Thursday, July 9, 2009

The View from Kananga; or, Hydroelectric Power

With a million people, Kananga is the largest city in the world, I have been told, without electricity or running water. The city is cut off from the rest of the country because the trains run rarely and there is no intercity road transport, or efficiently passable waterways. While there I stayed in Tshikaji, which is a village about 10 miles from downtown. It is also the site of a small dam and hydroelectric plant, so it is the place in the region with electricity. In 2006, it had water too, but there was very little this year. (There was a discolored trickle that could be used to fill up a bucket, but not enough to get pressure through the shower.) Tshikaji is also the site of the region’s hospital because of the electricity and water supply.

During the trip, I went out to the dam, which was small but efficient looking. However, I was most struck by something else off site. In the distance, about a mile away, was an enormous hydroelectric cable from the Inga Dam that runs clear across the country. Inga has the capacity to power much of the continent. But instead it runs right beside the largest city in the world lacking electricity and heads out to Lubumbashi, the mining center of the country. It is truly one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen.

Of course, I was wondering how this can be justified. I was told the government has some excuse about the excessive costs in using this line to provide power to Kananga (which did at one time have power though I am not sure until when and from where). Then I asked about sabotage and was suprised that there have been no incidents that anyone I asked knew to tell me. The cable is in plain view, near a major city, and does not appear to be protected. In Nigeria, when corporations try to extract oil resources, the people organize militantly to prevent it from taking place.

The politics of infrastructure investment can be pretty disturbing, especially when it is used to isolate people. (Think about the ways that roads were paved in many southern towns in the early twentieth century—they often systematically avoided black-owned land and businesses to create new “main” streets through white-owned areas, which insured that the most lucrative commercial establishments were owned by whites.) Most of the recent international discussions taking place about expanding Inga are focused on the export of its energy to Nigeria, South Africa, and north Africa, rather than servicing citizens in places like Kananga.

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