The campaign against the Lamu coal power plant has now attracted the attention of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, which will decide whether the project threatens the integrity of Lamu Old Town as a World Heritage Site.
The committee, sitting in Baku, Azerbaijan, to finalise its recommendations regarding the threat of large-scale infrastructure projects to Kenya’s Lamu Old Town and its heritage status. In a draft report, the committee has called for a halt to the proposed Lamu coal power plant.
Should Lamu Old Town’s World Heritage status be withdrawn, it would be a blow to its multibillion-dollar tourism potential and its global status.
This comes after a Unesco heritage conference in Manama, Bahrain, in July last year downgraded the Lake Turkana National Parks in Kenya and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, to the List of World Heritage in Danger, because they are increasingly threatened by infrastructure projects and could lose their outstanding universal value unless Kenya and Tanzania strike a balance between development and conservation.
The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions threatening the very characteristics for which a property has been inscribed on the World Heritage List (i.e. armed conflicts, natural disasters, uncontrolled urbanisation, poaching, or pollution) and to encourage corrective measures by governments.
Civil society organisations have been insisting that the two infrastructure projects — the Lamu coal power plant and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor project — are a threat to the delicate Lamu marine environment and the Lamu Old Town heritage site.
The group deCOALonise and partners, Save Lamu and Natural Justice organisations have appealed to Unesco, saying that the United Nations recognises the seriousness of the threat of the coal power plant and other ongoing infrastructure development in the area.
“Culture sets the foundation for a country’s development and nurtures the societal fabric. A country that ignores its culture may not achieve any meaningful development, as its people are the greatest resource,” remarked Khadija Shekuwe, Save Lamu Co-ordinator.
In its draft decision, the committee found that Lamu Old Town is “in potential danger” due to the advancement of LAPSSET and the lack of information about project impacts and mitigation measures. The projects threaten the cultural integrity and, thus, outstanding universal value of Lamu.
However, Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia, director general of the National Museums of Kenya said that his organisation’s position is similar to the Africa Union position formulated on July 1 by the Committee on Development and Conservation of African Heritage, that Kenya and Africa in general can have development in Lamu and still protect its heritage.
“In the developed countries, there are public benefits of infrastructure developments going on World Heritage Sites and there is no such hullabaloo as happens in African countries. Examples include the building of a subway line at the Coliseum in Rome, overhead railway line in Istanbul,” said Dr Kibunjia.
The World Heritage Committee inscribed Lamu Old Town on the Unesco World Heritage List in 2001, because the 14th century Swahili settlement with its narrow streets had remained unchanged since. In June, the National Environmental Tribunal overturned the issuance of a licence for the Lamu coal power plant.