How the Congo River Works

Modern Congo
In February 2005, Congolese Green Beret soldiers patrol the Congo River in Kinshasa.
In February 2005, Congolese Green Beret soldiers patrol the Congo River in Kinshasa.
Mark Renders/Getty Images

By 1960, the enslaved Congo nation declared independence from Belgium, but its hard-won freedom was bittersweet. A string of Congolese rulers levied new policies on the nation. Gen. Joseph Mobutu was by far the most controversial: After establishing himself as president of the Congo in 1965, he became a dictator in 1966 and renamed the nation the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By 1971, it was restructured again as the Republic of Zaire.

Political corruption plagued the nation, and by 1997, the rebel insurgent Gen. Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu and re-established the country as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila isolated the Congo from the rest of the world, refusing communications with the United Nations (UN) and denying much-needed aid. The Congo erupted into civil war, and surrounding nations became involved in the battles. In 2001, Kabila was assassinated -- his son Joseph assumed power. While violence rages on in the nation, the younger Kabila did reopen communications with the UN and the country began holding democratic elections.

Throughout the turmoil, the flow of the mighty Congo River has remained steady. This constant offers one solution to a major issue. In the Congo, only 6 percent of the population has electricity [source: United Nations]. But the Congo River has enormous hydroelectric power potential. It's estimated that 13 percent of the world's hydroelectric power is contained in the Congo's sprawling waters, which flow at 400,000 cubic meters per second. In 1972 and '82, two dams, Inga I and Inga II, were constructed to harvest the river's power. They're located near the capital -- Kinshasa -- by the lower Congo.

But they weren't maintained. Turbine repairs were considered in the 1990s, but a $15 million price tag was too much for a war-torn country to bear. Now, there are plans for renovations and an even larger dam: the Grand Inga. The Grand Inga will be able to provide electricity to the entire African continent. The addition of an inter-connector under the Mediterranean Sea will also supply southern Europe with power [source: United Nations].

One of the Inga dams, languishing in a state of disrepair.

So what's the delay? The nation is at an impasse. Some Congolese want to restore peace to their forest villages. Others want to move forward and out of rural settlements; they want a better infrastructure, economy and educational system. Part of the population is uncertain -- and some have never ventured into the interior to realize how much damage has been done to their indigenous countrymen. From 1996 to 2003, six armies came tearing through the forests and cities, resulting in nearly 4 million deaths [source: Mealer].

Still others aren't convinced by the Congolese government's promise of putting the Grand Inga's hydroelectric potential to good use. Outside of Kinshasa, there's not enough infrastructure to really power the continent and provide the Congolese people with electricity. What's more, the government has yet to make amends for the disruption it caused building the original Inga dams -- be it financial compensation for funds funneled into the civil wars or land redistribution for those uprooted by dam construction.

During their eight decades under Belgian colonial rule, the Congolese were made slaves of their own land. Ivory and rubber exports made Belgium incredibly wealthy and a major player in the Industrial Revolution. But some historians -- and Congolese -- say that the Congo benefitted, too. Europeans ruled with an iron fist, but they also brought progress. They built roads, cities and steamers. And the river was never safer: Europeans installed signs along the Congo, signaling direction, depth and warnings about sandbars.

As a young democracy now, the nation continues to struggle. Congolese still starve and die from sickness and warfare. And no one's exactly sure what a democratic government will accomplish. As the nation and its people continue to grow, adapt and restore peace, the Congo River will continue to be an important part of their lives.

For more information on the Congo River and related topics, float on to the next page.


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