The Japanese government has suspended funding to a controversial hydroelectric power project in Western Kenya which is still in the first phase of construction.
Citing "environmental disruption and corruption" in a letter to the government of Kenya, Japan's Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka indicated that suspension of funding for the Sondu Miriu hydropower dam project was "a response to criticism from environmental campaigners and differences between Kenya and Japan over further funding."
A copy of the letter was sent to the Kenya Electricity Generating company Ltd. (KenGen), which is building the shillings 12 billion project. The Sondu-Miriu project was planned to inject an additional 60 megawatts into Kenya's national electricity grid to ease Kenya's power crisis.
Critics say that abandoning the half finished dam project will create a serious socioeconomic backlash and an uncontrolled enviromental disaster in western Kenya.
Of special concern is the tunnel, which was criticized as an environmental disaster during a meeting of the World Commission on Dams at Cape Town. Once the tunnel was blasted through the Kasaye Hills, the hillside streams have dried up. The diversion of the river bed, the commision said, is not a "standard environmental conservation project."
Japan blames Kenyans for the turn of events. "This is a Kenyan project not for Japanese. Kenyans must resolve their own problems. The problems are yours and have nothing to do with us," said Azumi Arai, the director general in charge of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) which has been funding the project.
The Japanese suspension is viewed as a victory by two Kenyan nongovernmental organizations, Africa Water Network and Climate Network Africa. Their incessant campaign calling attention to the environmental damage the power project was doing on the people of Nyakach prompted the Japanese government to organize six fact finding missions to assess the situation.
"We are not opposed to the project but the manner KenGen is implemeting it," said Africa Water Network spokesman, Denis Akumu. Africa Water Network persisted in its lobbying and public protests despite police crackdowns that left at least one man with severe wounds after several days in police custody.
But some local people want the dam building to proceed. Demonstrations are planned in Nyanza to protest at the suspension, a Member of Parliament said yesterday. Nyakach MP Peter Odoyo said leaders would mobilize more than 10,000 villagers to oppose the move before holding a public rally at Kolweny, near the project site, on Thursday.
The project's feasibility study done in 1985 recommended a three phase development. KenGen, a government power generating company, obtained funding from JBIC. The first funds for construction and engineering services were transferred in 1997, and the work began in March 1999. The first phase was expected to be complete by 2004.
But environmentalists have raised concern over the health problems occasioned by the project. "Cases of chest diseases, such as bronchitis have been reported in the area ever since the project began," said Akumu.
The organization has been demanding a halt to the project and another Environmental Impact Assessment. Akuma said that two deaths have been reported and many people have gone blind since the dam building began.
But Kenya's Energy Minister, Francis Masakhalia has said the project will continue. "The government is fully commited to the implementation of this project. Problems that might emerge must be overcome. We cannot abandon this project altogether."
Masakhalia said, "All conditions have been fulfilled and there should be no cause for alarm. An impact assessment test was carried out, and you cannot fault the project. It is superior to other forms of power generation which result in pollution through gas emission."
But the minister failed to respond to the issue of corruption that was also raised by the Japanese government. Figures of diplaced people were inflated while compensation money was not
handed to the displaced, leading to a public outcry.
An example is Thurdibuoro Secondary School which was quoted to have been rebuilt at sh 180 million but still has no power or water. A bell for the school is said to have been imported at sh 80,00.
"It is a major scandal," said Akumu.
Japan insists further investigations must be carried out before funding is resumed. "I would definitely like to have an opportunity to investigate it. If the project is proceeding despite problematic aspects, then it should be reconsidered," said the Japanese foreign minister.
MP Odoyo, who supported the project from the beginning, said the government of Kenya will send a delegation to Japan to plead their case.
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