KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sept. 3 (UPI) -- The seemingly endless civil war over the mineral riches of the Democratic Republic of Congo seems likely to escalate because of a major oil strike and a plan to build the most powerful hydroelectric dam ever conceived.
The oil was found in July 2007 by Tullow Oil of Ireland and Heritage Oil of Canada in Lake Albert, which lies on the border with Uganda and is part of the system of the Upper Nile.
The field is now estimated to hold several billion barrels of oil. If that proves to be accurate it will be the largest onshore field found in sub-Saharan Africa in two decades.
Initially, Heritage estimated the field contained 600 million barrels, but later pegged the deposits on the Ugandan side at 2.4 billion barrels worth an estimated $7 billion.
Tullow estimates that the Congo deposits included a vast reservoir of natural gas that could produce 14 million cubic feet per day.
However, development of the field will require a 750-mile pipeline to the Atlantic coast to the west -- and an oil price of $80 per barrel to make it commercially viable.
The increased activity in the oil sector has attracted several international security companies that will be needed to protect the oil facilities, fueling the tension in the war-torn region where many of Congo's neighbors either have military forces in action or support paramilitary proxies.
Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe among others have been caught up in the conflict at various times in which some 5 million people have perished, mainly from disease and starvation.
The DRC, a country of 63 million in the heart of Africa that is a big as Western Europe, has been ravaged by war for 15 years.
The civil war that erupted in 1998, a spillover of the genocidal war in Rwanda, supposedly came to an end in 2003 when a peace settlement was reached by the main protagonists and a transitional government established in the Congo.
But fighting has continued in the lawless eastern part of the country where rebel holdouts still plunder, rape and murder.
The Congo is immensely rich in resources, such as gold, copper, diamonds, uranium and tantalum, known as coltan, which is used in electronic devices such as cell phones and computers.
But it is also rich in water power. The flow of the mighty Congo River could one day light up the entire continent.
And this could also become a cause of conflict in a region where war and slaughter are endemic.
Plans to link Europe to the world's biggest hydroelectric dam project are causing growing controversy, amid claims that diverting electrical power to Europe would rob needy Africans of their birthright.
Supporters of the project say that the 40,000 megawatts of power the $80 billion Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River could generate would double the amount of electricity available in all of Africa.
Right now, only 30 percent of Africans have access to electricity, but that drops to less than 10 percent in some countries.
Even so, the Grand Inga electrical output is twice as much as the world's current largest dam, the Three Gorges project in China, and it could accelerate industrialization across Africa in the span of a few years.
The World Bank supports the scheme. It concedes there is concern that a project that could provide electricity for 500 million homes in Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, might also have some of its power diverted to Europe and even Israel.
But they stress that the success of the ambitious project could hinge on exporting energy to wealthy countries to ensure the scheme gets financing from international banks and other investors.
"We need creditworthy anchor customers to subscribe so investment can go ahead," explained Vijay Iyer of the Africa Energy Group at the World Bank.