Lamu residents worry about their health, as the fate of the ICBC-backed coal plant remains uncertain

7 Jun, 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.

The collapse of the coal plant in Lamu last year led to a major sigh of relief for the thousands of locals who had put up a spirited fight over the last four years to stop the ICBC-backed coal plant. 

As much as the Kenyan government had tried to win support for the project, inspiring hopes of job creation and new infrastructure for the marginalised coastal town, local residents were far more afraid of how the coal project might affect their health.

According to Ishaq Aboubakar, a resident born in the picturesque Lamu town, the plant would have caused “asthma, abscess of the brain, skin cancer and many other diseases associated with air and environmental pollution.”

Ishaq Aboubakar at his office in Lamu. He was among the activists fighting the installation of the Coal Plant in Lamu under the Save Lamu Initiative.

After visiting the South African town of Mpumalanga in 2016, he witnessed the impact that coal mining had brought to the region, and was inspired to prevent the same fate for his hometown. 

“I saw blackened trees, burnt iron sheets, the farmers there were crying of reduced yields. All these are caused by acid rain caused by the emissions from the numerous coal plants in the region,” Mr Aboubakar said.

After seeing this, he wondered if the project’s investors ever stopped to imagine the social cost of their investment, especially for a local population that couldn’t even receive basic health care once exposed to such toxic levels of pollution. 

The town of Lamu is critically underfunded. Its limited school and medical facilities are well below Kenya’s standards. As a result, most of Lamu’s residents are illiterate, with many having never reached high school, and poverty is an unfortunately everyday reality of life in the fishing village. For many of its residents, a bad day out at sea may lead to nights without food. 

However, if the coal plant was built, Ishaq believes that “effluent and waste from the coal plant would be channeled to the nearby ocean”, killing many local fish-stock. “Where would our people find money to sustain their livelihood if they do not catch anything every day?”

Fishermen in Lamu. Fishermen in Lamu expressed their concerns with the Lamu Coal Plant saying emissions from the company would affect the fish and resultantly affect the health of the consumers of the fish. Photo Credit: Business Daily

“We [at the Save Lamu Coalition] usually try helping, but we cannot sustain the entire area. Now imagine bringing these people strange diseases in the pursuit of making more money. It is inhumane,” he said.

The lack of adequate funding in the region has also impacted the local healthcare system. The County government is struggling to deal with the current Covid-19 pandemic, with most sick patients being referred to Mombasa City, six hours away. 

“Our health facilities cannot even cope with the common diseases. They have no adequate diagnostic equipment. There are no drugs in the facilities. How could such facilities have coped with the devastating effects that would have come with a running coal plant here?” asked Samia Omar, an activist from DeCOALonise Lamu.

A 2017 study conducted in Lamu by Lauri Myllyvirta and Clifford Chuwah aimed to answer this question. 

Their research suggested that the project could increase the risk of diseases such as stroke, lung cancer, heart and respiratory diseases in adults, and respiratory infections in children resulting in premature deaths.

“The planned Lamu coal-fired power plant is likely to result in approximately 26 (present day) and 41 (by 2030) premature deaths per year due to exposure to PM2.5 and NO2, including deaths of infants due to an increased risk of respiratory infections,” the study stated. 

The research also argued that emissions from the Lamu plant might have led to acid rain, which would have affected crops and soils and increased toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, nickel, chrome, and lead and mercury.

Jackson Kiplagat, Regional Sustainable Investments Manager at World Wide Fund for Nature, expressed his perspective regarding the coal plant, saying coal burning should be viewed from environmental and health perspectives.

“From a human health view, coal burning releases a number of airborne toxins and pollutants which include mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals. Health impacts can range from asthma and breathing difficulties, to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death,” he said.

“Decisions to invest in particular sources of energy by a country like Kenya must always consider the long-term environmental and health impacts that can also cost the economy,” he added.

Drawing an example from Europe, where several countries have agreed to end coal usage to produce energy, activists in Kenya have proposed that the government formulate policies to increase renewable energy access across the country. 

For locals in Lamu, the potential health risks posed by the coal plant were simply far too high to compromise on. Given that the plant’s main investor, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, still has the option to appeal the Court’s decision, local villagers remain worried about the investor’s next move. 

“It is better if we stay without power for a while as the government increases its capacity to produce sun, wind and geothermal power than attract coal investors whose actions will leave locals suffering unnecessary illnesses and even death,” Mr Aboubakar concluded.

About the author

Stephen “Steve” Otieno Oketch, Kenya 

Steve 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.