Skip to navigationSkip to content

China’s plan to help build Kenya’s first coal plant has been stopped—for now

AP Photo/Khalil Senosi
Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, several large-scale infrastructure projects in Africa have been funded. Some that degrade the environment.
By Abdi Latif Dahir
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The scheme to build Kenya and east Africa’s first coal plant has been stopped.

Kenyan judges at the National Environmental Tribunal on Tuesday (June 25) said officials had failed to conduct a thorough assessment of the plant’s impact on Lamu, a historic and idyllic archipelago in the country’s northeast. The tribunal canceled the license issued by the National Environmental Management Authority and ordered developer Amu Power undertake a new evaluation.

The environmental court also faulted the Chinese-backed power plant for failing to adequately consult the public about the initiative, and cited insufficient and unclear plans for handling and storing toxic coal ash.

The ruling was a win for environmental activists and local communities, who for three years argued the coal plant would not only pollute the air but also damage the fragile marine ecosystem and devastate the livelihoods of fishing communities.

“It really is a great day for the people of Lamu,” said Mark Odaga, a lawyer with nonprofit group Natural Justice. “Theirs was a cry for their voices to be heard, for their concerns to be reflected so that this wasn’t a situation of people being anti-development.”

REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Greenpeace and environmental activists protest the coal plant in Nairobi.

The judgment dealt a blow to Kenyan authorities who have argued that the coal-fired plant will help meet the country’s fast-growing demand for electricity. Even though president Uhuru Kenyatta announced plans to move the country to 100% green energy by 2020, some 975 acres of land had been set aside for the project, which was expected to generate 1,050 megawatts of power upon completion. The $2 billion plant is majority financed and built by Chinese firms alongside a Kenyan consortium.

The project has drawn protests since its inception, with environmentalists saying coal has no place in a country that already develops most of its energy from hydroelectric and geothermal power. Campaigners have also argued that the plant will devastate the island of Lamu, a major tourist attraction, a UNESCO heritage site, and the oldest and best-preserved example of a Swahili settlement in East Africa.

AP Photo/Ben Curtis
“Yes to coral. No to coal.”

The project was another example of Beijing’s efforts to push its companies to develop coal-fired plants overseas. Even as China’s investment in renewable energy projects at home has soared, Chinese corporations have been building hundreds of coal plants abroad, some in countries that today burn little or no coal. This push has included African countries, where the promise of subsidized development was a draw for governments to welcome Chinese investment.

While the latest verdict delays the coal plant’s development, it doesn’t put an end to it. Amu Power can still apply for a new license or appeal the decision within the next month. For now, though, local communities are celebrating the win.

“We’re now old, but we inherited a clean and healthy environment from our fathers, and it’s our duty to give our children a clean and healthy environment as well,” said the vice chair of NGO Save Lamu, Mohammed Mbwana.

🌍 Keep up with developments and emerging industries in Africa.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.