National parks in the country
Pristine rainforest still stretches over large areas of the Gabonese Republic in West Africa, largely due to the creation of 13 national parks across the country. One of these is the Crystal Mountains National Park, covering an area of 1200km2 (460 square miles) in the north west of Gabon.
As the name suggests, this is a mountainous area. Dense rainforest clings to steep hillsides while numerous streams and rivers carve their way through the landscape – perfect conditions for generating hydroelectric energy.
The Crystal Mountains National Park was created namely to prevent the area from being cleared for logging and to preserve it for developing hydroelectricity. Two plants at Kinguélé and Tchimbélé on the Mbé River were built in the 1960s and 70s respectively and now plans are afoot to build a third hydroelectric facility – the Kinguélé Aval project.
This is a scheme characterised by efforts to aid development in an appropriate, sustainable manner. Gabon needs to exploit its potential for generating its own renewable energy, to both support economic development and reduce the country’s reliance on power that is produced from fossil fuels. It also needs to protect its valuable natural environment.
Multiple studies have been carried out over recent decades, investigating how and where best to build a third hydroelectric plant on the Mbé River. The latest and one of the most comprehensive so far, a full Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) has been produced by Meridiam and their partner FGIS (the Gabonese Sovereign Fund).
Conventionally, it would be a project authority such as an asset owner or government agency that would produce an ESIA before delivery partners are appointed. But it is Meridiam, as a principal investor and in partnership with the Gabonese sovereign fund FGIS, that is promoting the Kinguélé Aval project.
“As a business we are evolving to take on a greater role in helping to initiate and develop sustainable infrastructure projects – to help bring about schemes that meet countries’ sustainable development goals. In Africa and elsewhere we are becoming involved at the very early stages of projects, from the instigation of feasibility studies,” says Meridiam’s head of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), Ginette Borduas.
“We are working very closely with the Gabonese authorities in helping to develop this project. During such early stages, performing an ESIA study is a standard procedure for a project of this size as part of scheme development, to optimise the design before authorities make their final decision on whether to allow the project to go-ahead.”
“This is a very hands-on approach for an investor to manage this process, but for Meridiam, it makes sense to retain this much control, to get a project that is bankable and environmentally and socially sustainable.”
The ESIA study carried out for Kinguélé Aval is remarkably thorough. Overseen by Meridiam and FGIS, it drew upon the expertise of numerous different specialist environmental and social consultants and agencies. Specifically, the services of a consortium composed of Artelia, Electricité de France (EDF) and Biotope were retained.
Based on previous preliminary studies and the first results of the detailed ESIA work, Meridiam and FGIS decided to reduce the initial design of the hydroelectric plant almost by half, from 60MW to 35MW in capacity.
“The location of the new plant was selected outside the Crystal Mountains National Park to minimise its environmental impact. Similarly, other project facilities will be located on a brownfield site, previously occupied by local quarrying activity. But as hydroelectric plants require a reservoir of water, impact on the local environment would be inevitable to some extent,” says Meridiam Project Developer, Emmanuel Mundela.
“At the very beginning of our involvement, we tasked the design team and the environmental and social consulting team with finding the optimum equilibrium between maximising energy production and minimising the environmental and social impacts.”
“The reasons for reducing the size of the project came from a mix of technical, economic and environmental impact studies, allowing detailed comparative analysis of different design options. When we looked at everything, it made sense to reduce the project to a size that minimises its impact while keeping it economically viable. We reached the best possible scenario.”
From that point, the ESIA study reinforced the rationale for the scope of the project selected, with studies of the extent of the scheme’s hydrological impact upstream and downstream of the plant. Detailed investigations were also carried out on the project’s effects on water quality, soil erosion and sedimentation and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the impact of changing the physical environment.
The report also delves deeply into the project’s impact on the area’s natural environment, its wildlife and its human population. In terms of scope and procedure, the ESIA for Kinguélé Aval has been carried out in accordance with Gabonese law and to the standards of the International Finance Corporation and the IFC’s Sustainable Development Framework.
“When planning an ESIA, the challenge lies in gauging the full scope and making sure nothing is left out,”Ginette says. “Having a very good understanding of the project is important. Normal procedures and regulations will ensure general items of importance are studied, such as impacts on wildlife and the natural environment. Plus, it’s vital to consider the views of all stakeholders, to engage with and consult local communities, to visit the site – the teams spent more than 3 months on the ground – and to ask all relevant authorities what is important to cover. This is how we plan an ESIA,” she adds.
For Kinguélé, study of the area’s wildlife, its flora and fauna was understandably critical. The wider region contains rainforest recognised as some of the most important in West Africa – a refuge of rainforest of the Pleistocene era. The Crystal Mountains Park contains the wettest rainforest in Gabon due to its altitude and equatorial location close to the Atlantic coast.
A total of 2,557 different tree species were identified in the study area – which at 1,550 hectares, went well beyond the project’s physical footprint of less than 300 hectares – along with 116 species of Dragonflies and Damselflies (including four newly discovered). 62 species of fish were observed in the study area of the Mbé River and 115 bird species in the Crystal Mountains. Also roaming through the forests of the park is a population of around 1,200 Forest Elephants.
“This is a very exciting project in terms of its environment. It’s a secluded area with enormous biodiversity and the excitement comes from the opportunity to preserve this ecology through an ongoing Biodiversity Action Plan. The Crystal Mountains Park was created to reserve the area for hydro power instead of forest industry and as a result there is still very good water quality and protected rainforest,” Ginette says.
Hydrology and water quality were crucial aspects of the ESIA studies. Selection of the Kinguélé Aval site downstream of the existing hydro plants “made sense”, Ginette says, because this meant the new facility would be reusing water that had already been used to extract energy. Downstream of the new dam and turbines, water flow and quality are expected to be largely unaffected.
“The water regime will change marginally immediately downstream of the project, but the flow will be largely restored lower down. The residual flow is constant, preserving the integrity of river habitats, which was a critical requirement. The project’s area of influence has to be manageable without jeopardising the environment downstream,” says Ginette.
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