Kenya – LAMU: The sand dunes of life

KENYA, Lamu Island Feb 28 2012 by WANJOHI KABUKURU – Yusuf Kitete Abala is the civic representative of the Barsuba location in Lamu County and hails from a small minority community numbering about 5000 known as the Boni. The Lamu County covers much of Kenya’s northern coast complete with the islands of Lamu, Manda, Pate, Faza, Tiwi and Siu. Lamu is an idyllic Indian Ocean island in Kenya’s north coast with an almost level plain topography characterized by coastal sand dunes.

Lamu sand dunes

Lamu sand dunes

Yusuf is concerned at the new developments taking place in his island which are said to be threatening Lamu’s fresh water sources which are the sand dunes. He is not alone. Retired teacher now environmental rights defender Mohammed Ali Baddi is actively engaged in sensitizing the public on the depletion of their fresh water supply sources and what development is doing to his Bajuni community also found in Lamu.Both areapprehensive on the prospects of water scarcity, exhausted aquifers in the island and the prospects of saline water and diarhhoea are real. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) “Diarrhoea is the second leading killer of children under the age of five  accounting for approximately 15% of under five child deaths worldwide or almost 2,000,000 deaths annually.” The water conundrum indeed makes a strong case for any venture that promotes access to clean drinking water. 60% of the 1.2 billion people in the world who lacks clean drinking water are to be found in Sub Saharan Africa and Asia.

Lamu sand dunes

Lamu sand dunes

“The new resort facilities coming up in Shela are interfering with the sand dunes.” says Yusuf. “These sand dunes have been the source of fresh water in Lamu for centuries.”

Matters concerning fresh water supply and sanitation have been key cornerstones driving the islands economic survival. In Lamu the upmarket Shela locale has attracted the elite in society and global glitterati, who have coincidentally purchased the entire 982-hactares in Shela comprising of the island’s “water tower” which is Lamu’s only water catchment area.

Lamu sea front

Lamu sea front

“The sand dunes are the only membrane between sea water and fresh water and they should be conserved. Should any development be allowed at the dunes, Lamu will not have fresh water in less than ten years.” Omar Farah, Director General of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) says.

According to Baddi, his community, the Bajunis have lived in the Lamu island and depended on the coastal sand dunes for generations. “The allocations of the sand dunes was done without due diligence as it is common knowledge that the sand dunes supply our islands with fresh water.” Says Baddi. “Any developments on the dunes are a threat to all island life. This was illegal and must be revoked.”

Baddi’s views are echoed by Farah who says the NMK will petition the government through its parent office, the Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture to gazette Shela for protection as a catchment area. “We are currently conducting a search and the problem of illegal allocations at Shela is more serious than the much publicized Mau Forest (one of Kenya’s five water towers found in the Rift Valley), because the entire 982 hectares have been allocated to private individuals. After the allocations are nullified we want Shela gazette as a catchment area so that it can be protected.” Farah says.

Other than the development of palatial mansions and hotel resorts in Shela, the proposed Lamu Port is also a source of worry to Lamu residents. The $25 billion Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPPSET) Corridor is a flagship project under the Kenya Vision 2030 programme which is the key government development initiative aimed at transforming Kenya into an industrialized nation by the year 2030.

Visualized in the LAPSSET is a 32 berth modern port at Lamu, an oil refinery, standard gauge railway line to Juba in Southern Sudan with a branch line to Ethiopia, a 1300km oil pipeline linking Lamu with the oil fields of Southern Sudan, a 1720km super highway connecting to Ethiopia and South Sudan and within Kenya alongside the LAPSSET Corridor the construction of three international airports in Lamu, Isiolo and Lokichogio and upgrading them to become resort cities. When complete the Lamu port will be the largest port on the African continent.

“Our main source of livelihood is artisanal fishing. What will happen to us when the new port becomes fully operational? The proposed port will mean we have to shift to other areas for fish and put more pressure on our sand dunes,” Baddi complains.  “The future port will annihilate the mangroves which are the best fish breeding and spawning grounds denying us our source of livelihood and diminish our little fresh water resource.”

According to Baddi who coordinates the Lamu Environmental Protection and Conservation Group (LEPAC) a community based environmental conservation entity to promote sound environmental practices in the pristine islands of Lamu and Manda of Lamu’s 30 boreholes only 13 are currently operational.These 13 boreholes supply clean fresh water to all of Lamu, Shela and Manda.

“Progress is about people, their identity, lifestyle and orientation. The projected Lamu Port is a major project and to many of us here in Lamu, it means influx in population and demand for services.” Muhammad Athman Bakar the chairman of Kenya Marine Environmental Organisation (KMEO) poses. “What will happen to the rich marine life of dugongs, turtles, dolphins and mangroves? And as the population increases in Lamu where will we get fresh water to meet the demands of everyone visiting and working here as developments take root in the sand dunes in Shela?”

Lamu’s past dates to the 8th century and the island was in 2005 termed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as the “oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa.”  This was 25 years after UNESCO had declared Lamu Island a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. Lamu has unmatched archaeological sites, rich marine endowments and boasts of inimitable minority indigenous communities namely the Boni, Sanye and Bajuni. Others include Somali, Orma, Pokomo and Miji Kenda all who have made these islands their home. Internationally Lamu’s history as East Africa’s Islamic and trade capital Lamu is acknowledged.  Thanks to trade with the Omani Arabs, Portuguese, Chinese, Indians, Germans and British all who had fresh supplies of fruits, spices and water replenished in Lamu.

It is this rich history and the activism of Baddi, Yusuf and Bakar that has brought international attention to the island’s unseen water scarcity threats and fears of heritage loss due to fresh water threats.

During UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) conference in Nairobi in 2011, UNESCO’s director-general Irina Bokova added her voice to Lamu’s earmarked development. “We are following the development and if it endangers the town’s heritage, we will inform the government,” Bokova said of Lamu’s heritage that stems from simple structures made of mangrove timber and coral stones. “Governments should withstand the pressures of modern economies so as to safeguard their heritage and ensure its sustainability.”

In defence the Kenyan ministry in charge of heritage swiftly acknowledges the dangers posed by development on the environment, water conservation and historical heritage and argues on the need to balance progress, environmental conservation and cultural preservation. “We are concerned about the negative cultural impact of proposed Lamu port on the region’s heritage. The Kenyan government will do everything to save Lamu’s famous cultural treasure from annihilation,” Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture Dr. Jacob ole Miaron says. “The ministry has already highlighted the protected areas and recommended that specific natural and cultural heritage impact assessments be conducted to mitigate any potential destruction. Our experts are deeply involved in the project to ensure that any negative attributes are forestalled well in advance.”

Lamu Island’s sand dunes are its economic, social, environmental and cultural lifeline hence the government’s need to preserve them.