Lamu Coal: A much needed energy boost or cancer causing project?

Lamu County Woman Rep Shakila Abdalla (centre) leads a demonstration against the proposed coal project. (Photo: Maarufu Mohamed/Standard)

The overhead fans in the rectangular room on the first floor hallway of the Lamu Fort are at full speed. Mohammed Athman, 51, adjusts himself in the little black chair at the front. The entire room watches his every movement. For a moment, the only sound that could be heard was the ruffling of papers as teams of lawyers flip through pages from mountains of submissions tabled before them.

Athman believes the proceedings are key to determining whether his home, as he knows, will remain the same or forever be changed. To his right, sat five individuals, all of them members of the National Environmental Tribunal that flew in from Nairobi, to listen to the people of Lamu over the establishment of a 1,050MW coal plant, by private company Amu Power, in the county.

Negative impact

Amu Power is backed by a consortium that includes East Africa’s leading investment company Centum Investments and a group of Chinese companies. Work on the plant, that will take an estimated 30 months to build, was due to start in December 2015, but Kenya’s energy industry regulator delayed issuing a licence due to environmental concerns.

Three days after the tribunal jetted out of Lamu, a world heritage site, a Kenyan delegation in China inked a Sh200 billion deal with Chinese company Power Global to build and operate the plant at an event attended by President Uhuru Kenyatta, effectively almost rubber stamping the validity of the project. “This is not about me. It is about my grandchildren and their grandchildren. What will we leave behind for them?” Athman asked, before breaking down uncontrollably in front of TV cameras during the hearing.

The basis of the case against Amu Power is the environmental impact that the coal plant, if set up, will have on the Lamu ecosystem. Athman believes the entire Lamu archipelago will be destroyed. And he is not alone.

A 2015 Unesco report on the future challenges that Lamu might grapple with admits to a certain inevitability of some of the long term ambitions of the government like Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) Corridor.

“There are many direct and indirect impacts on the island’s cultural landscape that will have a permanent negative impact on the world heritage site,” the report reads.

The projects, the report continues, have the potential of not only marginalising the community but totally disrupting a traditional lifestyle developed and nurtured over millennia.

A part of this heritage is the fishing culture of the islanders.

The environmental impact assessment report authored by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) is currently the subject of the national tribunal. Lamu based body Save Lamu, an amalgamation of several non-governmental organisations in the Lamu archipelago, has vehemently been objected to the contents of the EISA report. Save Lamu says residents of the islands were never consulted. And that the report did not reveal most of the dangers that would affect life on the island.

Nema have stood by their report insisting that every legal and logical step was followed in its drafting. “There can be no logical explanation as to why a national environmental body would issue the statement in the manner it did,” University of Nairobi’s John Musangi said.

According to Dr Musangi, some of the impact reduction measures proposed by Amu Power and ratified by Nema are seen ineffective and outdated. One of them being the use of a high tower chimney to deal with the toxic gases from the plant.

“Taking pollutants high in the sky to be dispersed by air is now seen in environmental circles as primitive because the pollutants will still sink down to the ground surface,” said Dr Musangi.

Amu Power says the chimney will be the equivalent of 70 storeys, effectively being the tallest building in Kenya.

The UoN researcher says pollutants from the plant will be highly toxic heavy metals as well as others like sulphurdioxide which leads to acid precipitation and subsequent corrosion of outdoor works of art, materials and buildings.

For 38-year-old Raya Famau Ahmed, pollution, though a concern, is not her biggest worry. Her fears strike at the very core of her existence as a mother. “What will happen to us? Will we give birth to normal babies? Will our water be safe for drinking,” she asks.

Respiratory conditions

In 2015, after they first heard of the coal project, she and three others went on a fact finding mission to South Africa to see for themselves how the lives of the people living around coal mining areas had been affected, if at all.

“The land was bare. It didn’t look like it could support life. Every few kilometres, we could see hospitals that specialised in respiratory conditions. Is that what they want Lamu to be like,” she asked. “What have we, as Lamu people, done to deserve this?”

A 2011 report on emissions of hazardous air pollutants from coal fired power plants commissioned by the American Lung Association, found the pollutants to be responsible for a wide range of adverse health effects.

“This includes damage to eyes, skin, and breathing passages, negative effects to the kidneys, lungs and nervous system, the potential to cause cancer, impairment of neurological function and ability to learn as well as pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases,” the report says.

But unlike Athman and Raya, Sobana Aidarus sees no evil in the project. He says it is timely and will positively impact on the economic well-being of the county.

The establishment of the coal plant will necessitate the compensation of hundreds of land owners and speculators. Proof of ownership will guarantee a Sh800,000 per acre compensation. Also, the construction of the plant will provide an opportunity to create thousands of jobs for those living in Lamu.

Some say the allure of money has forced a majority of Kwasasi residents to support the plant. Almost three years later, Amu Power has moved on site, but the compensation is yet to be received.

“Simply because they will have the money to buy land elsewhere and move away,” Athman says. “What happens to those that stay behind and know no other home?”

Kenya’s current grid connected electricity capacity is 1,429 MW. Electricity supply is predominantly sourced from hydro and fossil fuel (thermal) sources. Current electricity demand is 1,600 MW.

The current additions to the grid, including ongoing wind, solar and geothermal power production projects, are all aimed at feeding a future energy appetite projected to grow to 2,600-3600 MW by 2020. Meeting this future demand, some say, can be done through other cleaner forms of energy.

Economic interests

“The Kenyan government acted with poor advising, lack of ambition or perhaps surrendered to other economic interests,” Guillermo Polavieja, a Harvard University scholar and Nema accredited environmental consultant told Sunday Standard. Polavieja said renewable energies are becoming more competitive in developing countries.

“The largest of these economies, China and, lately, India, are already abandoning coal moved by the hidden toll of environmental and health issues that already burdens it and their international commitments to curbing Climate Change,” he said. The closeness of the project to the hearts and minds of Lamu residents has made it a campaign agenda, at least for some aspirants.

Political hierachy

“The people of Lamu do not want this project. It is certain death for us,” Hussein Ali Hassan, a politician vying for Shela ward in Lamu said.

Higher up the political hierarchy of the county though, many are fence-sitting, not willing to pick a side because all indications are that the project has the blessings of the national government, and speaking out might be a choice heavy with consequence.

No matter how fast the overhead fans at the Lamu Fort went, the breeze from the white plastic blades wasn’t enough to cool the fires of anxiety within some of the people in the room who believe their home is being snatched away from them.