Heavy Metals and Heat

4 Jun, 2021

Written by Eve Driver

UPDATE: Since the writing of this piece, we learned that ICBC pulled out of the Lamu coal-fired power project.

Somo M. Somo has been fishing for as long as he can remember. Born on Pate Island in Lamu County on the northern coast of Kenya, his father began teaching him the trade when he was around seven years old, and his son, who also goes by Somo, grew up the same way. 

Indeed, 80% of Lamu’s 140,000 residents are sustained by the local fishing economy. For generations, the small community has lived off the rich marine ecosystem surrounding it: lobsters, prawns, crabs, tuna, and snappers are naturally abundant close to their shores. 

When in 2015 the Kenyan government announced a partnership with Amu Power to develop a coal-fired power plant in Lamu, at first Somo and his community did not know what to expect. Most had never heard of coal; the county’s electricity came from a diesel generator. 

But quickly, what they learned alarmed them. 

“First, the coal plant would change the temperature of the water,” Somo began explaining. Seaside coal plants involve cooling systems that take in water and then release it back 5-10 degrees warmer. Over time, the impact isn’t subtle: it induces heat stress in marine life, inhibits reproduction, and drives fish farther from shore. Fishermen must then travel further—often into waters too rough for their boats—and tend to see their catch sizes plummet.

“Also, there is a chemical that comes from the power plant,” he continued, detailing the way that ash residues leak into the water as coal is transported to the plants, contaminating fish with heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, and lead. Not only does this kill many fish, but the fish that survive are dangerous to the humans who eat them—causing cancer, endocrine disruption, renal failure, cardiovascular disease, liver failure, and even death.

In a region that continues to struggle to provide adequate and affordable health infrastructure to its residents, crippling individual health costs would have made many of these conditions untreatable.

“To go to the hospital for cancer is a lot of money,” Somo stresses. “If you are poor, you can’t afford it.” 

As Somo outlined these two types of impacts, it was clear that his spiel was well-practiced. While not a scientist, Somo has become adept at understanding the impacts of coal on local fishing livelihoods. As the elected chairman of the 37 subsets of the fishing community in Lamu, he became a leading voice against the coal project, educating hundreds of fellow fishermen and ultimately testifying in court. In 2019, after years of community organizing, Kenya’s National Environment Tribunal ruled to revoke the project’s license.

Advocates like Somo are often hard to come by in the communities most vulnerable to the effects of coal. Even though these effects are well-documented, the knowledge is not always disseminated to those who need it. 

It has long been true that coal plants tend to get erected in parts of the world where the local community is either not powerful enough to push back, or is so desperate for economic development that it will take the pollution along with the paychecks. These same communities often also have inferior access to education, making them less likely to be aware of the risks.

Lamu is one of the poorest regions in Kenya, and most of its fishermen do not attend school past age 15, says Khadija Shekuwe, the coordinator for grassroots coalition Save Lamu. 

In 2017, however, Somo was able to visit the Kutch region of India. This community had witnessed the effects of coal firsthand.

“They didn’t know about coal, so at first, they were excited,” he said of the fishermen’s initial response. “But then after the coal plant came, they stopped having lobsters, crabs, and fish. All that was left were the prawns. Tiny prawns. Only good for fertilizer, not for eating.”

Other members of the Save Lamu coalition were flown to South Africa, where the pan-African legal group, Natural Justice sponsored more information-sharing with another coal-impacted community called Mpumalanga. In addition to these visits, the community watched documentaries and read news sources.

After the trip Somo and the others made it their mission to educate those back in Lamu to ensure it didn’t face the same fate. With the support of Save Lamu and the broader deCOALonize coalition that formed, community leaders made sure that reports done on coal’s impacts were widely circulated and incorporated into workshops for local fishermen. 

While much of the world transitions away from coal, communities like those in Lamu remain vulnerable—especially as big global polluters plan to phase coal out domestically while looking to export what remains of their fossil fuel industries. 

China is a leading culprit; as part of its Go Out project, its government has encouraged its coal industry to pivot to foreign markets, and more than 70% of coal projects worldwide now rely on China’s funding. Indeed, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China—the largest investor in the Lamu project and planned to fund 60%—is the single largest underwriter of new coal projects worldwide. 

It’s not just China. A recent report by Urgewald highlights that regardless of the G7’s recent joint pledge to eliminate overseas development support for coal, private investors in the U.S. and Japan remain some of the world’s leading coal financiers. But across the board, banks based in the countries that emit the most carbon are now targeting emerging markets for new coal development, putting local communities at risk. 

In the wake of the Lamu plant’s cancellation, ICBC still has coal contracts pending approval in Turkey and Indonesia. Like it was in Lamu, the likelihood that community concerns will trump international investments is low. The chances of success for communities resisting fossil fuel developments in the wake of COVID’s economic impacts are arguably less than they were in 2019. However, they may be able to look to Lamu’s efforts as a blueprint for power and knowledge building. 

Recently, chief economist Zhou Yueqiu noted that ICBC was planning a “gradual withdrawal of coal financing”. However, ICBC has also stated their intention to fund a green energy future on their official website since 2012. That being said, they remain arguably the largest global investor in current and future coal projects around the world. 

With this track record, it may be that grassroots, community protest may offer the best and perhaps only opportunity for ICBC to turn that green energy future promise into a reality.

About the author:

Eve Driver, United States/Kenya 

Eve is a writer living in Nairobi. She grew up in the northeastern United States and has had stints in Buenos Aires and Cape Town, where she also worked as a writer and researcher. In addition to her work as a journalist, Eve has worked as a fossil fuel divestment activist, a research assistant to an anthropologist, a criminal investigator for a public defender, and a campaign manager for an Argentine mayoral candidate.

She studied the history and culture(s) of environmentalism at Harvard University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2020. Her research on media coverage of Cape Town’s “Day Zero” water crisis won the Undergraduate Essay Prize from the Science, Technology and Society department at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

This story was made possible through the support of Climate Tracker.