Difficult Times for Virunga and its Hydropower Plants: Time to Get the Facts Right !

Virunga National Park is under threat and witnessing an increase in attacks and misinformation around its development projects in North Kivu.

Everything started a few months ago with recurrent militia attacks in and around the construction site of its third Hydropower plant of 12,8 MW close to Lubero. Making it very difficult for the park management to sustain the construction activities of the new hydropower plant and guarantee the safety of its workers and rangers. Unfortunately this seemed to be the beginning of a well-orchestrated campaign against the park and its sustainable development plans in the region. No long after, several articles appeared in the news and social media criticizing Virunga SARL and the “explosion in the price of electricity supplied by the Matebe hydropower plant”. These “concerns” were taken over by some well-known politicians and DR-Congo’s member of the parliament that started to raise questions about the impact of the park’s Hydropower plants on communities and Virunga’s sustainable development objectives.

After due research its is time to bring the facts to the table, and let them speak for themselves:

The Price of the Connection

  • Virunga SARL does not charge any fees on meters as they have been subsidized by a donor of the Virunga Foundation. As a result, the cost of the meter does not weigh on the customer. In addition, if Virunga SARL were to apply the actual connection costs, the average estimate would be US $ 550 all inclusive. Virunga SARL makes the connection for USD 153. This amount includes US $ 30 provincial tax and US $ 17 VAT.
  • Households can benefit from a connection credit which lowers the initial disbursement to US $ 50 and allows the balance to be reimbursed on electricity consumption bills within two years after connection.

The Price of Electricity

  • The rate is US $ 0.215 / kWh excluding tax. All taxes included, it is US $ 0.25 / kWh. In comparison, it is US $ 0.261 / kWh excluding tax in Rwanda and US $ 0.3115 / kWh excluding tax in Burundi. As a guide, a poor household uses four low energy light bulbs of 11W each day from 18h to 22h. Its consumption is 0.176 kWh / d * 30 d = 5.28 kWh / month * 0.25 = US $ 1.32 / month. The average consumption of a regular household varies between US $ 3 and US $ 7 per month.
  • The payment of electricity is a necessity for, on the one hand, to allow new investments (extension of the network and new connections), and, on the other hand, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the tool (maintenance).

The Current Situation of the Project

As of November 30, 2017, 3,669 households and 220 companies have been connected to the Matebe hydropower plant network. No customer has disconnected from the Virunga SARL network. On the other hand, as is usual in the DRC and elsewhere, consumers are adapting their consumption behavior as they become familiar with the new service. Some have reduced their initial consumption while others have increased it. Requests for new connections are currently running around 10 per day.

The Other Dimensions of Virunga’s Hydropower Project

  • In the territory of Rutshuru, Virunga SARL provides public lighting to about fifteen localities free of charge, which helps reduce insecurity and stimulates social life in the evening. Virunga SARL provides free electricity to social infrastructure that is close to the network (hospitals, schools, administration offices, courts, sports facilities, etc.).
  • The supply of electricity is accompanied by an experimental microcredit program to facilitate the entrepreneurship of the poorest, to which the banks refuse any advance of funds. At the beginning of December, 53 Rutshuru SMEs were beneficiaries of these loans launched in July 2017. Already 49 new jobs have been created. The program is a success and will be extended.
  • Virunga Ltd permanently employs 273 people (direct jobs), mainly in the Rutshuru Territory. It also provides work for around 2,000 daily workers at its various sites of operation (construction of power stations and networks). Other sectors of activity in the Virunga National Park (security, tourism, etc.) provide direct employment to about 1000 people. These numbers do not include the many suppliers who depend on these activities.
  • In addition, Virunga SARL scrupulously complies with all the taxes it owes to local, provincial and national authorities. These will exceed US $ 3 million for the year 2017.
  • Finally, it should be noted that the rural electrification program in the Rutshuru Territory has an equivalent to Mutwanga (Mutsora sector) and that a plant and a network similar to that of Matebe are under construction in the Lubero Territory (the implementation is planned for early 2019).

The Objectives of the Virunga Alliance

  • The project of sustainable development for the benefit of the local populations of the Virunga National Park – “Virunga Alliance” – is supported by the park, but also and above all by the public authorities, the civil society and the private sector of North Kivu. Virunga’s sole purpose is to support these efforts. The statutes of the Virunga Foundation are public and the terms of its partnership with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) are clearly defined. Its directors are volunteers and it does not pursue any profit. The revenues generated by the sale of electricity (Virunga SARL) and the tourist activity aim exclusively to cover the operating costs of the park and to make investments in new development projects for the benefit of local populations.
  • All activities carried out by the Virunga Foundation take place in the very difficult economic and security context of North Kivu. The majority of the population bordering the park, which is under attack from armed groups and suffers from extreme poverty, knows what it owes to it. More than ever, despite the difficulties that may arise, the Virunga Foundation intends to pursue its mission of sustainable development for the benefit of residents of the park.

In view of all the above-presented facts, we might ask ourselves if these renewed threats are as random as they appeared to be? First, it is curious to note that since 2012, Virunga SARL prepayment system operates in Mutwanga, Virunga’s first hydropower plant, with the same tariff and there has been no complaint about the price of electricity for more than 4 years…

Second, it is interesting to see that this alleged concern was immediately taken over by Honorable François Nzekuye. Mr. Nzekuye is the same member of the Congolese parliament that was asking for the declassification of part of Virunga National Park in June 2014, after the UK oil company SOCO and WWF signed their agreement. In this agreement, SOCO and WWF agreed that SOCO was not going to explore or exploit oil in other World Heritage sites and that it would suspend exploration [in Virunga] after the first phase. The first phase was the seismic and the biological surveys, so it will not pass to drilling before there was an agreement between the Government of the Republic and the UNESCO.

For the survival of Virunga and its immense biodiversity, as well as for the sake of the local communities surrounding Virunga National park and a fair chance for a sustainable economic development in the region, it is time to get the facts right !

No more fake news at the expense of Virunga.