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Democratic Republic of the Congo: ICRC completes major engineering project in Kisangani

30-07-2002 Feature

A recently completed major engineering work at a hydroelectric power plant serves the population's needs but also provides power for Kisangani's only water-treatment plant.




  The Tshopo plant in Kisangani. Of the three turbines installed in the 1950s and 1970s, only one is still working  
    ©ICRC/F. Westphal    


At first glance, improving a city's electricity supply as a means of ensuring access to safe water may seem like a strange idea. Yet t hat is exactly what the ICRC did in Kisangani, where it has just completed major engineering work at a hydroelectric power plant on the Tshopo river. This key installation, a lifeline for a city cut off from the outside world because of war, not only serves the population's needs but also provides power for Kisangani's only water-treatment plant. 

In 2000, when the local electric company, SNEL, asked the ICRC for help, Kisangani was facing a potential emergency of dramatic proportions. Of the three turbines that had originally produced electricity for the city and its 600,000 inhabitants, only one was still working. Since the outbreak of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1998, essential spare parts and outside technical expertise had been hard to come by. Despite the ingenuity of SNEL engineers, the only remaining turbine could have broken down at any moment, causing a total electricity blackout and an interruption in the water-supply system – a potential catastrophe in a city where cholera and other waterborne diseases are endemic.

The ICRC responded immediately by providing urgently needed spare parts. It then hired engineers from the French company Alstom, which had installed the turbine in the 1970s, to carry out a detailed assessment of the situation. Their findings were not encouraging: the system designed to adjust the water flow to the demand for electricity was no longer working properly, meaning that SNEL employees had to regulate the turbine gates manually 24 hours a day. Furthermore, the cooling system had broken down and SNEL did not have the materials needed to carry out repairs. " None of the systems protecting the turbine was functioning properly, " explained ICRC engineer Laurent Wismer. " SNEL engineers tried to cobble together replacements for unavailable spare parts but there was a constant danger that the turbine would break down for good. It was a bit like driving a car without knowing whet her or not there is any oil in the engine. "

The ICRC now faced a major logistical challenge. Tonnes of materials, including new pumps, 6,000 litres of fuel and practically all the tools needed had to be brought in by air. Because of the volatile security situation in Kisangani, the ICRC maintained close contacts with the political and military authorities to ensure that the operation could go ahead as planned. The organization also launched an extensive information campaign to explain to the population that there would be frequent power cuts during the repairs. The final phase of the project came in July 2002, when Alstom and ICRC engineers joined forces with SNEL to install new regulators and cooling pumps for the turbine and to carry out all-round maintenance work. The total budget for the project amounted to 700,000 Swiss francs.



  Inside the Tshopo plant - the red installation in the foreground is the superstructure of the turbine stablised by the ICRC  
    ©ICRC/F. Westphal    


The turbine is expected to work properly for at least two years, thereby ensuring that the water-treatment plant, which consumes about 15 per cent of the power produced, will continue to function. In addition to the turbine project, the ICRC has been supporting the local water company, REGIDESO, since 1997, providing hundreds of tonnes of chemicals essential for water treatment, spare parts and other materials. The ICRC has also sunk about 40 bore holes and wells in parts of the city not covered by the water-distribution network.

It is anything but straightforward to carry out a project of this magnitude in a city that has experienced serious fighting over recent years and whose economy is in tatters because of the war. The fact that the ICRC's presence was accepted by the authorities and the population alike was crucial in this respect. " We are very well known because we have been here for a while, " said Laurent Wismer. " In the end, the success of the Tshopo project didn't just depend on technical know-how or logistical capacity but also on the ICRC's understanding of the politics and the security situation here. "

The next challenge will be to ensure that SNEL has the means necessary to maintain the turbine. At the moment, the company only receives an estimated 16 per cent of what it is owed. Consumers in Kisangani need to get used to paying their electricity bills again – otherwise the city may eventually find itself in a situation where it has neither power nor clean water.