The dichotomy between Kenya’s quest for renewable energy and social displacement

What actions can countries like Kenya take to create an enabling environment for sustainable development and reverse global warming?

Climate change continues to wreak havoc worldwide, hitting developing countries harder. The sixth Global Environmental Outlook and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report present a more worrisome situation of impending climate-related disasters. This begs the question of whether we should hesitate to take action to reverse global warming. 

Although increased calls to address climate change concerns remain topical in diverse forums globally, including at the recently concluded United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, it is worth applauding accelerated efforts in investing in renewable energy worldwide. Geothermal energy production, in particular, aims at reducing carbon footprints and restoring planetary and human health. 

Kenya is ranked top eight globally in the production of geothermal energy. The African nation seeks to provide a high quality of life for its citizens in a clean and secure environment and to also become a newly industrialised, middle-income state by 2030. However, the establishment of essential infrastructure, such as geothermal energy plants, and oil and wind projects, continues to elicit conflicts with the local communities over their impacts on the environment. 

This raises the question of why such important projects trigger conflicts, and how they can be addressed towards sustainability. 

Geothermal project development and peace

Our study focused on the effects of the development of the Olkaria IV geothermal energy project by Kenya Electricity Generating Company PLC (KenGen) on the community in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Olkaria IV is inhabited by slightly more than 20,000 pastoralists, who rely largely on livestock keeping as their main source of livelihood and partially on tourism activities, thanks to the partial location of the Olkaria IV area in the Hell’s Gate National Park (HGNP). 

The project-affected persons (PAPs) were relocated to safeguard them against potential project effects highlighted in an environmental and social impact assessment report. However, this relocation elicited varied concerns, which could have been avoided with adequate consultations and participation of the community in the project design. Respondents cited socio-economic, cultural, environmental and political worries (Figure 1). That raised a need for more efforts in addressing the sustainability aspects of projects.

Figure 1. Conflict types manifested at RAPland
Credit Source: Lilian Namuma S. Kong’ani (author)

Firstly, the relocation of PAPs meant an increase in distance to the project site, where some community members worked and operated small businesses and shopping centres. This resulted in increased travel costs worsened by inadequate means of transport and bad roads, further putting a strain on PAPs’ ability to meet other basic needs like food. 

Also, some respondents cited declined income from guided tours and selling traditional ornaments at the former site due to members’ inability to open businesses or start working late. Some houses had no electricity and were unreliable in other units. Furthermore, established water collection points for domestic use and watering points for livestock were inadequate and unreliable.

Image 1. One of the Livestock drinking points at RAPland
Credit Source: Lilian Namuma S. Kong’ani (author)

Secondly, PAPs were discontent with the poor terrain at the new site (RAPland), characterized by steep slopes with poor grazing areas of low-quality pasture. More so, the inhospitable gullies and valleys posed a danger to livestock and community members. The later was compelled to slaughter any livestock that fell into the gullies and valleys to lessen the pain of double loss. The hyenas also worsened livestock loss, which reportedly killed either cattle, sheep, or goats daily. Also, respondents were skeptical of the project’s possible negative effects of noise pollution on their health due to the lack of documented scientific proof in regards to the same at their disposal.  

Image 2. A valley at RAPland
Credit Source: Lilian Namuma S. Kong’ani (author)

Thirdly, the standard two-bedroom houses built at RAPland failed to cater for the customary needs for separate units for husbands, wives, daughters and sons, as in the case of their manyattas. However, most of the respondents were excited about these new houses, perhaps an evidence of cultural erosion. Importantly, some women felt that their voice was suppressed and their views in decision-making processes disregarded, thanks to the patriarchal nature of the community, which equates women to children, and prohibits them from speaking in the same open spaces as men. The community members had to abide by the requirement to relocate since their leaders had endorsed relocation, leaving them with no option but to relocate, irrespective of their feelings.

Fourthly, the developer, Kenya Electricity Generating Company PLC (KenGen) was blamed for failing to adequately involve PAPs in project meetings, and in the decision-making processes related to relocation logistics and compensations, and improper sharing of project information. Adequate consultations would have helped to avoid some unrealistic pledges on the part of the developer and expectations on PAPs’ part, and resulting in misunderstandings. For example, some respondents felt that promises such as USD 5000 disturbance allowance, which remained unfulfilled at the time of the study, were only meant to trick the PAPs to relocate to pave the way for the project.

Insecurity effects

Did the conflicts have any effect? The answer is yes. Businesses at the HGNP were abandoned by the PAPs and tourism activities declined during the conflict period. It was also alleged that some PAPs lost their jobs as a punishment by the developer following their participation in protests against relocation. Those who resisted to re-locate also lost friends. Their friends feared to associate with them for fear of possible victimisation by the developer.

Restoring peace for sustainability?

Were the conflicts addressed? Well, the initial attempts to resolve these conflicts through strategies such as competition; where PAPs were allegedly compelled to relocate, avoidance; where PAPs involuntarily agreed to relocate, collaboration; where the parties held meetings to address the concerns, and accommodation; where PAPs acknowledged the value of the project and agreed to pave way, bore little fruits. This was demonstrated through the relapse in security after PAPs relocation that almost derailed the project’s operations. PAPs reached out to project financiers, including the World Bank and the European Investment Bank seeking their invention, an effort that led to mediation. Twenty-seven issues that were contested, including a need for additional houses for deserving PAPs, and improved services among others, were addressed restoring trust, mending and improving relationships between the community and the developer, and smoother project operations, thus, resolution of the conflicts.

Conclusion and recommendation

The development shift to renewable energy in Kenya and beyond is an essential step towards economic growth and, importantly, reducing carbon footprints to restore planetary and human health. This is especially where the right development decisions are taken with considerations of not only economic and environmental aspects but also societal needs and interests. This can be attained through adequate involvement of communities within areas where important projects like geothermal plants are established. However, where conflicts are inevitable, mediation would be helpful in enabling the parties to generate solutions based on mutual consensus and non-coercion, as in the cases of conflict resolution in Olkaria IV geothermal area, and elsewhere. This would facilitate creating a conducive environment for sustainable development of renewable energy and related beyond Kenya.


Journal reference

Kong’ani, L. N., Wahome, R. G., & Thenya, T. (2021). Variety and management of developmental conflicts: The case of the olkaria IV geothermal energy project in Kenya. Conflict, Security & Development, 21(6), 781–804. https://doi.org/10.1080/14678802.2021.2000806

Lilian Namuma S. Kong’ani is a Tutorial Fellow, University of Nairobi. She holds a Ph.D in Environmental Governance and Management, and an MSc. in Environmental Governance both from the University of Nairobi (UoN), and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies (Community Development) from Kenyatta University. She is a currently a Research Fellow at the Africa Peacebuilding Network. She is also an Alumna Fellow, Mawazo Learning Exchange Programme, Mawazo Institute, Kenya. Lilian is interested and passionate about natural resources governance and management, climate change, community development, conflict resolution, peacebuilding, gender mainstreaming, environmental impact assessment and sustainable development among others.