KINSHASA, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo opened a hydroelectric plant financed by American philanthropist Howard Buffett on Wednesday, aiming to jumpstart economic development in its conflict-ravaged eastern region.
Power shortages are a major obstacle to development in Congo, which ranks 176 out 188 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index. Only about 15 percent of the population has access to electricity.
President Joseph Kabila, national ministers, local dignitaries and foreign diplomats attended the inauguration ceremony, which was broadcast live on national television.
The 13.8-megawatt plant will serve the electricity-starved territory of Rutshuru.
"(This) investment is going to have a lasting contribution to the comfort of the population and to the productive capacity of the economy of North Kivu," said Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu.
The Howard G. Buffet Foundation, run by the son of billionaire American investor Warren Buffett, funded the construction of the facility in the town of Matebe in North Kivu province for $19.7 million.
Howard Buffett has already pledged a further $39 million toward the cost of two more hydroelectric plants in North Kivu. Belgium and the European Union have also committed funding.
The Virunga Alliance, a partnership between Congo's parks authority and the Virunga Foundation, a British charity working in giant Virunga national park, procured the funding and coordinated construction.
The alliance hopes to attract $166 million in investments in hydro plants and other infrastructure over the next six years to boost local manufacturing and tourism.
Congo's government is not involved in financing the Virunga Alliance projects but hopes to begin construction on the 4,800 MW Inga 3 dam in southeastern Congo by early 2017.
Regional conflicts in eastern Congo between 1996 and 2003 killed millions, most from hunger and disease, and dozens of armed groups regularly fight over its vast reserves of gold, tin and tantalum.
(Reporting By Aaron Ross; Editing by Makini Brice and David Evans)
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