Plastic pollution cuts electricity in DR Congo

Tuesday March 22 2022

Among rolling hills around the southern tip of majestic Lake Kivu, huge layers of plastic waste ride the water and block the turbines of the largest hydroelectric plant in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Ruzizi dam is polluted by thousands of bottles, cans and other objects thrown into the lake, which stretches 90 kilometres (56 miles) along the border between DR Congo and Rwanda. 

"Since the lake flows towards the Ruzizi River, all the waste thrown into it comes here little by little," Lievin Chizungu, production manager at the dam's power station, told AFP. 

The mountainous terrain and rainy climate around lakeside Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, do not help.

"The rainwater carries the waste into the lake and then into the river," Jovy Mulemangabo, an engineer for the national electricity company (SNEL) in South Kivu, told AFP.

Chizungu says piles of waste can "reach a depth of 14 metres" (almost 46 feet). Divers clean the river bed to keep debris from clogging the turbines. If waste gets trapped, towns in the area are deprived of power. 


Other employees clean the surface, using barges.

"I have been doing this job for 13 years," Byunanine Mubalama told AFP. "Every day there is garbage I have to clean up.”   


Lievin Chizungu, the production manager of the Ruzizi I hydropower plant, watches a dugout canoe floating on the Ruzizi River with officers inspecting plastic waste levels around the dam in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on March 16, 2022. PHOTO | AFP

Huge impact

But it is not enough. One of the four units in the plant was damaged by debris at the end of January, and it is still down. 

"The impact is huge. We have a deficit of 6.3 megawatts out of 30 total MW that we must produce not only for South Kivu, but also for neighbouring North Kivu province and for Burundi," Chizungu said. 

Garbage also caused an alternator to fail at the Ruzizi 2 power plant about 25km south of Bukavu. With the damage at both plants, they are 20 MW short, Chizungu said.

This has provoked "many power outages in Bukavu and Uvira". 

Nicole Menemene, 29, collects plastic waste on the lake's shores to make baskets, flowerpots, stools and nightstands.

She runs a private company called Plastycor that transforms trash into "beautiful and useful" objects. 

"We do the work by hand," Menemene said. 

The company has 10 employees, but her goal is to "industrialise" their work. With her project and other local efforts, Menemene hopes to see a "90 percent reduction of Lake Kivu's pollution".


Pascal Mubalama, 30, a worker at the Ruzizi I hydroelectric plant, steers a dugout canoe around the dam to inspect the level of waste in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on March 16, 2022. PHOTO | AFP


Education is a crucial first step in reducing the lake's plastic pileup, Chizungu said. 

"First, we have to teach people that they cannot dump waste in the lake," he said, adding that authorities should crackdown on people tossing garbage in the waters.

But for some local residents, it is not so simple.

"Our houses are crammed together on small plots. There is no way to manage garbage," Mathilde Binja said. "I have no choice but to throw it into Kawa river, which dumps into the lake". 

The city does offer garbage collection and disposal services for $3 to $5 (2.70 to 4.50 euros) per month, Malgache Malyanga, director of Bukavu Household Waste Management Program (PGDM), told AFP.

"Many inhabitants prefer to throw their garbage out on the road at night or in the lake," Malyanga said.

This could be either from ignorance or lack of funds to pay for waste removal services, he added.

To combat the plague of plastic waste filling the world's lakes, oceans and lands, the United Nations launched negotiations in March in Kenya for a global treaty against plastic pollution.