development disruption political power & power relations questions rethinking

we don’t need the lamu coal plant

I got caught out on this post when the Supreme Court annulled the August election results after I had drafted the post and all…. The annulment [and everything that followed it] resulted in an extra-long election period and collective holding of breath accompanied by lots of intrigues (threats, insults, name callings, arrests…. With all that happening I didn’t feel like I could post this…. Ironically, because I start by talking about how Kenyan politics and elections hold us hostage and (almost) prevent us from thinking about anything else. I suffer from this as much as anyone else clearly. But here I am, finally posting this.

Now that the elections are over (thank God) we can re-focus our attention on issues that matter. Not to say that elections don’t matter in Kenya, but I don’t know any except the 2002 one where the will of the people has actually been heard. This past one like the others, were painful, unjust, and costly to many, especially those who were in the opposition.

Something also happens around election season where all media houses and the majority of Kenyans seem to have been taken hostage by “siasa” (politics). Thinking about it, elections in Kenya are the perfect cover for mis-deeds to pass under the radar since everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere. Like the Lamu Coal Power Plant for example.

The difficulty of holding the gaze

“How do we subject that shadow kingdom to a temporal optic that might allow us to see – and foresee – the lineaments of slow terror behind the facade of sudden spectacle?” Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

I would argue that politics is largely spectacle in this country. I think about the proposed power plant in Lamu, and I talk about it with family members. I try to link political events and history to the plant, but it feels as slippery as a fish. It is difficult to hold the gaze. The president picked a grand time to quietly (on the national scale) and quickly sign the coal plant into future reality. For some reason, the image of ex-president Kibaki being sworn in quickly, quietly at dusk in 2007 comes to mind.

And yes, it’s that serious. The country was betrayed in 2007. The country is being betrayed in 2017 with this power plant. Here’s how:

1. The people of Lamu were not consulted

Before a project goes ahead the people it will affect need to be consulted and to give free, prior and informed consent. In Lamu this was not the case. Environmental Impact Assessment meetings were held only with select groups of people only. These meetings were often held in hard to reach locations, locations that would be changed at the last minute making it harder for lower-income Lamu residents who will be affected by the plant to have their voices heard. The EIA document is yet to be made available by NEMA.

2. Lamu?

Have you asked why Lamu of all places? Why would a coal plant be commissioned near a UNESCO heritage site, a plant that would be processing coal imported from South Africa and to be built by the Chinese? Lamu is one of the oldest Swahili towns whose Swahili sea trade history is centuries long. The town is also attracts plenty of visitors – domestic and foreign making tourism one of the cornerstones of the local economy alongside fishing. A coal power plant belching out smoke and using ocean water to cool itself down would do significant damage to both of these local economic activities.

Shela village, Lamu. Source

3. We are producing enough energy as it is

At the Lamu Plant forum organised by Save Lamu and DeCoalonize Professor Hindpal Singh, former chair of the Energy Regulatory Commission gave us the finer details about Kenya’s energy mix. In his words, coal does not fit anywhere in Kenya’s energy mix for the next 15 years. We are currently producing more energy than we are consuming. Energy produced from the wind farm in Turkana was supposed to be added to the grid in 2016 and 2017 for example, but distribution lines are yet to be installed.

4. But let’s say we didn’t produce enough energy, is coal the best option?

But even if we were not currently producing more energy than we are using, coal produced electricity is and will increasingly be more expensive than alternatives available to us including hydroelectric power, solar power, wind generated power and geothermal power.In addition, these power sources are cleaner than coal can ever be.

Recently, a Swiss company’s bid to build a wind power farm in Malindi was turned down by Kenya and went to Tanzania. The reason given was that Kenya did not need the 1,000 MW of energy the plant was to produce. Yet the coal power plant is still in the plans…

5. We signed the Paris Climate Accord to reduce our CO2 emissions

Furthermore, Kenya agreed to make an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as part of the global effort to reduce the impact of climate change, an impact that I need not remind anyone we are already feeling all over the world. When you burn coal you produce carbon dioxide. Setting up a coal plant will take us in the opposite direction of our stated commitments to reduce harmful emissions.

6. The coal will be coming from South Africa, the workers from China

Let’s imagine for a minute that this plant wasn’t actually going to cause harm to people and to the environment, let’s imagine perhaps even that this was going to be a wonderful wind power plant, how exactly would it benefit the people of this area? The coal will be imported from South Africa and the workers who will build and likely operate the plant will be from China. If the reason given for this plant is “development”, not much of it is actually going to the people who live in this place, who will be the ones forced to live with the harmful aftermath of the project.

In ‘Slow Violence’, Nixon states that it is often a strategic move not to employ local people in environmentally and politically dubious projects. In this way dissent is silenced and any forms of solidarity amongst workers and residents are prevented from growing.

“Multinational … corporations, seeking a pliable workforce, prefer to import labourers from rival communities or distant lands rather than create jobs for communities most immediately affected by extraction operations. This practice in turn, impedes labour unions and civic organisations from developing…”

7. What about the health effects of coal – aka the lie of “clean coal”?

Let’s do away with the lie just now, there is no such thing as clean coal. Coal is formed from incompletely decomposed plant matter. It burns DIRTY. Remember primary school experiements where we would put a spoon over a candle flame, and it would be blackened from soot? That soot is many small particles of carbon. When coal burns it releases kilos of that stuff into the air. We breathe it in. Now small particles of material breathed into our lungs irritate our mucus membranes and our lungs, in trying to get rid of these irritants, build cells around it. Asbestos is one of the better known substances that affects humans in a similar way. It is a known top carcinogen (it causes cancer). Particulate matter breathed in increases your chances of developing lung cancer.

When these particles fall onto the soil, they run the risk of coating plant matter growing and preventing their growth as they block the sun. When a group from SaveLamu visited Mpumalanga in South Africa where coal is mined and processed they were warned not to drink the water there. Save Lamu chair, Abubakar Mohamed says about his experience of Mpumalanga that the ground was bare and plants dried up. This will be the life of people in Lamu should this coal plant go ahead.

September 23, 2016. Kriel Power Station (foreground). Matla Power Station (background). Coal mining and power stations in Mpumalanga. Picture: James Oatway for Centre for Environmental Rights, South Africa. Source

8. If China is closing her coal plants, why are they investing in one in Kenya?

Every other day I see an article lauding China for being well on track to achieve her Paris Accord Climate Change targets, largely because China is closing down its coal plants en masse and building and commissioning solar power farms such as the floating solar power farm in Anhui… built on top of an old coal mine. But wait, why would China be investing in a coal power plant in Kenya when they’re shutting down theirs?

Here are some questions that come up for me: is it a case of “well we know it’s bad for us but if you want it we won’t say anything”? And then I follow that up with asking wouldn’t this be counted against China’s emissions reduction? Then again, perhaps investing money, and having Chinese workers build this coal power plant, is just economics for China…and a dangerous kind at that…

The plant undermines Kenya’s and your sovereignty

China has developed a reputation for throwing money into large projects that seemed unsound. This article goes into detail over their investments in ports in Sri Lanka and in Venezuela. The author concludes that it did not matter that the project was unlikely to be profitable for the Chinese because should the project fail and the countries default on their loans, China had the compensation of stepping in and controlling these areas. Currently China controls Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, a strategic geopolitical location for China.

According to Prof Singh and the Consumer Federation of Kenya, this power plant is bad economics.

“They now want to award this tender to the highest bidder, at a whopping cost of Sh475 billion to Kenyans (That means asking every Kenyan individually for over Sh10,000 each.). If the Ministry is allowed to have its way, Kenyans will continue to shoulder the weight of oppressively high electricity bills at an additional cost of Sh19 billion per year for the next 25 years.” COFEK

The tendering process for this plant was unclear and unlawful. More than that, it would leave Kenyans even more burdened with loan repayments than we are and there will be nothing to show for the ‘energy’ the plant will produce.

Lamu is going to be the location of a much talked about port through which oil from South Sudan and Turkana and goods from Ethiopia are intended to flow… (the social and ecological consequences of this LAPSSET corridor port are not non-existent, see here and here). The coal plant is likely to saddle Kenya with a huge debt adding to large debt (KES 4.5 trillion +) already in existence. Should Kenya fail to pay back these loans, a situation that seems less outlandish as debts with China grow, Kenyan people will be in a vulnerable position. It will offer China an opportunity to add another pearl to its string of pearls, China’s plan to broaden its influence in Africa and Asia through acquiring and building strategic things such as military bases, and ports.

So who is benefitting?

There are so many reasons – ecological, economic and social – that this coal plant is a bad idea that it begs the question, “For whom is it a good idea?”The plant is put forward by Amu Power, a consortium made up of China Power Global, Gulf Energy and Centum Investments. Centum’s largest shareholder is Chris Kirubi, one of the richest men in Kenya. Power generated by the plant should it come online would be sold to KPLC, whose largest individual shareholder is Mama Ngina Kenyatta, wife of the first Kenyan president.

The benefits of the investments, jobs, and any pay-outs from this plant will not be ordinary Kenyans but a minority elite who already control a lot of wealth in Kenya. While those who will bear the burden will be the residents of Lamu whose environment, health and livelihoods will be destroyed, and all Kenyans who will be saddled with the debt from the plant, and the possibility of in the future no longer owning parts of Kenya.

Now what?

The fish may be slippery, but we do our best to hold it, and to hold the gaze. We did not forget. We cannot forget. Even as court venues get moved at the last minute to impossible-to-get-to places, and tribunal members are constantly away and therefore unable to hear the case. Even with the fact that the current Lamu elected officials are all also from the president’s party and therefore, I suspect, will be less willing to oppose this plant…. All these antics and hurdles just mean we need to hold the gaze now more than ever, and get more people to hold it with us.

Follow @deCOALonize and @SaveLamu on Twitter and Facebook and check their websites (here and here) for updates on the campaign to oppose the coal plant including court dates and other actions you can take in support of the cause.

As the #SwitchOffKPLC movement has shown, it is possible for us to hold the Kenyan Government to account. Some places to start might be to let our MPs know that we don’t want a coal power plant, and prefer renewable energy such as wind and solar, in particular you may ask them why solar panels are sold at an inflated price in Kenya when the price is dropping all around the world [hint-KPLC owners]; and do not allow NSSF to invest your pension money into the death knell of Lamu, the Amu Power coal plant.

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