Nations worldwide recognise coal to be an expensive and polluting way to generate energy. Despite growing support for alternative, cleaner sources of power such as wind, solar, and natural gas, Kenya intends to build a coal-fired power plant on its acclaimed Unesco world heritage site, Lamu.
The distinctive Lamu Island is an original 700-year-old a place with unique historical significance, revered for its untouched natural landscape.
Since the 13th century, this town has preserved its authentic traditions and retained its prestigious status. Today, the Lamu community find their home threatened by a short-sighted, unnecessary coal-fired power plant, proposed to be built here by Amu Power.
The distinguished Lamu Island is home to a community of activists fiercely contesting the approval of a proposed coal project that threatens to forever alter their health, heritage, environment and marine system of their homeland.
They have come together under the Save Lamu banner, and are currently engaged in a contentious court battle between the people of Lamu and the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema).
The people of Lamu are challenging the environmental and social impact assessment licence that Nema granted the project, in wilful ignorance of the impacts.
The pending court hearings in Lamu County are critical. Kenya’s judicial system will ultimately decide whether the county faces a short-lived future that will destroy this rare, unspoilt 700-year-old Swahili settlement or opt for more sustainable energy choices that allow such heritage jewels to be preserved, intact.
The $2billion coal-fired power plant will adversely affect the preserved heritage site and equally contribute to the country’s costs of climate change mitigation.
The controversial decision to build the 1050 megawatt coal-fired thermal power plant, with the aim to energise and modernise Kenya’s electricity system, has dire consequences, not only for Lamu County but for the country.
The proposed Amu Power coal plant, the first of its kind in East Africa, could displace 120 000 people living in Lamu County, and single-handedly emit the highest amount of toxic chemicals in the region.
If the project is allowed to forge ahead, not only will Kenya fail to reduce its current carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030, as per international agreements, but will lock itself in destructive fossil fuel dependence for decades to come.
Kenya’s average annual cost of damages caused by climate change is already estimated at $1.25billion. Pollution from the plant will contribute to the drastic climatic incidents that can cost Kenya up to $500million a year. These exorbitant costs can be avoided if the project is halted before it sees the light of day.
The toxic impacts of coal plants on animals and people is well documented, and implicated in significant deaths every year in industrialised countries such as South Africa.
The Lamu plant will use about 3million tons of coal per year that will be imported from South Africa. South Africa is at the forefront of feeding Africa’s coal appetite.
By funding and supplying the coal, South African businesses contribute to East Africa’s humanitarian crisis, aggravated by conglomerates of fossil fuel companies knowingly perpetuating global climate impacts.
For many in East Africa, the current drought is the worst in living memory. Across eight countries, 17million people face starvation due to failed crops.
Extremely low and unpredictable rainfall, coupled with high temperatures, exacerbate drought conditions, destroying livestock and crops.
Our climate future looks grim. More than 118million people are expected to be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat in Africa by 2030. It’s a fact, climate events have claimed the lives of more than 460million people. Any new coal and fossil fuel projects will worsen our exposure to long-term climate variability and extreme weather events.
Lamu residents have the right to make informed decisions and be active participants in decisions that affect the future of their land and livelihoods.
Establishing a collaborative and transparent relationship between citizens, government and venture capitalists is an imperative moral call. Despite police intimidation and controversial adjustments such as last-minute venue changes and occasions where members of the National Environmental Management Authority failed to show up, Lamu activists remain steadfast, determined to protect their county. Last month, at court hearings, activists stood up for their heritage and challenged the industrialisation of Kenya through coal developments.
Across the African landscape, communities are challenging development projects with deadly lifespans. The time when government and international conglomerates made decisions on behalf of citizens is long gone.
The people of Lamu refuse to face a coal-dependent future, and they will continue to fight to derail the intended coal-fired power plant.
Should the court side with the people of Lamu, it will cement its place on the right side of history, joining judgments such as that of South Africa’s High Court, which declared the government’s dubious nuclear energy plan invalid.
Mining unexploited coal reserves in Lamu will destroy vulnerable marine life, including coral reefs and a unique species of sea turtle that nests on Lamu island, and ultimately cripple the fishing and tourism industry the small village of Kwasasi relies on for its livelihood.
The people of Lamu have pinned their hopes on the court system, hoping that the judicial process will successfully halt this coal project and protect the traditional heritage of Lamu for future generations.
- Lerato Letebele is the communications co-ordinator for 350.org, Africa Arab World, a climate change organisation intent on halting all new fossil fuel production across sub-Saharan Africa.