Kenya’s newest mega-infrastructure project, the port of Lamu, has received its first ship. Jan Bachmann and Benard Musembi, who examine the environmental, socio-economic and security dynamics along the traffic corridor Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia, provide insights into the history of the port, the opportunities it presents and the concerns associated with it.
When and why was the Lamu port project initiated?
The port of Lamu is part of an ambitious transport corridor between Lamu – a small archipelago north of Mombasa in Kenya – South Sudan and Ethiopia.
Kenya already has a deep water port in Mombasa. Plans for a second to dissipate Mombasa’s economic dependence date back to the mid-1970s. However, this only happened in March 2012. The occasion was marked when the then East African heads of state – Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and South Sudan’s Salva Kiir – laid the foundation stone for the port.
In its early ambitions, the port of Lamu linked East African inland economies with global trade routes. In particular, it has been considered as an alternative outlet for South Sudan’s oil, which is currently being pumped into Port Sudan via the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline.
As South Sudan was embroiled in an ongoing war and Ethiopia increased its operations in the ports of Djibouti and most recently in Berbera, the international ambitions of the transport corridor shrank somewhat.
As the cornerstone of the Kenyan government’s Vision 2030 development plan, it is now being branded as a “Game Changer” project.
Your new goal is to integrate the marginalized northern Kenya into the Kenyan economy and nation. A pipeline, a railway line, a network of roads between Lamu, Garissa, Isiolo, Moyale and Turkana, a dam along the Tana River, airports and vacation spots are planned for the corridor. There are also plans to create numerous industrial areas along the corridor.
We show in our research that most plans are only real on paper and government websites. Nevertheless, the effects on the communities in northern Kenya are very concrete. In addition to the completion of the 500 km long Isiolo-Moyale road, the official opening of the port of Lamu is the most outstanding achievement of the project to date.
The first three of the planned 32 berths were built by the China Communication Construction Company and cost $ 367 million.
What options does the port offer?
The Kenyan government has mobilized projections of future trade and has persistently argued that the port of Lamu will become a viable and necessary complement to the center of Mombasa. The local authorities are expressly investing their hopes in plans for a special economic zone, although these have so far been rather illusory. This holds the promise of significant investments in the port and the creation of hundreds of jobs.
As the port will primarily serve as a transhipment point, it is expected to attract major shipping lines by competing with the ports of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Durban in South Africa. It would also serve key markets in southern Ethiopia and southern Sudan.
So far, around 19 shipping companies have inspected the port. The Kenya Ports Authority expects many to take advantage of the generous promotional offers currently in place.
On the positive side, the road works connecting Lamu to Nairobi via Garissa are already in full swing. And the new road between Lamu and Garsen has already reduced transport costs, as trucks and travelers no longer have to drive through Mombasa.
Once the project’s motorway towards Garissa and Isiolo is completed, the former northern border region can benefit from the connection to the port.
But there are big question marks when it comes to the macroeconomic value of a second Kenyan deepwater port. This concern stems from the lack of infrastructural integration between Lamu and northern Kenya.
Logistics experts also warn that the port of Lamu has enormous potential to become a white elephant project due to the immense uncertainties surrounding its core use.
What were the big problems with the construction?
The planning and construction of the port has raised a myriad of concerns and disputes, particularly over land rights, the environment, local livelihoods and safety.
Various rights groups have documented numerous complaints from residents about the mandatory land acquisition. One study found that the government took more land than it compensated.
Another major concern is the environmental impact of port construction, some of which came to light in a 2018 High Court ruling.
Local protests against the project were harassed by Kenyan security forces.
The livelihoods of hundreds of local fishermen are disrupted by the port as its extensive restricted area restricts access to viable fishing grounds. And contradicting a court ruling granting fishermen KSH 1.7 billion (US $ 18.4 million) in compensation for their economic losses, the government suspended payments because of a disagreement over the list of beneficiaries and the nature of the beneficiaries Compensation delayed.
Concern about job opportunities for residents is also growing. So far, around 100 young people from Lamu have found employment in the port of Lamu.
Finally, there are security concerns. In the past 15 years, Lamu has become a very volatile region. Attacks by the militant group al-Shabaab have brought violence to the region and made it a highly documented region. Security measures have significantly reduced the frequency of uncertainties. However, regular al-Shabaab attacks have impacted construction activity.
How should these concerns be addressed?
Community concerns are weighty and require serious attention as they affect many aspects of their daily life.
Our ongoing research shows that many of the concerns could have been averted if the proper process had been followed from the start of the project. This includes timely and appropriate compensation for all those affected by the project. This also includes adequate and sound environmental and social impact assessments, as well as considering qualified residents for employment opportunities. Ultimately, it is a matter of addressing the recurring land rights issues in Lamu.
It is important that the residents of Lamu are treated as direct stakeholders and partners in the project. Your voices, concerns, and aspirations should be taken seriously.