Kenya’s choice for the worst option for energy – coal

Above: The 19th century Friday Mosque in Shella on Lami Island – copyright Rupi Mangat

Published The East African/Nation media – 12-19 May 2017

It’s a sweltering April afternoon. We’re inside the ‘box’, a term used by the locals in Kwasasi in Lamu county. The ‘box’ is a 900-acre tract of bushland scattered with centuries-old baobab trees and abandoned farms. It’s now marked with cemented beacons.

Few Kenyans beyond Kwasasi have ever heard of it because it is so remote – yet it is the proposed site for Lamu Coal Plant – something that will irrevocably change the face of the Lamu Archipelago in the Indian Ocean – forever and beyond repair.

On the right hand side of the murram road, we’re outside the ‘box’ with a community of Bajuni fishers and small-scale farmers meeting with a team from Save Lamu, a CBO registered in 2012.

At Kwasasi - Save Lamu - a coalition of more then 36 local Community-based organizations fighting to stop the coal plant - copyright Maya Mangat
At Kwasasi – Save Lamu – a coalition of more then 36 local Community-based organizations fighting to stop the coal plant – copyright Rupi Mangat

Save Lamu is a coalition  of more than 36 local organizations tackling with the enormity of projects like the Lamu Port and the Lamu Port South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) project under Vision 2030 – Kenya’s blue-print for economic development -that started in their backyard without any engagement with the locals – jolting them out of their island life.

Now, the coalition is working to stop the coal plant from happening.


Kwasasi is a 20-minute ride in a speedboat from Lamu Stone Town – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – to Mokowe on the mainland and then you hire a car to drive to Kwasasi, 21 kilometers in the deep interior through scrubland pockmarked with tilled peasant farms and burnt tree stumps for charcoal, passing enroute the Kenya military barracks. Inside the ‘box’ the community is awaiting compensation from the government.

In the searing heat, the sole shade for the meeting with the community of fishers and farmers is under the lone mahogany tree by a dry salt pan fringed with mangrove trees and the Indian Ocean. At high tide, the water floods the pan to the mahogany tree. It’s a nursery for fish, turtles and other marine life.

“This is our ancestral land,” says Mohammed Shee, an elder in the community. “We fish and farm here according to the seasons. We’re seated by his makeshift abode of thatched makuti and mkeke while the family home is at Faza on Pate island – seven kilometres as the crow flies.

“We first heard of the coal plant in 2016,” tells Shee. “Now we have to organize ourselves in a group to stop it from happening.”

Lamu Coal Plant

In 2013, the Ministry of Energy put out a tender for investors to build a coal plant. Gulf Energy and Centum Investment won the bid and formed Amu Power Company – Amu being the traditional name for Lamu town.

According to the Amu Power Company website – which is out-dated (it still features Manda island as the site) – the company will build and operate a 1,050 Megawatt coal-fired thermal electricity-generating plant in Manda Bay area of Lamu County – which will be the largest private-led project of its kind in East and Central Africa – to contribute towards the government’s blueprint for 5,000MW of affordable and reliable power on the national grid.

The need for this according to their website is that projects like the Standard Gauge Railway, the LAPSSET project, Konza City and steel smelting industries require about 5000MW of power. By 2030, the peak demand is expected at 18,000MW against installed capacity of 24,000MW.

The website features a virtual tour of the proposed plant –a car-drive through the plant – that informs nothing of the working mechanisms of the coal plant to the viewer.

On 26 February 2017, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) rejected objections to the project by Save Lamu, but they are yet to give a licence for generating electricity.

ERC stated that the people affected by the project are not opposed to Amu being issued with a licence.

Save Lamu

In the historical Lamu Stone Town, Hadija Ernst, a founding member of Save Lamu states, “Communities bordering the coal plant don’t know anything about it. It’s so far out in the middle of the bush that things can happen and you have no idea of what’s going on.”

It’s happened.

Like in March this year when the community woke up to bulldozers clearing farms and ripping age-old cashew nut trees and ‘seeing mango trees walk away’ and for a road half-a-kilometer long by 30-foot wide outside the ‘box’ to reach the ‘box’. Save Lamu was informed of it by a local chief. When the community demanded compensation, the road was abandoned because the investors did not want to pay it. It’s the same story as what happened with the LAPSSET project which set the stage for the coal plant.

“There are changes being planned in Nairobi that we don’t even know about,” states Khadija Shekuwe Famau, Save Lamu’s project coordinator. “We don’t feel part of the process. The coal plant is a national project yet nobody on the LAPSSET Authority board is from Lamu.”

“The first time that Amu Power Company engaged with Save Lamu was towards the end of 2014,” informs Walid Ahmed Ali, Save Lamu’s secretary and co-founder of Lamu Youth Alliance. It was for an Environmental Social Impact Assessment – required by law – conducted by Amu Power’s consultant.

“Save Lamu and local community leaders told them that we did not want coal. We preferred renewable energy and we would support that – such as solar and wind energy.

“Amu Power replied that coal is cheap and they were going to use the newest technology to make it less offensive. We then began to investigate and sent six delegates to South Africa to learn about coal sites.

“The negative impacts that the team reported after the visit to coal plants and meeting the people living around and working in the coal plants are enormous on health, livelihoods and the environment. Most of these coal plants were financed by elite politicians – and though South Africa has been pro-coal, it is phasing coal plants out because of the impact on climate change. The South African court even stopped a coal plant from starting after objections from the citizens.”

During this time, the coal plant investors took a team of MCAs to China to a coal plant under construction– where they would see nothing of the hazards of an operating coal plant.

Narrow alleys in Lamu Stone Town that's continuously been lived in since the 13th century and is the oldest Swahili town in East Africa - copyright Maya Mangat
Narrow alleys in Lamu Stone Town that’s continuously been lived in since the 13th century and is the oldest Swahili town in East Africa – copyright Maya Mangat

Flawed Environmental Impact Assessment

NEMA has already issued the licence to Amu Power to build and operate the coal plant. Save Lamu has appealed their decision to the National Environmental Tribunal (NET) and the case will be heard on 11-12 May 2017.

According to Save Lamu, the assessment lacks expertise and the plant is using old technology and they argue that the measures to mitigate negative impacts are inadequate. In addition, the coal plant’s effects on climate change, air pollution, and water released into the ocean have not been well analysed.

“It’s in total disregard of environmental laws,” says Ernst. “The concerns have to be analysed for their effects and mitigation.”

Save Lamu will be presented by Katiba Institute, founded in 2011 to enhance public knowledge and implementation of the new Constitution and dealing with issues of human rights, integrity, land and eviction of indigenous people and long term settlers and protection against harassment by police.

The Workings of the Coal Plant

Coal-fired power plants make water boil to generate steam that activates a turbine.

The coal for Lamu plant will be shipped in from South Africa and Mozambique, offloaded on to barges through the mangrove channels to one of the dedicated berths at the new Lamu port and then on to a conveyor belt.

“The distance between the berth and the plant is 15 kilometers,” tells Ernst. “We have no idea where the conveyor belt is going to sit.”

“At this point, our ocean water is at optimum temperature,” continues Shekuwe. “The water discharged from the coal plant is using a once through cooling system – where the water from the ocean is sucked in to cool the turbines and then released back into the ocean which will be warmer.

“This is going to destroy a lot of marine life.”

It’s already happening as the channels are being dredged for the Lamu port and conservationists and fishers are reporting increased mortalities of fish and turtles. The impact on dolphins and other marine creatures has yet to be assessed.

The Fishers Concern

Somo Mohamed Somo, chair of Lamu County Beach Management Units was first contacted by the EIA consultants contracted by Amu Coal Power in 2015. When l ask him when he started fishing, he breaks into a chuckle. “It’s what l have done all my life. Bajuni people have been fishing for generations.

He explains the traditional way of the Lamu fishers. “It’s all by sail with the mashua (dhows) and we catch octopus, lobster, prawns, barracuda, snappers and others.”

The local fishers stay close to shore protected by the reef from the open seas.

“The EIA team took temperatures of the water, the soil, the weather including putting something in the tree to collect dust to find out what kind of dust we breathe now.

“At the meeting where the findings were presented, l asked– ‘when will you come again to measure the dust? The answer was – after the coal plant is built.’

“I asked – ‘what if the dust is harmful to people during that time and die from cancer or other diseases from the dust?

“The EIA team never invited me again even though there have been other meetings.”

“According to the new Constitution, every citizen must be informed and have access to information,” adds on Ali of Lamu Youth Alliance.

Despite that Somo has attended – the unwanted guest.

“I even wrote a report with the fisheries department and gave it to the NEMA team during the Public-Participation at Kwasasi on 26 December 2016 – the report has all the species of fish and the data of fish caught by fishers. Since then we have heard nothing.

It is the same meeting that Save Lamu boycotted because the location was changed from Lamu Town to Kwasasi – a tactic that Save Lamu believes was to make it difficult for fishers and local communities of the Lamu Archipelago to attend due to the distance and cost involved.

Voice of the Woman

Raya Famau Ahmed, a young Bajuni woman is founder of Sauti ya Wanawake (Voice of Women) started in 2009 because of issues in Lamu regarding gender rights and now the coal plant. “Women are not aware of it,” she states.

“We need development but it must be environmentally-friendly.  What we saw in the coal mines in South Africa was horrible – sick children, women working in the coal plants breathing polluted air – it’s not what we want. For the woman in Lamu and her family, the ocean is her sole provider and the coal project threatens it.”

Looking into the distance, she states, “When people are aware of their rights and understand the magnitude of the problem, then they are empowered – you can fight back, go to the courts, and reach out for help.

“When you are ignorant, you can do nothing.”

The Tourism Industry

“Lamu Archipelago and the Boni and Dodori forests is one of the last true wilderness left on the coast of East Africa. It also has many historical sights some of them dating as far back as the 6th century” states Fuzz Dyer chair of Lamu Tourist Association (LTA) and Manda Bay Resort. “The Resort will no longer appeal to guests who are in search of pristine wilderness – but may have its place as a business hotel for the port.”

The multi-billion port, he says can be justified for Kenya if the demand for oil is there.

“But the Lamu coal plant is ludicrous,” he says voicing the concerns of LTA. “There are better options for clean power with gas on Pate Island and wind power.

IMG_0063 (800x533)

“For six months of the year between October and April, the kazkazi monsoon winds will blow poisonous smoke over the proposed Lamu port and Resort City. Then the rest of the year the kusi monsoon will blow the same poison and acid rain over the largest tract of indigenous costal forest left in East Africa, the Boni-Dondori forest.

The impact on people, health, environment and the acid rain will be devastating and we are objecting to that.

He will be representing LTA, the communities and Manda Bay Resort at the court hearing against the coal plant soon to be heard.


Coal is the worst option for energy production – research is awash in it with dedicated organizations like Decoalanize, the national coalition against coal.

One of the major concerns is fly ash from coal plants. It is more radioactive than nuclear waste, carrying into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the environmental impacts of coal power are serious. The solid waste generated includes toxic substances such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, and cadmium—that can contaminate drinking water supplies and damage vital human organs and the nervous system.

One study found that one out of every 100 children who drink groundwater contaminated with arsenic from coal power plant wastes were at risk of developing cancer.

Coal is also responsible for mining accidents, acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions.

Acid rain not only poses great health risks but threatens the very existence of Lamu Stone Town – listed as a World Heritage Site because of its Swahili architecture from centuries ago, built with limestone. It could lose its architectural grandeur as acid rain dissolves the limestone architecture over time – like sugar being dissolved in a glass of water.

The list is endless including the heat produced from burning coal.  Some 30 per cent is used to produce electricity. The rest is released into the atmosphere or absorbed by water – contributing to greenhouses gases and climate change.

“The world is trying to get out of coal in a hurry due to the negative impacts on climate,” states Jagi Gakunju, a leading environmentalist and director of AAR – Africa Air Rescue a health insurance company.  “China has a plan to close all coal plants by 2025. UK is closing theirs in the next 5-10 years. Recently, Bangladeshis demonstrated against the building of a coal plant near a mangrove forest because in another area where a similar plant was erected, there are no more trees and all fish is dead. Coal is in the class of “Dirty Energy”.  Its negative effect on human health is devastating. If most of the world is closing their coal mines, we should not go the coal way.

Future Trends for Power

Friday 21 April 2017, Britain switched off its only operating coal plant for a continuous 24-hour coal-free day since the use of the fossil fuel began in the 18th century. It switched to its other sources like gas, nuclear, wind and solar. Britain’s last coal power station will be forced to close in 2025, as part of a government plan to phase out the fossil fuel to meet its climate change commitments.

In the highly acclaimed book on energy consumption and energy production without fossil fuels ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ by the late Sir David John Cameron MacKay (22 April 1967 – 14 April 2016), the British physicistmathematician, academic and chief advisor to the British government on climate change, which he uploaded for free reading – he writes that in 2006, the global coal consumption rate was 6.3 Gt per year that is perceived to last 250 years but in reality, if we assume “business as usual”– we’ll be out of coal before 2072 – or in 60 years!

To get off fossil fuels when we need to, he writes that we need to choose a plan that adds up with the available technology.

And that is largely renewable energy – which he warns also has physical limits and nuclear.

Economics of Coal

In addition to the above issues raised by Save Lamu coalition, Hindpal Singh Jabbal the former chairman of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) has written several articles in the press since 2013 on the power sector, and has also made a formal presentation at the ERC public hearing in Kwasasi, objecting to the construction of Lamu Coal Plant.

According to him, when tenders for the coal plant at Lamu were invited in 2014, the demand for electricity was anticipated to grow at a highly exaggerated 14 per cent annual growth. This would translate to peak demand of 15,000MW by 2030, and installed capacity at 20,000MW including 30 per cent reserve margin.

However with the revised projections of 8.5 per cent, as also confirmed by Lahmeyer International, a firm of consultants appointed by the Ministry of Energy, the peak demand in 2030 will be 5,200MW with installed capacity of 6,500MW. This demand can easily be met with renewable resources in Kenya like geothermal, wind, solar, biomass and hydro.

Mr Jabbal has clearly shown that because of lack of adequate demand, the 3x350MW coal plant costing in the region of US$ 2 billion will remain idle for several years attracting almost US$ 370 million per annum in capacity (rental) charges.

As such he concluded that based on technical, economic and operational grounds, the coal plant cannot be justified.

The jury’s out there on this – it’s a national issue.