The iconic old town, which is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, is a maze of narrow alleyways and streets with stunning traditional architecture, which feels like you have been transported back in time.
The island, which is understandably an UNESECO World Heritage site, also hosts major Muslim festivals and is a centre for studying Islamic and Swahili cultures. The locals call it Kiwa Ndeo, the Vain Island and for anyone who has been there, it is easy to see why.
But now Lamu island and the wider Lamu archipelago is under threat from two fossil fuel projects.
The first is an oil pipeline linking the oil fields in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley to Lamu, where a new port and oil refinery would have to be built, threatening the iconic Old Town.
Indeed a UNSECO monitoring mission reported last year that “there can be no doubt that a project of this scale and scope, in an area as remote and protected as Lamu, cannot help but have profound negative impacts on the heritage”.
And here comes the interesting part. Whereas the Obama Administration may have cancelled the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, in part due to climate concerns, the Administration has said it will help the Kenyans get the finance needed to build the multi-billion dollar Kenyan pipeline.
At the moment the oil comapnies have no way of getting their oil to market. Although oil companies such as London-based Tullow say they have discovered oil in the Rift Valley, these deposits remain undrilled due to the plummeting low oil price.
And now the US wants to help get the project – known as PowerAfrika – moving.
Last week, the US Ambassador to Kenya met the country’s Energy Secretary, Charles Keter. “Kenya needs US$18 billion worth of financing [for building the pipeline],” Godec said after the meeting, “so one of the questions we are discussing is how we can work together with the private sector and governments to raise that sum, to find ways to make certain that this financing become available.”
The US is hoping that by getting involved it will help persuade Tullow to start drilling.
The irony of the American involvement was not lost on the Wall Street Journal this week which noted under the headline “Keystone No, Kenya Pipeline Yes” that “someone should point out that the same Obama Administration that rejected Keystone seems to have no problem supporting a new oil pipeline project in Africa … What’s with the double standard on pipelines?”
Meanwhile construction of a coal-fired plant in a bay near Lamu island was due to start last month. The much delayed plant, owned by Amu Power Limited, is expected to produce an estimated 1000 megawatts when completed.
It goes without saying that the coal plant of this size would also threaten the Old Town and wider Lamu archipelago. There is now an anti-coal campaign against the plant, with climate campaigners arguing the plant is not necessary when clean renewable solutions exist instead.
There is also a petition by Avaaz calling on Lamu Governor to scrap the scheme. It says:
“Coal fired plants emit toxins that are unhealthy for communities and the environment. We are concerned that our waters will be contaminated, our mangrove forests decimated and the marine life in the area negatively affected.”
It adds: “This is unnecessary given the fact that alternatives exist … Let’s look for renewable, green solutions to our energy problems. Let us demand for sustainable answers. We have good winds and 13 months of sunshine … Let us make wise decisions based on the need of our community for a healthy life with our natural resources in tact.”