Kenyan communities affected by geothermal projects look to NGOs for information


A group of pastoral communities in Kenya say they have been ignored or intimidated by a company building a major power plant, but they have been able to connect with a global network of activists in the hope of saving their homes.

The Kenyan government’s stated aim to be a leader in renewable energy has garnered international praise. (Daily Nation). But concerns over the repeated resettlement of small communities due to these projects have drawn the attention of a small network of NGOs. They are trying to ensure companies involved in the plans properly consult with those affected communities.

It is the latest example of the use of a so-called “Early Warning System” whereby community organisers have amplified their voices and coordinated with NGOs to protect traditionally marginalized groups.

Akiira in depth

Nakuru County, formerly part of the Kenya’s Rift Valley Province, is the site of a large nature reserve and tourist attractions, as well as a large area of protected plains.

As part of Vision 2030, an infrastructure plan launched in 2008, Kenya’s government commited to becoming a leader in sustainable renewable energy gaining it global praise and financial assistance from global financial institutions.

A large part of its plans relies on tapping into the geothermal potential of the East African Rift.

The project is known as the Akiira One Geothermal Power Station, which will be built by Akiira Geothermal Limited. Centum Investments, a Kenyan investment company, in conjunction with three other non-Kenyan entities, jointly plan to construct the Akiira Geothermal Power Station at a projected cost of US$300 million.

According to state regulator, Kenya Power, mining the rift in Olkaria has the potential to produce enough clean geothermal energy to power the entire country twice over.

A major development began in 2014 and some communities in Nakuru County were resettled, despite some protests.

Currently, the project counts the European Investment Bank and African Development Bank among its donors, and is owned by an international consortium including U.S. and Danish energy groups.

However, according to the International Accountability Project (IAP), a small NGO based in New York, the proposed geothermal plant could cause irreparable harm to the lives of a number of local communities, and has the potential to cause much more widespread environmental damage.

The affected communities include some who were previously resettled to make way for the original Olkaria build, and many who have no idea how they will be impacted by Akiira.

John Mwebe, who coordinates much of the IAP’s work in East Africa from Uganda, told WikiTribune that some communities have been repeatedly resettled without compensation, in breach of Kenyan land rights laws.

He says the environmental impacts of the project are more widespread than the company has acknowledged.

“Particularly for Akiira One geothermal project, more people will be affected by the dried water, by the pollution,” including in the area where the affected communities are meant to be resettled.

In a briefing note published in April, the IAP said its main concern was with an apparent lack of consultation with local communities – 64 percent of people they surveyed said they had not been consulted about the expansion. There were also claims that the company had intimidated those communities.

Construction workers on the site of a geothermal plant in Olkaria, Kenya. A Huge plume of steam is in the background
Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) workers are seen at a section of the Olkaria IV Geothermal power plant near the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, Kenya February 15, 2018. Picture taken February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Many of the IAP’s arguments rest on their surveys of affected communities, who told the organisation they were unaware of the changes.

”The environmental social impact assessment was not made public,” said Mwebe. “So a lot of people don’t know what the effects will be and say they have not been consulted.”

On August 14, Akiira Geothermal issued a response to the IAP’s initial findings, pointing out that its grievance mechanisms had been approved by auditors and international lenders. It also cast doubt on the reliability of the IAP’s research methodology.

The dispute is complex and the land rights issues not black and white. The Naivasha area of Nakuru County has been the site of repeated land rights disputes and accusations of repression between Kenya’s Maasai and Kikuyu communities for decades (The Star). The geothermal plant could benefit not just the country at large, but other small communities.

The IAP not blind to these arguments, or their validity, but object more broadly to how planning continues for these large-scale projects with promises to consult local communities unkept.

In that way, the Akiira project is typical of the cases the IAP has been tackling, with a tool they hope will change how governments and financial institutions treat local communities.

Connecting communities early on

An Early Warning System (EWS) is a tool originally used in risk analysis, predominantly to prepare for natural disasters. Since the 2008 Financial Crisis, models have also been created with a view to forecasting financial downturns.

The IAP set up its EWS in January 2016, to notify activists and communities when a major infrastructure project was planned. It currently holds information about 7,000 projects, a database that the IAP says it will make available publicly later this year.

Preksha Kumar, an IAP coordinator based in New York, told WikiTribune that once a community raises concerns about a project, IAP and its partners may assist in various ways, including exchanging tools, advice, resources to amplify their demands and concerns.

“IAP hopes to reinforce local communities in challenging the way development is currently implemented, so governments and financiers recognize them as not only stakeholders but also decision-makers in this process.”

Workers seen through a piece of construciton material
Contractors assemble steel for the construction of Olkaria V Geothermal power plant near the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, Kenya February 15, 2018. Picture taken February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Ensuring accountability

The IAP is clear that a “success” does not mean an infrastructure project is blocked altogether, though some have been. The purpose is to act as a safeguard to ensure governments and institutions meet their own commitments.

“Lack of access to information and meaningful consultations remain the unifying problems in all the projects we have worked on, regardless of sector or bank,” said Kumar. “In the case of the Tanahu Hydropower Project in Nepal, for example, 75 percent of those surveyed in the community-led research process had not been consulted about the project. For the Lilongwe Water Project in Malawi, 90 percent found out about project plans only after they were finalized.”

Kumar said other communities the IAP has worked with in Sri Lanka, Panama and India have pointed to similar failures in access to information, especially the dearth of information available in local languages or the fear that they may face retribution for voicing opposition to project plans.

“Even if communities are informed in advance, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the needs of the community will be prioritized in the design or implementation of the project. This is where, as the Early Warning System, we work with our partners to try and ensure decisions aren’t being made without community input or leadership.”

As for the Akiira Project, Kumar said Kenyan government, the European Investment Bank and Akiira Geothermal Limited must consider the application of “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”. This is the international standard and principle through which indigenous communities are able to express their right to self-determination in the face of development activities, said Kumar.

Since the IAP and its partners submitted their surveys to the financial institutions, the company has increased its consultations with local communities.

However, in a statement released on August 14, one community group said a majority of people remain “in darkness.”

Do you know any Kenyan communities affected by Akiira

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