2021-12-08 Global Witness
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A $500 million hydropower dam could violate local laws and jeopardise both forests and wildlife conservation efforts in a major Congolese national park, according to a new investigation by Global Witness.
The Sombwe Dam, which aims to provide energy to mining companies in DRC’s copper and cobalt belt, is to be built by engineering giant PowerChina. The project appears to violate Congolese conservation law and is tied to a businessman who was reportedly involved in controversial transactions with DRC’s Central Bank.
The Sombwe dam is being constructed in Upemba National Park, home to a dwindling population of rare species – including savannah elephants and the last remaining zebras in DRC.
If completed, the project would flood almost 50km2 of tropical dryland forest and wooded savannah in a valley that was once a vital wildlife migration corridor. This would not only harm local biodiversity but also have serious climate impacts. An expert analysis undertaken for Global Witness shows that flooding the forest could lead to the equivalent of up to 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 in methane emissions and lost carbon storage by the end of the century – more than the emissions created by burning three million barrels of oil.
Documents seen by Global Witness show that experts commissioned by the EU delegation in DRC raised serious concerns about the dam’s location and its environmental impact assessment.
A November 2020 letter from the EU ambassador to DRC to the country’s conservation body the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) noted the dam’s “illegal location within Upemba Park, which is against the Law on the Conservation of Nature.”
Accompanying studies, commissioned by the EU, noted that the dam’s initial environmental impact assessment contained “serious flaws”, ignored the “potential permanent impacts of the dam (and) the reservoir”, and disregarded the national park status of the proposed dam site. The EU is one of the biggest funders of national parks in DRC.
Civil society organisations in DRC have voiced opposition to the Sombwe dam. In September 2021 the Congolese human rights NGO Justicia also warned that it was “a real violation of the law” and “risks depriving many people living in the territories of their main livelihood, which is fishing”. In October 2021, over 200 Congolese and international NGOs signed an open letter calling on the Congolese government to stamp out “illegal activities” in Congolese national parks – including the Sombwe dam project.
PowerChina’s local partner in DRC is Kipay Investments, a company owned by Congolese businessman Eric Monga. Mr Monga, along with associates of ex-President Joseph Kabila, was reportedly involved in controversial multimillion-dollar transactions with DRC’s Central Bank between 2013 and 2014.
Kipay Investments has defended the dam’s environmental credentials, claiming that it would be sited outside the Upemba National Park – but Global Witness has cast doubt on this claim after plotting the exact location of the project within the protected area, using official and company documents.
PowerChina is majority-owned by the Chinese state but has been supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds underwritten by Chinese and European banks including Standard Chartered and Société Générale. US investment houses including BlackRock, Vanguard and Dimensional Fund Advisors also hold substantial stakes in the company.
The project comes against a backdrop of recent high-profile pledges on deforestation, emissions and biodiversity made at the COP26 climate summit in the UK and the 2021 UN Biodiversity Conference in China. Leaders at COP26 also made a $1.5 billion donor commitment to protect the Congo Basin’s forests and peatlands.
Our findings about developments on the ground in DRC’s Upemba National Park suggest such declarations could turn out to be little more than hollow promises. They also raise troubling questions about how serious companies and banks are about reducing the impact of their investments on the environment.
Global Witness is calling for a halt to the dam project, and for suitable alternative sites to be assessed by PowerChina, its investors and DRC’s authorities.
Colin Robertson, Senior Forests Investigator at Global Witness said:
“Our investigation reveals that this hydropower project is full of major red flags. It appears to break Congolese conservation law and threatens forests and protected wildlife habitats. There are serious questions about whether the risks it poses to the environment and local communities have been taken into account.
“Flooding part of Upemba National Park to build this dam would be an ecological catastrophe and send a message that DRC’s national parks are now up for grabs by investors. But the Congolese government and the companies and investors involved still have time to stop this project.
“Following global leaders’ promises to protect the world’s forests at the recent COP26 climate conference, this investigation is an urgent reminder that they need to put their money where their mouth is by requiring financial institutions to undertake checks on the environmental, deforestation and human rights impacts of companies they bankroll. Without government action to stop financiers backing environmentally destructive projects like the Sombwe dam, some of the recent pledges made in Glasgow will not be worth the paper they’re written on.”
Timothée Mbuya, President of Justicia ASBL DRC, said:
“The Sombwe dam would be a great detriment to one of the DRC’s largest protected areas and to the rare animal and plant species found there. It also risks depriving certain communities in the region, who live chiefly from fishing, of their main livelihood. The Congolese authorities should call a halt to this project.”