By Jørn Stave
Resistance to the Sondu-Miriu project represents the first case of citizens' campaigns against development projects in Kenya. Large parts of the local population and several environmental organisations have joined in the Sondu-Miriu Advocacy Campaign to prevent the project from ruining the livelihoods of the thousands of people affected by the development.
The 60 MW Sondu-Miriu hydropower project in Nyanza Province, western Kenya, is expected to be completed in 2003. The civil works, which have already been going on for two years, are carried out by a consortium led by the Japanese company Konoike Construction in cooperation with Veidekke ASA and South Africa's Murray & Roberts. The work is commissioned by KenGen (Kenya Electricity Generating Company), and the development is financed by the Japanese Government through the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.
According to Argwings Odera, leader of the Sondu-Miriu Advocacy Campaign and himself a resident of the affected area, the local people were persuaded to sell their lands by promises of power supplies and irrigation facilities. These promises have turned out to be empty. KenGen is only responsible for power generation, and has no authority to decide the distribution of the power supply or the use of irrigation.
To be connected to the power grid, villages must be included in the Government's Rural Electrification Programme. Still, it is unlikely that the villagers will get access to electricity, since most of them live by subsistence farming, and their ability to pay is marginal.
The roughly 1,500 households who have to leave their ancestral land now feel tricked by the developers, and demand to be given more compensation for their lands.
- The land acquisition was done on a "willing buyer-willing seller" basis, which meant that the poorest farmers, who were less aware of the implications of the sales contracts, were left with small change. Those few who had been well informed about the development got a higher price and were later given contract jobs, Odera explains. He also claims that these few, but influential people have been paid to work against the local protests.
The remaining families have now been told that the Government wants to make rice paddy fields in the area, so these residents, too, will be evicted. In return, they have been offered jobs as menial labourers in the rice fields earning an average of two US dollars a day, an amount which is totally unacceptable to the vast majority of the villagers.
The Sondu-Miriu Advocacy Campaign claims that as many as 200,000 people will be affected by the project without receiving any form of compensation. Among these are several families who have allegedly had their homes destroyed by tunnel works, as well as people who are said to have developed lung ailments as a result of dust pollution.
The blasting of a 6.2 kilometres headrace tunnel has caused springs to vanish and damaged several houses, according to the Sondu-Miriu Advocacy Campaign. Last year, Veidekke supplied technical assistance for this work, but the company has not conducted the actual blasting of the tunnel.
- We have only provided know-how and advice in this project, says Veidekke's Information Director Kai Krger Henriksen.
Veidekke pre-qualified for the development together with Konoike Construction and Murray & Roberts in 1995, but since then, the original cooperation agreement has been departed from, and Veidekke's role has been down-sized. The company has not been directly involved in the Sondu-Miriu project for more than half a year, but formally, Veidekke is still a part of the joint-venture.
David Schofield, who represents the consortium, confirms having received letters of complaint claiming that houses have been damaged by the blasting. These claims are now being investigated by a Technical Committee established to review the social and environmental aspects of the project. The Technical Committee has 29 members, nine of which come from the affected communities, and four are NGO representatives.
Even before the Technical Committee has initiated its investigations, Wataru Yanagida of Konoike Construction rejects the allegations that blasting has damaged houses. His explanation is that the damage must date further back, since intact cobwebs have been observed in the cracks. At the same time, Yanagida acknowledges that a spring is drying up, and that this may be due to the blasting of the tunnel.
Opponents of the Sondu-Miriu project have suffered severe pressure from development interests and local authorities. Argwings Odera will appear in court later this month on charges that he has organised protest meetings against the development. Odera was brutally attacked and imprisoned just before the New Year, when he was on his way to meet relatives that had been displaced through involuntary resettlement.
- A vehicle with a KVM sign (Konoike/Veidekke/Murray & Roberts - Ed.) ran into me on the side, and four security guards with walkie-talkies jumped out of the car and attacked me through my open car window. The men broke my finger before I was finally able to shut the window. The four security guards called the police, who arrived armed and with several police dogs. After I had been lying in the car for hours, the police charged and I was shot in the shoulder, then beaten up and taken to prison, Odera says.
The police later tried unsuccessfully to make Odera sign a confession letter. After more than a week in custody, he was let out on a USD 1,300 bail. Odera's trial is expected to begin in the middle of March.
- I am ready to go to jail and I don't fear the consequences. I feel committed to fight for the rights of the poor people who will lose from this development, Odera says.
One of the groups that will lose the most from the Sondu-Miriu development is the ferry operators who make their living transporting people and goods across the river. When the project is completed, they will lose their steady income and be forced to look for other employment.
Answering a question from NorWatch, David Schofield of the KVM consortium claims that all the ferry operators have received compensation, but the Sondu-Miriu Advocacy Campaign denies this. According to Argwings Odera, only six of the approximately fifteen ferry operators have been compensated.
Project opponents do not deny that the development will lead to new jobs and a general boost for the local economy. Contrary to the assurances the local communities had been given prior to the project, however, most of the jobs will not go to them. The International Rivers Network, an American environmental NGO, also points out that only two percent of employment will be reserved for women, and that village women were not involved in the consultation process.
As with the Bujagali power plant in Uganda (see NW 11/2000), where Veidekke heads the consortium that will carry out the construction works, the waterfalls affected by the project are connected to the religious myths of the local people. Every time the roaring falls are disturbed, according to the community, the gods react with thunder and lightning, consuming those it finds on its path.
There is also widespread fear among the villagers that the development will bring water-borne diseases and that the influx of workers from outside will lead to more cases of HIV/AIDS.
It is a fact that Kenya has a strong need for increased power generation. According to the KPLC (Kenya Power & Lighting Company), which controls the country's transmission and distribution assets, Kenya has an installed capacity of 1,041 MW, of which only 650 MW are available, due to drought and poor maintenance of the hydropower plants. Forecasts indicate that demand will increase by 6.6 % per year, and some of this growth could be relieved by the Sondu-Miriu hydropower project.
Referring to the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams' recently-published report, Argwings Odera says that the project cannot be justified if the requirements of the local communities are not met. This claim is backed by Friends of the Earth in Japan, which is now pressuring the Japanese development interests.
- The Japanese Government and Japan Bank of International Cooperation are bragging that the Sondu-Miriu project will help eradicate poverty on Kenya, but is Japan's intention really to eradicate poverty in Kenya or are they eradicating the poor? Odera asks.
Argwings Odera now expects an apology from the developers, Veidekke included, for abusing human rights and for their staff being used to put innocent people in jail. Instead, in a letter written by Wataru Yanagida of Konoike Construction and forwarded to NorWatch by Veidekke, Odera is accused of making untruthful and unsubstantiated statements and for having "a burning obsession to become famous at any cost."
"The Japanese Government and Japan Bank of International Cooperation are bragging that the Sondu-Miriu project will help eradicate poverty on Kenya, but is Japan's intention really to eradicate poverty in Kenya or are they eradicating the poor?"
- Argwings Odera, Sondu-Miriu Advocacy Campaign, 13 March 2001
Veidekke in Kenya
Veidekke ASA is taking part in a consortium together with the Japanese company Konoike Construction and South Africa's Murray & Roberts, which has a contract for the construction of the Sondu-Miriu power plant in Kenya's Nyanza Province. Construction commenced in March 1999, and the project is expected to be completed by 2003, with an installed capacity of 60 MW. The work is commissioned by KenGen (Kenya Electricity Generating Company), with Japan's Nippon Koei Co. Ltd. as a consultant. The development is financed by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.
Norwatch Newsletter 4/01