Kidnappings, new Kenyan port threaten historic Lamu

Conservationists fear the large-scale developments will threaten Lamu town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and damage both fishing waters and mangrove swamps around the island.
Tony Karumba

NAIROBI, Kenya — The killing and kidnapping of tourists at Lamu Island will change that tourist resort's reputation as a relaxed and safe destination.

More change will come to Lamu, now that Kenya has announced plans to build a new port at the island. The massive construction will kickstart Africa’s largest infrastructure project to catalyze economic growth in the country and wider East Africa region.

The 20-berth deepwater port that will jut into the crystal-blue waters off the historic Lamu island is just one key element in an ambitious $22 billion infrastructure plan linking Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan with new roads, railways and oil pipelines.

“Groundbreaking for construction of the first three berths should be done soonest,” said President Mwai Kibaki in Nairobi. “I look forward to the commissioning of the first ship docking at Lamu port next year,” he added.

In a rare display of unity, Kibaki’s political opponent and coalition partner Prime Minister Raila Odinga added, “It is time to get this show on the road.”

Conservationists, however, will be disappointed with the announcement. They fear the large-scale developments will threaten Lamu town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and damage both fishing waters and mangrove swamps around the island.

Unesco has pledged to ensure Lamu’s cultural heritage is not ruined, but Kenya’s government has made it clear that economic development is the priority.

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The announcements came after a feasibility study, funded by China and carried out by a Japanese company, concluded that the long-held dreams were economically viable.

Plans for a new port and transport corridor were first drafted in 1975 but stalled due to lack of financing and political infighting. That appears to have changed with Kibaki and Odinga in agreement and with China, Gulf states and European nations reportedly expressing interest in funding parts of the vast project.

There will also be a 780-mile oil pipeline linking the oil fields of South Sudan to a new 120,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Lamu, a 1,000 mile standard-gauge railway running through the northern Kenyan town of Isiolo and on to Juba, a new international airport at Lamu, and a 550-mile highway heading northwards toward South Sudan and Ethiopia.

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Much of the new infrastructure will run through — and open up — the neglected northern regions of Kenya.

"It will also act as a catalyst for productive economic activities such as fish-processing in Lamu and around Lake Turkana, livestock development in the North Eastern region, tourism and agricultural development in the coastal region and coal mining in Mwingi, among other activities along the corridor," said Kibaki.

The oil pipeline via Lokichoggio and Moyale leading to a new refinery could be a solution to South Sudan’s disputes with the north over how to share oil revenues. Recently the secretary general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Pagan Amum, described Khartoum’s levying of a $23 per -barrel transport fee on southern oil pumped through northern pipelines as “daylight robbery” and part of a strategy of “economic war” with the newly independent south.

There is also talk of building a pipeline from Uganda’s oil fields on the shore of Lake Albert to Lamu for refining and export. The pipelines from Uganda and South Sudan would meet south of Lake Turkana and continue across arid northern Kenya to Lamu.

Kenya hopes the new port and economic “free” port at Lamu will be able to ship 24 million tons of goods a year, helping to decongest the existing overcrowded port at Mombasa while also becoming the main gateway to Kenya’s two landlocked neighbors: Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Much of Ethiopian imports and exports transit through the seaport at Djibouti, while South Sudan is hostage to its northern neighbor, which controls access to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. For both countries an alternative route via Kenya would open up options and reduce costs.

The new infrastructure is also intended to stitch more closely together the East African Community, or EAC, a regional group established in 1967 but only recently becoming more than a paper agreement, with monetary cooperation and even political unity mooted.

Rwanda and Burundi joined fellow EAC members Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania four years ago and South Sudan is widely expected to follow suit. Already the EAC is a market of 140 million people, a growing proportion of whom have disposable income and increasingly middle-class tastes and aspirations.

The new transport corridors would ease trade through Uganda and Rwanda to the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and, combined with a proposed EAC customs union, reduce the cost of trade.

The project is, however, far beyond the reach of Kenya’s domestic budget, so the real test will be whether foreign investors can be persuaded that ploughing
their money into this ambitous project will result in good returns as well as good development for the region.

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