Limnic Eruptions and KivuWatt – Harnessing Rwanda’s Killer Gas

In 1984, 37 people lost their lives as a result of what is now known as a limnic eruption on Lake Monoun in Cameroon. Two years later, the same natural disaster claimed the lives of more than 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock living around Lake Nyos. The US initially believed biological weapons were being tested on those lakes, however it soon came to light that limnic eruptions were in fact the cause. This natural disaster occurs when the bottom of volcanic lakes become saturated with carbon dioxide, which, when triggered by a landslide or earthquake, erupts to the surface, releasing vast amounts of gas and resulting in asphyxiation.

Two million people live around Lake Kivu, which is Africa’s eighth largest lake and located between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was found that the bottom of this lake is saturated with methane gas and thus predisposed to limnic eruptions. To avoid a potential catastrophe, the Rwandan government realised it was essential to de-gas the lake. Thus, the KivuWatt biogas project began in 2010 as a subsidiary of ContourGlobal, a growth platform for acquiring and developing wholesale power generation.

The initial phase of the project cost 142 million USD and was confronted by a few challenges. KivuWatt was partly funded by loans, with 91.5 million USD coming from the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund, the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), as well as the African and Belgian Development Banks. Obtaining the funds proved difficult, due to the politically turbulent nature of the area, the untested technology and the neighbouring volcano. The project, moreover, had to pass the environmental, safety and sustainability tests of the World Bank. The donor governments also had to share the risks of the project and provided a political risk insurance policy for ContourGlobal which had to be approved by the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency.

Despite these hurdles, KivuWatt was finally opened in 2016 by Rwandan President Kagame. The plant currently has a capacity of 26 MW and is considered ready for phase two, which will add an additional 75MW and is expected to cost 183 million USD. While 100 MW does not seem a considerable amount of energy, it is important to note than in 2011, Rwanda had an electrification rate of just 9%, and its total electricity capacity in 2018 was only 218 MW. This source of power is estimated to last Rwanda at least 50 years, providing permanent employment for a minimum of 60 people, reducing the country’s natural gas import, increasing its gas export, and providing cleaner cooking fuel for its people.

In February 2019, the government of Rwanda signed a 400 million USD agreement with Gasmeth Energy, a methane gas extraction and processing plant. The plan is for the company to bottle the gas, distributing it to Rwanda’s countryside, which predominantly does not have access to the national grid, further contributing to the electrification of the country.

Because KivuWatt is a project that is the first of its kind, it still encounters problems even after taking, most of them environmental. As the deep water is rich in nutrients, releasing the water depleted of methane back into the lake has the potential of disrupting the stratification of the lake, which could harm the lake’s ecosystem. This would impact not only the wildlife, but also the Rwandan and Congolese population, parts of which heavily rely on the fishing industry centred around the lake. The damage of the stratification of the lake is moreover significant because it is what keeps the methane trapped below the surface.

The International Energy Agency, an autonomous intergovernmental organisation which shapes the energy polices of countries around the world, estimates that in 2040, 500 million people on the African continent will still live without electricity. Yet Rwanda seems to be achieving the impossible, having found the light in the form of KivuWatt. Despite expected hurdles and environmental concerns, the project is not only electrifying Rwanda, but it is also saving millions of lives. The country has transformed the potential of limnic eruptions on the Kivu Lake into a blessing in disguise.


By Flavia Gaspar

Sector Leader: Fabian Piga

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