former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to generate 1,700 MW but have been mostly neglected. A multi-billion dollar plan to build additional dams to boost capacity further has made little progress.

Power cuts are not new to Congo’s chaotic and crumbling capital, but the recent severity has triggered growing anger amongst the population, many of whom now go for days at a time without electricity, according to the head of the civil society group SOS Kinshasa, Leny Ilondo.

“We need to develop the country, and we cannot develop the country without electricity. I cannot anticipate what will happen tomorrow, but today people are not happy. It’s a management problem,” he told Reuters.

Ilondo said he is organising a peaceful candlelit protest this weekend against SNEL to highlight the problems.

One of Kinshasa’s largest supermarkets, City Market, said it had been running generators for more than 20 hours a day to keep its meat, dairy and produce refrigerated.

“(The cost) is enormous,” said Sallah Beydoun, City Market’s director.

Providing power in Congo, where only 6 percent of an estimated 67 million people have access to electricity, remains a major challenge, President Joseph Kabila said in a speech in June. Kabila is expected to run for reelection in polls set for November.

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