Will it be the end of the archipelago’s rich history, culture and biodiversity?

By Rupi Mangat

It’s a starry night by the waterfront at Stone Town Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has continuously been lived in since the 13th century giving rise to the Swahili culture with its iconic limestone architecture. The town is on the island of Lamu in the Lamu archipelago. The isles of the archipelago thrived with the dhow trade influenced by the monsoon winds and waves of the Indian Ocean for more than two thousand years.

Fishing dhows of the local Swahili and Bajuni fishers lie anchored in the narrow channel that separates Lamu island from Manda island and mainland Africa. As the eye travels west towards the mainland, lights blaze across the horizon so bright that not a single star sparkles in that half of the sky.

It is where the Lamu Port is being built with towering cranes clearing, dredging, and shifting heavy equipment off the gigantic ships that sail in from the high seas, past Manda Island and across the narrow channel.

The port is part of the Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport project -- dubbed LAPSSET -- under the Kenya Vision 2030 development blue print that is set to boost development and trade between the three countries and beyond.

By 2050, the port is projected to be a city of one million people.


A few kilometres from the Lamu Port, at a little known place called Kwasasi, is the site of another ambitious project under the LAPSSET flagship of a magnitude that the country has never seen -- the proposed Amu Coal Plant on almost 1,000 acres dubbed the ‘box’ -- that will forever change the face of Lamu -- and for the worse.

In the searing heat, Save Lamu, a coalition of more than 36 local organisations representing local farmers and fishers, civil society, women’s group and the youth is meeting with the local fishers and farmers to tackle the enormity of projects like the Lamu Port and the proposed coal plant in their midst. Save Lamu was founded in 2011 to enhance public knowledge of the LAPSSET project and to lobby for public consultation in the planning stages to ensure that the issues of human rights, integrity, and land evictions followed the law.

“This is our ancestral land,” said Mohammed Shee, an elder in the community. “We first heard of the coal plant in 2016. Now we have to organize ourselves in a group to stop it from happening.”

The Lamu coal plant

Coal is the worst option for energy production. Major economies like China, the United Kingdom, India and many more are closing down their coal plants and investing in cleaner energy like wind, solar, water and even nuclear.


Kenyan justification

The Kenya government’s justification for the proposed coal plant is that it is the cheapest option. Research shows its cheapness is at the cost of our health and home – planet Earth.

The proposed coal plant is under the Ministry of Energy that issued a tender in 2013, for investors to build a coal plant. Gulf Energy and Centum Investment won the bid and formed Amu Power Company – Amu being the traditional name for Lamu town.

The company proposes to build and operate a 1,050 Megawatt coal-fired thermal electricity in Lamu -- to contribute towards the government’s blueprint for 5,000MW of affordable and reliable power on the national grid.

The coal plant’s justification is to power projects like the standard gauge railway, LAPSSET, and other industries. By 2030, national peak demand is expected at 18,000MW against installed capacity of 24,000MW.

On 26 February 2017, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) rejected objections to the project by Save Lamu.

The regulator stated that the people affected by the project are not opposed to Amu being issued with a licence. The decision is based on a flawed Environment and Social Impact Assessment that is being challenged by scientists, economists and Save Lamu.

The Environmental Social Impact Assessment

Amu Power Company first engaged with Save Lamu towards the end of 2014 for an Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) -- required by law -- conducted by Amu Power’s consultant Kurrent Technology.

“Save Lamu and local community leaders told them that we did not want coal. We preferred renewable energy and we would support that -- such as solar and wind energy,” said Walid Ahmed Ali of Save Lamu and founder of the Lamu Youth Alliance.

The National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) nevertheless issued the licence to Amu Power to build and operate the coal plant. Save Lamu appealed NEMA’s decision to the National Environmental Tribunal (NET) and the case is being heard through July. Until the case is heard a stay order is in place.

Flawed assessments

Dr David Obura, a leading marine biologist has been studying the marine ecology of the Kenyan coast for more than 20 years. A graduate of Harvard with honours in zoology and a

PhD, Obura is a director of Coastal Oceans Research and Development – Indian Ocean (CORDIO) East Africa.

His concerns run deep for Kenya’s coastal waters. With a fine comb, he has analysed the ESIA and makes the following points against the proposed coal plant from an academic front.


Environmental concerns

The proposed coal plant makes no analysis of the impact of pollution from the dust or ash from heavy metals and other toxic substances from the fossil fuel – on land, in the sea or to people. The toxic effects on plant, animals and people are well documented, and implicated in significant deaths every year like in South Africa.

In addition, the carbon dioxide emissions from coal are particularly high, and therefore a pollutant because of its effects on greenhouse warming and climate change.

According to the scientist, the ESIA goes into little detail of the smoke and air pollution from the coal plant that is blown by the wind. It does not consider extreme conditions that could blanket the surrounding countryside and the new developing town in smoke and ash.

Another concern is that the ash from the plant (waste ash after burning) will be stored in a holding pond, or ash yard, that has a capacity for 15 years of operations, but the life of the plant is anticipated to be 50 years.

The ESIA also fails to mention that the holding pond – which will grow to 25 meters high behind dam walls, sits only 3-5 metres above the groundwater that is used by people and animals, and that flows into the sea. It’s a disaster in the making if the wall breaches and this slurry spills out into the ocean.

Obura also describes another future scenario - of what could become of Kenya’s most toxic garbage pit. After 50 years of the proposed coal plant, the holding pond will be a mountain about 4 kilometres long and 25 metres high.

This is the distance from Lamu to Shella town on Lamu island and as high as the dunes of Shella. This dumped toxic waste – which studies show becomes more radio-active than nuclear power over time– will be only a few metres above sea level - and on the section of the Kenyan coastline most vulnerable to sea level rise.

“Nothing,” said Obura, “has been mentioned in the report about this, or the permanent legacy of a toxic waste pile on the coastline. What will happen when the sea level will eventually rise this high?”

The proposed coal plant in Lamu will be Kenya’s largest carbon-dioxide emitter, and perhaps Kenya’s most polluting industrial facility. Yet there is nothing in the EIA about short or long term implications of this scale of pollution.

“It’s gross negligence on the part of the company and EIA experts, but more importantly of NEMA, in letting the EIA through,” stated Obura.

The tourism industry

“The multi-billion port,” said Fuzz Dyer, chair of Lamu Tourist Association (LTA) can be justified for Kenya if the demand for oil is there. “But the Lamu coal plant is ludicrous,” he said voicing the concerns of LTA. “There are better options for clean power with gas on Pate Island and wind power.

“For six months of the year between October and April, the kaskazi monsoon winds will blow poisonous smoke over the proposed Lamu port and Resort City. Then the rest of the year the kusi monsoon will blow the same poison and acid rain over the largest tract of indigenous costal forest left in East Africa, the Boni-Dodori forest,” said Dyer.

Remote Lamu

The proponents of the coal project state that the area “is remote” and will not affect many people.

“These are exactly the places, where the environment is less impacted and should be protected and kept clean.” said Obura

He also criticized the master plan for LAPPSET that is publicly available, saying that it was developed before a Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) was done.

“This lack of a SEA prior to the Master Plan shows the government and project proponents have no plans or strategy to minimise interacting threats, and no contingencies for how a cascade of negative impacts may turn the whole project into an environmental and social catastrophe for Lamu County in the next 50 years with Lamu mainland becoming an industrialised waste dump.”


Economics of coal

Hindpal Singh Jabbal the former chairman of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) also objects to the construction of Lamu Coal Plant –from an economic and technical grounds.

According to him, when tenders for the coal plant at Lamu were invited in 2013, the demand for electricity was anticipated to grow at a highly exaggerated 14 per cent annual growth. This would translate to peak demand of 15,000 MW by 2030, and installed capacity at 20,000 MW with a 30 per cent reserve margin.

However with revised projections of 8.5 per cent growth, as also confirmed by Lahmeyer International, a firm of consultants appointed by the Ministry of Energy, the peak demand in 2030 will be 5,200MW with installed capacity of 6,500MW. This demand can easily be met with renewable resources in Kenya like geothermal, wind, solar, biomass and hydro.

Mr Jabbal has clearly shown that because of lack of adequate demand, the 1,050 MW coal plant costing in the region of $2 billion will remain idle for several years attracting almost $370 million per annum in capacity (rental) charges.

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