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Kenya needs coal, but at what cost to these beautiful Kenyan islands?

By Daniel Wesangula | October 23rd 2016
Lamu Governor Issa Timamy. (Photo: Maarufu Mohammed/Standard)

On the morning of August 22, Samia Omar woke up with a divided conscience. She spent the whole morning trying to reconcile the two sides. But by 2pm, she had given up the fight and she submitted in her resignation as the Lamu County Trade, Tourism, Culture and Natural Resources Executive.

“As county executive for both investment and natural resources, my mandate and obligation to the public is conflicted between promoting investment in Lamu, and preserving the environment,” said Ms Omar. “Having read the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) of the Lamu Coal Power Plant, I am convinced that the project will have irreversible and profound impact on Lamu,” she said as she handed in her resignation letter.

For decades, Lamu County was known for its tourist attraction sites and agriculture based businesses. But over the past three years, a lot more is being associated with it, key being a coal mining plant billed as a saviour to Kenya’s energy needs.

Labelled by the Government as a Vision 2030 project, Lamu’s coal power plant is expected to produce 1,050 megawatts (MW) of electricity on completion – a 50 per cent addition to the 2,200MW on the national electricity grid.

However, Lamu’s local community, leaders and environmental campaigners have united in opposition to the project, in what is slowly evolving into a fierce conflict between mega infrastructure and local community interests in a region caught in the dilemma of protecting its heritage while at the same time playing its part in nation building.

Dirty energy

Amu Power, a consortium that includes local firms Gulf Energy and Centum, is spearheading development of the Sh200 billion power plant, with the Investment and Power Construction Corporation of China charged with construction. Construction of the power plant on 869 acres in Kwasasi, 20 kilometres off Lamu town, was scheduled to begin last September.

Its owners have billed it as the first of its kind in the region. But as the plans to satisfy a huge power appetite continue full steam ahead, Lamu residents continue to share their reservations over the long term effect of the project. And they vow to do all they can to stop what they term as an intrusion into not only their lives, but the existence of future generations too.

“We have been against this project from the beginning. Coal is dirty energy and its effects are detrimental,” Ishaq Abubakar of the Lamu Youth Alliance says. “We are not anti-development but no one in the world has ventured into coal mining and faced no long term consequences.”

Ishaq says if the project starts, the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen who depend on the waters near the plant will be at stake. “Plus the health problems as a result of the pollution will take its toll on the population,” he says.

Key among the issues raised by Ishaq is the inadequate public participation of residents on the project.

He says an EIA report was submitted to Nema on July 14, 2016 by Amu Power, the invitation of comments from the public was made on July 29, giving 30 days for comments – due by August 29.

A public hearing was held on August 26, 2016 contrary to the law which requires that it is held after comments are submitted (August 29) and in a place accessible by most affected people – it was held in an area inaccessible to most residents of Lamu due to distance and costs.

As the custodian of the electorates’ wellbeing, Lamu Governor Issa Timamy needs to ensure his people’s interest comes first. “All over the world, coal is a controversial source of energy. But the country has an energy shortfall and this project might go a long way in bridging it as long as the proper conditions are set for its production,” he said.

But residents say there can never be proper conditions for coal mining. “The project is being set up at the heartland of the community. And this will be sure death to the mangrove forest around the islands,” he says.

Ishaq also says the investors showed no practical way through which the local community will benefit. Timammy, however, says if all is done according to plan, there will be job opportunities for Lamu residents.

“The only thing is that my people are choosy when it comes to employment opportunities. We should learn to take what is available. Plus it may also open up business opportunities for Lamu residents,” he says.

Lamu is a world heritage site for its flora and fauna and its ancient civilisation. And as the world moves on towards green energy, why is coal a priority? “We have an opportunity to harness wind power, solar or even get energy from the sea waves. But the national government has focused on coal. We need to make sure all steps are followed before production kicks off,” Timammy says.

International law

Environmentalists argue in the initial EIA report that the climate change impact t the coal plant will have in the area’s micro-climate will be inconsistent with Kenya’s commitments in international law.

Kenya committed to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They say this project will increase emissions significantly.

“If the environmental impact from a coal plant is so acceptable, then how is it that all countries where the protection of the environment is taken seriously are stopping the construction of new plants and closing old ones?” Francis Dyer, the acting chairperson of the Lamu Tourism Association, says.

Dyer also argues that the plant will result in health degradation for both humans and animals. “In the US, four different studies on coal plants showed an average decrease in life span of 14 per cent, when the general tendency elsewhere has been an increase. The life expectancy in the coal plant areas is only 60 years, when the average in developed countries is now over 75.”

He says the consequential rise in the temperature of the sea in the area close to a coal plant, due to the hot water being continuously expelled from the cooling system, will kill the corals and fish.

As at now, the dilemma that faced Lamu’s former executive on tourism, trade and environment has been magnified and has trickled down to the residents who are now choosing sides. “You are either pro development or anti-development. There is no space for those concerned about the environment. That is why we have to keep speaking up,” Ishaq says.

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