From Lamu to Nairobi, the saga of the fight against anthrax in Kenya

Two years ago, Mohamed Somo left his island and his three fishing boats for a few days. Leaving Lamu, his native archipelago bathed by the Indian Ocean, in eastern Kenya, he traveled to Mundra, on the northwest coast of India, site of a major coal-fired power station. What he saw in October 2019, Mr. Somo is not about to forget. A hazy sky of pollution, dirty water, rare and tiny fish …

Mohamed Somo, spokesperson for the fishermen of Lamu.

“We had however told the villagers that the power station would bring wealth, He says today, sitting under an arbor overflowing with bougainvillea on the waterfront of Lamu Town, an old Swahili port listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But during our visit, there was no school, and even no electricity! We filmed everything to show the damage to people back home and encourage them to stay mobilized. “

Mohamed Somo is not just a simple fisherman. He is also the local spokesperson for his corporation. Above all, the 40-year-old is one of those Kenyan activists who, for seven years, have been battling against the coal-fired power plant project supposed to emerge 20 kilometers northwest of his city. A fight waged with pugnacity and efficiency, to the point of becoming one of the most emblematic of the African continent in terms of environmental protection.

Lead in the wing

With a capacity of 1,050 megawatts, the plant, if ever built, would be the first in all of East Africa. It would also become the main emitter of greenhouse gases in the country, going against the grain of efforts in favor of renewable energies – an area in which Kenya is a leader thanks to geothermal energy. But this $ 2 billion megaproject is on its way. Led by Amu Power, a joint venture between Kenyan companies Centum Investment and Gulf Energy, and supported at its launch by China and the Kenyan government, it has suffered a series of legal and financial setbacks seriously jeopardizing its future.

The tide started to turn in June 2019, when the national environmental litigation court canceled the license granted to Amu Power, believing that local communities had not been consulted enough and demanding a new impact study. The consortium appealed – the procedure is underway, a hearing was still held at the end of October – but the withdrawals were chained.

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In November 2019, the African Development Bank announced that it will never finance charcoal again, especially in Lamu. Ten months later, the American General Electric, supposed to design the technology of the plant, announced the abandonment of all its activities related to this most polluting fossil fuel. But the real twist came from China, pillar of the project: in November 2020, the Industrial commercial bank of China, the plant’s main financier, chose to withdraw its commitment of $ 1.2 billion.

Internationalization of the battle

The activists rejoice. “It was like a crumbling house of cards and proof that our strategy was working”, enthuses Samia Omar Bwana, one of the linchpins in the fight against anthrax in Kenya. A time member of the Lamu County government, she resigned in 2016 to protest the power plant project. In the process, this ecologist at heart co-founded the deCOALonize campaign (pun on “decolonize” and “coal”, coal in English) to structure the battle and internationalize it. Organizations such as Greenpeace, the American association Sierra Club and the German Heinrich-Böll foundation immediately joined the ranks, providing their networks, their know-how or their financial support. “But the strength of the movement is to have always put the communities on the ground first, underlines Omar Elmawi, a lawyer by training who became the campaign coordinator. Firstly because we do not want to pass for a group representing the interests of Nairobi or abroad, and then above all because they are the first to be affected. “

Samia Omar Bwana, co-founder of deCOALonize, at her home in Nairobi.

It is therefore the local Save Lamu association which is leading the fight in court to stop this project, which the inhabitants of the archipelago learned about almost by chance. Their grievance? To have been poorly informed of the repercussions of the future plant on the fragile ecosystem of this string of islands which extends to Somalia. But it is already upset by the Lapsset site, a gigantic commercial and oil port under construction a few kilometers north of Lamu Town, on the mainland. The Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor, with three anchorage points and supposed to have 32 in the long term, in addition to a railway, a highway and a seaside resort, is intended to develop the north east of the country and to relieve congestion at the port of Mombasa, further south.

The donkey is the only means of transport in the old listed city of Lamu.

“The environmental impact of the Lapsset is significant but we hope it will alleviate the economic marginalization of the region. Coal, on the other hand, has nothing good to offer us ”, Raya Famau, member of Save Lamu, who brought this message before the five judges of the environmental court. “All over the world, coal-fired power stations are being closed. Why should we open one in Kenya and precisely here? “, she asks, pointing to the surrounding landscape with her henna tattooed arm.

Air pollution and acid rain

It must be said that Lamu is not a place like the others. The ancient mansions with carved mahogany doors in the old city recall the sumptuous past of this cradle of Swahili civilization. In the narrow streets, traffic jams with donkeys, the only means of transport in the city, form, while traditional wooden dhows sail on the water. The uniqueness of the place is not only due to this faithfully preserved cultural heritage. The archipelago is also the refuge of vulnerable species, such as dugongs (relatives of the lamentin) and several breeds of sea turtles. It mainly shelters 70% of the Kenyan mangrove, this submerged forest which acts as a carbon sink and protects the coasts of erosion.

In the Kenyan archipelago of Lamu.

However, a coal-fired power station, residents warn, would lead to air pollution and acid rain. The hot water discharges generated by the cooling system would harm wildlife, mangroves and coral reefs. The environmental balance would be jeopardized, as would the economy of the archipelago, based on fishing and tourism. “To say that makes sense, yet the authorities have made life difficult for us. Some of us were arrested after demonstrating. We have been accused of being anti-development and even of being linked to the Chabab [les milices islamistes somaliennes] », says Mohamed Athman, another local activist. Sitting in front of a map listing the county’s natural resources, the man wearing the traditional hat embroidered underlines how precious the help of partners based in Nairobi or abroad was: “In addition to helping us, they allowed us to be taken seriously. “

Mohamed Athman, in his office in Save Lamu.

In the capital, 450 kilometers to the west, Mark Odaga takes part in this vast united coalition to fight against the advent of coal in Kenya. A lawyer, he works for the international NGO Natural Justice, specializing in environmental law and legal support for indigenous peoples. “At first, our chances of winning seemed slim, underlines this young man with a very british. In East Africa, no one knows what a coal-fired power plant is, and it took us a while to gather the expertise to dismantle the case for the project. “

Overly optimistic expectations

All the same, this painstaking work ends up succeeding. While the Kenyan government claims to want to support growth by producing cheap energy, a study published in June 2019 is causing a stir. Produced by an American think tank, the Institute for Economic and Financial Analysis of Energy (IEEFA), it maintains that the electricity produced in Lamu would cost ten times more than expected, due to overly optimistic expectations regarding demand. of energy. Especially since, in order to function, the plant would have to import coal from South Africa. Deposits have been found in central Kenya, at Kitui, but the coal there is of poor quality and a railway line would have to be built to bring it.

“Suddenly, it was no longer Lamu’s problem but all Kenyans, underlines Samia Omar Bwana, of deCOALonize, recounting the petitions addressed to the Chinese embassy and the demonstrations organized in the streets of Nairobi. It’s easier to engage people by telling them what it’s going to cost them now than by talking about the effects of climate change in twenty years. ” However, this aspect is far from negligible, even though Kenya has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions as part of the 2015 Paris agreement. “With coal, this objective would be obsolete”, points out Amos Wemanya, of the Power Shift Africa think tank. Without forgetting that the country, faced with ever more intense droughts and floods, is already vulnerable to climate disturbances. “It would have been foolish to add fuel to the fire we are trying to put out”, adds this former Greenpeace Africa.

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Has the page on coal been turned? The recent position taken by Kenya’s Minister of the Environment, Keriako Tobiko, seems unequivocal: “Coal no longer has a raison d’être”, he said in early October. Still, the power plant project has not yet been formally canceled. Contacted by The world, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), which originated the licenses for Amu Power, did not follow up. And the government continues to allocate a portion of its budget each year to exploring potential deposits.

Omar Elmawi, coordinator of the international #StopEACOP campaign, in Nairobi.

“We cannot be satisfied with words, we need official declarations confirming the end of these projects”, claims Omar Elmawi who, in the meantime, has found a new field of action. After deCOALonize, he became coordinator of the international #StopEACOP campaign to try to prevent the construction of the future East African pipeline (EACOP), supposed to cross Uganda and Tanzania. Africa may well be the continent that emits the least greenhouse gases, the fight against fossil fuels is far from over.

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From Lamu to Nairobi, the saga of the fight against anthrax in Kenya