Lamu Residents Left Alone After Power Plant Project Deserted

26 Apr, 2021

Written by Steve Otieno

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

When the Kenyan government set out on a mission in 2013 to increase the country’s total power generation capacity to over 5,000 megawatts by 2017, the move was lauded for promoting development and industrialization.

The government tendered to construct a 1,050-megawatt coal-fired power plant at the shore of Kwasasi, a small town in Lamu County.

The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) committed to invest US$ 1.2 billion (120 billion Kenya Shillings) in the project. The bank was among the key investors alongside the State to fund the grand project. 

Almost eight years later, the project has only become a pipe dream. The Kwasasi town that once bore the promise of prosperity and economic strength is nothing but a shell of its hopeful former self. Most investors have now abandoned the project, including ICBC, which pulled out in November 2020. Their withdrawal, however, has left many residents uncertain of their future, and some have lost all hope that they will ever be compensated for land surrendered to an international coal project that now has left them penniless. 

Lamu residents are left enraged as they feel short-changed with no straw to clutch at. Amu Power Company, the winning firm of the tender for the construction of the coal plant, intended to commence the construction without adequately involving the locals. Its attempts to enhance effective public participation through the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) were faulted by the residents, who said they were sidelined even though it was their land that was being used for the coal project.

Omar Elmawi, a resident of Lamu, said they had continuously opposed and would continue to oppose the proposed coal plant for a myriad of reasons. They feel they were not adequately consulted to get prior and informed consent on the project.

Like many locals, he believed that the plant’s effluent and emissions would impact marine life, affecting fishing —one of the vital livelihood sources for Lamu.

They were also against greenhouse gas emissions, saying it would hinder Kenya’s international commitment to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) to cut its carbon emissions by 32% by 2030.

They feel that there are cleaner and cheaper alternatives in renewables from geothermal, wind and solar sources which are much safer.

Despite having their reservations, the government did not drop plans for the coal plant’s construction. This led to a lawsuit filed on Nov. 7, 2016 to the National Environment Tribunal (NET) by “Save Lamu”, a community-based organisation and five Lamu residents representing the interests of the coastal town dwellers.  

Almost 2.5 years later, the tribunal found Amu Power Company and NEMA guilty of failing to conduct the required public participation.

“It is vital that even the feeblest of voices be heard and views considered. It is presumptuous for a proponent, like the 2nd Respondent [Amu Power Company] did in this case, to proceed with the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] study, identify impacts and then unilaterally provide for mitigation measures in complete disregard of the people of Lamu and their views,” the tribunal said as stated in the ruling.

But the damage had been done. Several residents had already surrendered their lands to the construction company, and have yet to receive compensation. They have no hopes to get their dues as the investors dumped the project.

While Amu Power Company filed an appeal against the tribunal ruling, the firm was never serious in pursuing the process. This puts the project in limbo and will continue to delay any potential for justice to be served.

Said Salim, a resident of Lamu, said the locals had suffered for giving up their land for the project. He worked with Natural Justice, a lead lobby group against the project under the “deCOALonize Lamu Initiative”. The locals relied heavily on their lands as it was one of their sources of livelihood. They should regain their lands, continue farming it and be able to sustain their families. 

For now, the residents still cry foul. They may have managed to stop the coal project, but their suffering, pain, and anguish are too deep to be ignored further.

About the author

Stephen “Steve” Otieno 

Stephen is an investigative reporter at Daily Nation newspaper, owned by the Nation Media Group in Kenya. His favourite thing about being a reporter is discovering secrets and making them known to the public.

He was a finalist at the 9th Annual Journalism Excellency Awards (AJEA) in Kenya and placed 2nd  in the Governance category in this year’s AJEA. Stephen is looking forward to linking human rights throughout his stories.

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