Kenya coal updates: May 2020

Coal in Kenya
12 min readMay 15, 2020

Activities and developments

Overview

A good update on the status quo is available as a recorded video webinar. As part of the Africa Vuka campaign, 350 and deCOALonize hosted a campaign and community updates webinar on 28 May, featuring Daniel Muoti from CHRCE (Kitui) and Raya Famau from Save Lamu.

Plans for Lamu coal plant remain on pause, and there is not discernible progression on Mui Basin coal mining, beyond public statements. In January, the Kenyan government reiterated its intent to move forward with developing a coal industry. Litigation on Lamu coal plant project’s environmental impact assessment is still pending appeal. Proceedings are paused due to Covid-19, with court operations limited to more urgent matters.

The status of Mui Basin coal mining plans remains opaque, with few details beyond Kitui government official and business leader statements, such as during a Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rally in February. As outlined below, national newspapers published several more editorials and opinion pieces opposing coal.

In March, with a first diagnosis made, Covid-19 arrived in Kenya. The national government announced commuting and distancing restrictions, organisation staff began working from home, and international traveler quarantines were imposed, although restrictions have since eased. Community organisations shifted to Covid-19 safety and prevention efforts.

Due to Covid-19, energy demand in Kenya has potentially dropped 15–20% according to KenGen executives. However, with most power contracts requiring Kenya Power (KPLC) to pay for a minimum amount of electricity, the drop in demand and increase in unused power is likely to cause higher electricity prices. Also, there is some indication that domestic household consumption increased, with customers moving from “lifeline” (below 10 units) to “ordinary” consumers (above).

Politically, there is concern that corporate bailouts for Covid-19 could bolster harmful projects and that stimulus packages (to counter economic decline) could facilitate additional funding for problematic large-scale infrastructure projects. Instead, we must push for low-carbon investments to boost the economy. The pandemic crisis could also become a cover, or justification, for quiet policy changes. For example, Kenya’s new tax law almost included taxation on clean energy stoves, which was seen as discouraging renewables.

In late April, Save Lamu and CHRCE (Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education, in Kitui) called on Chinese authorities to ensure that financial relief does not bail out harmful projects, including Lamu coal plant. They joined 263 other civil society organisations around the world in a coordinated effort with Inclusive Development International and others.

In May, the $4.2b Sengwa coal project in Zimbabwe was approved with Chinese financing likely from ICBC, PowerChina, and SINOSURE, the same companies involved in Lamu coal plant (more details at bottom of this post).

If anyone can offer financial or material support, community partners are seeking resources to respond to immediate community needs, as well as to improve connectivity and communications while dispersed. With more resources, Save Lamu can continue its operations while taking precautionary measures, expand mask and food distribution, as well as develop and disseminate more information to the community in a number of creative and physically distanced means, from town crier to WhatsApp. CHRCE has plans to host a radio show, wants to use social media and WhatsApp to distribute information, and is interested in public mask distribution to keep the community safe. Both are primarily focused on preventative health measures and community support for economic impacts.

CHRCE (Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education) in Kitui

In March, CHRCE held a media and communications workshop with deCOALonize. Since then, CHRCE’s formal activities have since been disrupted due to Covid-19 stay-at-home orders and limited connectivity between its dispersed staff. Plans are on hold for a clergy sensitisation meeting, development of county and national policy visions, facilitation of community views and propositions on the Africa Mining Vision, and raising awareness of the Community Land Act and land registration process. Despite these challenges, CHRCE has plans to mobilize for Covid-19 response, as detailed above. CHRCE provided a detailed update as part of the Africa Vuka webinar on 28 May as noted above.

Save Lamu

Since mid-March, when the first cases of Covid-19 were diagnosed in Kenya, Save Lamu has largely focused on Covid-19 preparation and prevention, and assistance for the community, including information campaigns, hand-washing facilities, health care packages, mask production and distribution, donation collection and food distribution, and community morale and appreciation for frontline healthcare workers, while keeping focus on protecting Lamu’s natural ecosystem as well. As of mid-May, there are no diagnosed and confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Lamu.

Currently, Save Lamu, Lamu Youth Alliance (a member), and Island Children’s Fund are working with tailors to sew 10,000 facemasks and have distributed 2000 thus far. Lamu Youth Alliance also began its own YouTube channel: Lamu Youth TV Network.

Save Lamu has launched a revamped website, featuring these updates and the ongoing petition calling for a stop to the proposed Lamu coal plant. The petition targets the Kenyan national government, coal plant developer Amu Power, and coal plant financier ICBC.

Prior to that, Save Lamu traveled and conducted a series of community meetings in villages across Lamu County, including Hindi and Witu, which are particularly directly affected by coal industry plans. Members also participated in a radio show on Citizen to discuss coal issues, including Save Lamu Chairman Abubakar Mohamed Ali. Save Lamu also met with the Kwasasi Farmers Self-Help Group, discussed local developments and concerns, and worked together on complaints.

Save Lamu has also continued to engage the community through the @ShaniYaLamu #ShaniYaLamu campaign, together with Purpose.

Anti-coal activities shifted to focus on online multimedia, sharing of information pertaining to air quality and health, and participation in international campaigns targeting Chinese financiers and General Electric, as detailed below. In February Save Lamu again reached out to ICBC contacts but did not receive any response.

In May, Save Lamu and over a dozen other African civil society organizations came together to release a detailed statement on climate justice in light of Covid-19 (statement in other languages here).

On 20 May, Save Lamu participated in an international webinar, “Women Resisting Climate Change in the Global South,” represented by paralegal Zeinab Ghadhamfar. Save Lamu also provided a detailed update as part of the Africa Vuka webinar on 28 May as noted above.

Also, in April, Save Lamu participated in a local mangrove replanting effort, in recognition of mangroves being a carbon sink, a vital source of livelihoods, and under threat from unsustainable methods of harvesting. (Lamu alone boasts 70% of Kenya’s mangroves.) “Mangroves protect our Land, and the sea from toxic substance. [We planted mangroves] as a way of preserving our environment for the present and the future generations to come.”

deCOALonize coalition

After taking time for paperwork, reporting, and strategy development (including taking stock of 2019 progress), the deCOALonize coalition held monthly partner calls in February, March, and April. The communications and lobbying working groups held periodic calls and shared revised strategies. In January, the staff reviewed 17 members’ commitment forms, and were to check in with each member to discuss involvement, particularly members that have not been active and joining calls.

deCOALonize issued two press releases: response to Prince Charles’s speech at WEF on 24 January and Communiqué of the 2020 Africa Energy Leaders’ Summit on Climate Change, Energy, and Energy Finance Addis Ababa on 28–29 January. In March deCOALonize staff and volunteers visited CHRCE in Kitui and conducted media and communications workshops.

Since mid-March, coalition members have been working from home. To respond to Covid-19, the coalition is considering supporting deCOALonize-branded mask production in Lamu and Kitui, allocating resources available for anti-coal efforts. For Covid-19 information campaigns, deCOALonize has supported Save Lamu with graphic design assistance. 350 has offered to help with communications technical support like designing posters and infographics as well as mobilization and radio shows. The coalition is considering creating a short video with community needs and disseminating to members of the public for support. The coalition is also appealing to members to draft op-eds.

In April, Greenpeace hosted a webinar on air pollution and climate change, which deCOALonize coordinator Omar Elmawi joined, in which Lamu coal plant was discussed in light of how it would pollute our air and exacerbate the climate crisis through greenhouse gas emissions (click above link to register for the recording).

For May, the coalition has also been invited to a climate justice roundtable. It also held a webinar with Africa Vuka and 350 Africa on Thursday 28 May to “cover the coal campaign in Kenya and the community’s progress and challenges.” The Global Catholic Climate Movement planned a week of action from 16 to 24 May as part of the multiyear Laudato Si campaign. AJWS is conducting advocacy in Washington DC and across a global audience. UNEP has invited suggestions on the Environmental Human Right Defenders response policy that they are reviewing.

Natural Justice

Coal-related legal cases are stalled, and courts are largely not sitting due to Covid-19. Natural Justice is preparing a summary of the NET judgment for easier public consumption. NJ has shifted its internal work to focus on development of training materials and toolkits for future use to enhance community understanding. NJ is also seeking ways to support community organisations that have difficulty in operating due to Covid-19 and consequent restrictions, as well as to assist Kenyans in access to justice in the face of Covid-19 police brutality and heavy-handed tactics, arrests, and unsafe detention.

NJ has also published several blog posts: Covid-19 letter to communities, Covid-19 and environmental values, Ogiek still waiting for implementation of the African court ruling in their favour, now three years later, and hope beyond the “new normal”: “For the communities we work with, everything has slowed down. Some county offices have closed and staff members asked to stay home, whilst in others, movement has been entirely restricted. The challenges facing these communities are still ongoing while the pandemic further exposes and increases their vulnerability. Despite these setbacks, we are finding alternative channels such as online communication to continue our work.”

NJ also hosted an online baraza entitled “Re-imagining together — Natural Justice, our supporters, and the Covid-19 Crisis: Let’s talk experiences and solutions together” on 29 April. NJ also participated in a webinar on 14 May: “The role of fossil fuels in fueling climate change and civil society strategies to resist the proposed Sengwa coal plant project in Zimbabwe.” (The project shares financiers and many other similarities with the proposed Lamu coal plant.)

International efforts

UNESCO: World Heritage Watch will launch on 5 June its comprehensive report, and submit it to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, though the Committee has indefinitely postponed its preparatory report deadlines and June-July Session, at which it was to discuss draft decisions. Save Lamu’s report on Lamu Old Town emphasised the ongoing harm and threat of much greater harm caused by LAPSSET project construction in Lamu (link coming soon).

CHINESE FINANCIERS: As noted above, 265 civil society organizations around the world (including Save Lamu and CHRCE) coordinated together to issue a statement calling on these Chinese government to avoid providing Covid-19 financial assistance for harmful projects such as Lamu coal plant.

There are also ongoing efforts for a global collaboration on China overseas coal financing, which all members are invited to join. The group is coordinated by APMDD and others and meets periodically on Zoom.

GENERAL ELECTRIC: In early March, partner MarketForces coordinated an international letter demanding that GE get out of coal, and launched a related website tracking GE’s overseas coal investments, getoutofcoal.org. Save Lamu and deCOALonize signed on.

The campaign was covered in the Los Angeles Times: “GE says it’s going green. Overseas, it’s still pushing coal” (2 March). “GE has become entangled in controversial projects. In Kenya, a court last year halted a 1,000-megawatt power plant on Lamu island, adjacent to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ruling that the Kenyan and Chinese developers had failed to conduct proper environmental assessments.”

COVID-19, Climate Justice & Energy Access in Africa: Webinars were held by Oil Change International and Oil Watch Africa. Recordings are available at these links: Part 1: Fossil Fuels, Part 2: Energy Access and Coal

Media coverage of Kenya coal issues

Overall, national media coverage in 2020 has included reporting in January and several anti-coal editorials and opinion pieces February to April. International coverage has coincided with broad global campaigns such as on GE and Chinese financiers. Details below.

January media coverage focused on the Kenyan national government confirming its intention to “press on” with the proposed Lamu coal plant, despite setbacks (The Standard, The Star, KTN News), while The Standard published two additional editorials calling on the country to “rethink investment in coal power” and Africa to “join rest of the world in reducing use of fossil fuels”. Meanwhile, Kenya Power (KPLC) signed contracts to develop a 90MW wind power plant in Lamu.

In Kitui, coal mining was raised as a “forgotten economic game-changer” and “the best alternative source of cheaper industrial power” during the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) caravan rally in February, while detailed independent reporting noted that Kitui “residents reject coal mining plans” over health and environmental concerns. Although Lamu coal plant would import coal from South Africa for processing, domestic supply became more constrained, with coal companies closing operations there.

On 1 April, The Star reported on a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) that analysed the Lamu coal plant’s financials and termed the project a “costly mistake”.

Opinion pieces in major newspapers spoke against coal industry development. Green Africa Foundation’s Isaac Kalua called for replacing coal mining with agribusiness in a detailed op-ed in February. Greenpeace Senior Political Advisor (and deCOALonize chair) Fred Njehu published several pieces in Business Daily: “The coal debate should now be revisited” on 28 February and “Why Africa needs justice in energy investment plans” on 31 March. In an in-depth piece on DESMOG blog, environmental journalist Sophia Mbugua offers firsthand reporting from Lamu residents and reports on “calls for ‘non-proliferation’ of the world’s dirtiest fuels, inspired by global efforts to wean countries off nuclear weapons.”

In international news, Deutche Welle’s analysis of divestment, risk, and fossil fuels noted that not only the public but also “several investors and banks had also rejected the [Lamu coal plant] project.” In February 2020, Mining Indaba news noted that development finance institutions… are withdrawing [from coal plants] under pressure,” including Lamu’s. In early March, an exposé in the Los Angeles Times detailed General Electric (GE) making extensive investments in coal abroad, including potentially Lamu coal plant.

On 19 May tech and business professor Bitange Ndemo published a piece in the Nation calling for the country to think about sustainable development: “How do we maintain a cleaner environment and still create jobs without polluting the environment? … This is an important question especially now when studies are that showing inhaling dirty air makes Covid-19 more lethal. People who lived in areas with one microgram per cubic meter more PM2.5 in the air had a Covid-19 death rate that was 15 per cent higher. … OPPORTUNISTIC DISEASES: There is no doubt that pollution causes diseases… We now have the opportunity to think a fresh and build a sustainable future.”

On 1 June, deCOALonize Communications Officer Abiud Onyach authored an opinion piece in Business Daily: “Goodwill needed to tackle dirty coal plants”. “Africa and Kenya for that matter don’t have to follow the path developed nations took over 130 years ago to power their economies through coal plants… People in government… should push developed countries that are still using coal power plants to consider investing in renewable energy projects that will help mitigate climate change and protect our poor communities from the distressing impacts of climate change.”

Relevant international news

In April, news came that the Hamrawein mega coal plant in Egypt (15 times the size of the Lamu project) has been indefinitely postponed. South African’s Business Live reported, “The news out of Egypt follows increasing problems encountered by the Chinese-funded Lamu coal power proposal in Kenya.” IEEFA noted, “The Hamrawein proposal appears to have been shelved because Egypt now has sufficient power capacity and the construction of such a huge plant would exceed growth requirements.” Lamu coal plant project faces a similar reality.

In early May, Bloomberg reported that China is virtually alone in backing Africa’s coal projects. “Chinese companies and banks are involved in financing at least 13 coal projects across the continent with another nine in the pipeline.” It noted, regarding the coal projects, “Not all are welcomed by local communities.”

Bloomberg highlighted the recent approval of Chinese financing for Zimbabwe’s proposed Sengwa coal plant, a $4.2 billion coal power plant project near Lake Kariba to be developed by RioZim Energy.

The reporting focused on the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), PowerChina (Power Construction Corporation of China), and SINOSURE (China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation). The same Chinese actors are to finance and build Lamu coal plant, as well as China Huadian Corporation (CHD). The two projects also shared initial but noncommittal interest from US corporation General Electric.

Bloomberg noted difficulty in reaching ICBC and SINOSURE. It received a statement from PowerChina that its overseas coal projects will be efficient, reduce pollution emissions, and abide by local law.

Similarly, Save Lamu has received no response from ICBC or SINOSURE in response to repeated inquiries over four years. After a street demonstration and letter delivery in June 2019, the Chinese Embassy and PowerChina had met with a small group of activists, where they defended the project. There has been no further communication.

In late May, in Poland, construction was halted on a 1 GW coal plant (similar size to Lamu coal plant). The plant had General Electric’s involvement as EPC contractor. ‘Enea in 2019 lost a court battle brought by shareholder ClientEarth, which said the financial risks of the project were “indefensible.” Lawyer Barnett: “This project was never viable, whether from a financial or a climate perspective, as its sponsors were repeatedly warned.”’

On 28 May, major global institutions and agencies issued a joint statement that Covid-19 intensifies the urgency to expand sustainable energy worldwide.

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Coal in Kenya

Compiled research and news about ongoing attempts to develop a coal industry in Kenya. #deCOALonize