'Coal is not the answer’ declares Lamu people in a win for the environment

Save Lamu activists Walid Ahmed and Abubakar Ali. Credit: Janet Murikira

'Coal is not the answer’ declares Lamu people in a win for the environment

For decades, the people of Lamu archipelago in Kenya’s north coast have managed to live without road emissions. Except for motorbikes that have become popular in the islands over the past two years, the people have used donkeys to run basic chores such as transporting sand, building bricks and riding them across the island.The small island has only one four-wheel vehicle: that of the Lamu county commissioner.

Lamu’s old town dates back to the 14th century as Swahili, Portuguese and Omani Arabs settlement, and was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001.

The town, characterized by old houses made of coral and mangrove and narrow streets, hosts two cultural events annually — the Maulid festival and the Lamu cultural festival.

The sleepy town, however, has been confronting a challenge that would pollute their clean air and disturb their simple way of life — a proposal to build a coal plant in the area. The Lamu coal plant would emit highly polluting smoke from a 210-metre stack that would be the tallest structure in the East African skyline.

A study prepared by Kurrent technologies on behalf of Amu power, the Kenyan company that would have served as the local implementer of the now temporarily-shelved project, assessed the environmental and social impact of the proposed plant. The study found that climate change-related outcomes from the project’s carbon emissions could lead to higher temperatures during summer, which would affect agriculture and threaten access to water. But these consequences were negligible compared to the economic benefits of electrification. 

The assessment also recommended a plant shut down should marine life suffer from the discharge of water from the plant into the ocean.

Lamu resident Abubakar Mohamed would not accept these justifications. He founded Save Lamu, a community organization protesting the power plant, which recently succeeded in a court petition to stop its construction. “Their study was not concrete on what mitigation strategies they would employ to stem impacts such as diseases and loss of livelihoods,” Mohamed said.

A poster discouraging the use of coal powered plants hangs at the Save Lamu office in Lamu.

Janet Murikira

According to an environment and social impact assessment study conducted by Greenpeace Africa, emissions from the plant would cause 1600 premature deaths and 800 low birth weights by 2030.

In 2015, Kenya entered a pledge in the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030.

As of 2010, Kenya was producing approximately 73 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually which is approximately 0.1% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions.

The energy sector contributed to approximately 11.37% of the emissions. The Lamu coal plant itself would emit 8.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually once it became fully operational.

Proponents of the Lamu coal say the plant will provide much-needed electrification to power economic activity in the village and in greater parts of Africa, and that this will lift many people from poverty.

However, a study conducted by US-based think tank Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) shows that Kenyans will bear up to US $9 billion in losses from this deal.

IEEFA highlighted in its report that, if signed, the Lamu deal would lock Kenyans into a 25-year undertaking that would cost US $360 million annually even if the company generated no power.

David Schlissel, IEEFA Director of resource planning analysis and lead author of the report, said the project would lead to “excess generating capacity in Kenya and sharply increased electricity rates for consumers.” 

The report adds that should the plant be built, it would be underutilized until 2037, which means it would be producing less electricity while the operating costs would remain the same.

The fight against the plant is not yet over, as the company Amu power has 30 days to appeal the decision or alternatively choose to conduct a fresh environment and social impact test. However, the ruling to stop construction has been hailed as a major victory for the war against coal in Africa.

“I expect that the environmental tribunal’s decision will significantly delay the project,” Schilsell said.

Omar Elmawi, coordinator for Decoalonize, another non-profit opposing coal projects in Africa, said: 

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