KINSHASA (Reuters) - Power production in Democratic Republic of Congo could fall by nearly half in the next dry season as scarce rainfall has left the Congo River at its lowest level in more than a century, the state generating company said on Wednesday.
In a country dependent on hydropower for nearly all its electricity, the shortfall would affect the dominant copper industry and other businesses.
Water levels in the Congo - Africa's second longest river, normally its deepest and a vital artery across the center of the continent - have fallen 50 percent compared to last year, said Medard Kitakani, spokesman for national utility SNEL.
That meant levels for the November-February period were at their lowest in more than 100 years, he told Reuters.
SNEL currently produces about 850 MW of power, and "if there is not an improvement in the levels of rainfall, there is a risk that we will lose 350-400 MW" during the dry season, Kitakani said.
The dry season runs from May to September. Kitakani was unable to say how much power production typically falls during that period but said the potential drop was unusually severe.
The country's environment minister has blamed the fall in the river's level on climate change, Kitakani said.
Congo is Africa's biggest copper producer, and the region of Katanga where the metal is mined receives only about half the power it needs from the national grid, forcing operators to rely on expensive generators or power imports from neighboring Zambia.
Charles Kyona, president of the industry-led chamber of mines, told Reuters that miners were concerned about persistent power shortfalls. The chamber has repeatedly called for further liberalization of the energy sector to address the problem.
"Without electricity, we don't have the means to effectively work," he said.
Less than 15 percent of the population has electricity, and the existing supply suffers from repeated breakdowns of the generators at the country's main hydroelectric dams and an unreliable distribution network.
Plans to build a new 4,800 MW, $14 billion dam on the Congo River in coming years as part of an envisioned 44,000 MW Grand Inga project have stalled, with the government yet to select a developer.
Additional reporting By Amedee Mwarabu Kiboko; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and John Stonestreet