About a month ago, the Star newspaper carried a short news report about plans by the Catholic Church to build a huge, multi-
million-shilling water project in Meru County. The dam will supply thousands of households and institutions with water for domestic and other uses. The church is already fundraising locally and abroad to finance the project, the Star reported.
A church official or two offered justifications for the project. We hoped the Star would ask their writer to do a comprehensive and analytical report on the proposed project. We are still waiting.
What will the project entail in terms of local resources? Whose land will be used? Who is expected to benefit and how? What will be the environmental and livelihoods implications of the project for the people living around it? And so on.
Those are important questions. We in the media need to understand that mega-projects put up by governments or other actors in the name of ‘development’ are rarely without serious consequences for people living in those areas. It is now an established fact that not every ‘development’ project actually brings development. Ultimately, development is about people, not impressive projects.
There is plenty of development literature about projects particularly in the ‘third world’ that have been harmful to the local people, especially the poor. We will cite just one example.
The Ethiopian government, which last week you heard will be exporting electricity to Kenya, is building what will become the biggest dam in Africa on River Omo. The Omo flows for nearly 1000km and drops 1,600m from its source to its end point in Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, which lies wholly within Kenya.
The Omo basin has great hydropower potential and already Ethiopia has built two dams on it. The third dam, called Gibe III (Gibe is the other name for River Omo), will be 240m high, the tallest in Africa. It will cost Ethiopia $1.7 billion.
Gibe III will double Ethiopia’s current generating capacity, which will then greatly exceed domestic demand. It is planned that up to 50 percent of the electricity generated will be exported to neighbouring countries, including Kenya. Two more hydropower dams will eventually complete the Omo ‘cascade’.
But that is the end of the nice part. Studies have shown that Gibe III will have a massive devastating impact on the downstream population by regulating the highly seasonal flow of the Omo, thereby ending the annual flood. This will directly affect all residents of the Omo flood plain and delta – around 100,000 people – who depend on the flood for their agricultural and pastoralist activities.
Once the dam is completed, there will be no annual flood. It will now be possible to develop large-scale commercial irrigation schemes, which are planned to occupy over 200,000 hectares of the Lower Omo. That will mean displacing many of the people from their existing farmland and grazing areas.
Since the Omo supplies 90 per cent of the water entering Lake Turkana, irrigation on this scale will significantly reduce the level of the lake and increase its salinity. This in turn will adversely affect the livelihoods of another 300,000 or so people who live in northern Kenya and who depend on the lake for pastoralism and fishing.
Who then will be the beneficiaries of this ‘development’ project? The people with big money, of course (industrialists, commercial farmers, etc) – at the expense of hundreds of thousands of local people in Ethiopia and Kenya.
And ‘development’ projects like Gibe III are often touted as poverty alleviation strategies! If you think the local people will benefit from the sale of electricity and large-scale commercial agriculture, then you probably know nothing about the curse of oil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Or flower farming in Naivasha, Kenya.
Another mindboggling project in Africa was unveiled last week by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir. The Sh2 trillion Lamu Port is billed as one of the most ambitious infrastructural feats ever undertaken in Africa. “Lamu Port is a blessing to the region”, Nation declared in an editorial. The massive project is expected to contribute hugely to economic development of eastern Africa.
But mentioned only in passing in the excited media coverage of the project last week are concerns about the environment and compensation of local people who will lose their land and livelihoods. Local human rights groups and community-based organisations have protested against the project in vain, as the government has reiterated it will ensure fair play.
The Standard merely listed those concerns (a detailed report on these was surely needed!): “failure to conduct an environmental impact assessment and mitigation plan, lack of community participation and consultation, threats to traditional nature-based livelihoods and the failure to recognise local individual, community and public ownership of land.” “At the same time, the Lamu County Council Planning Committee refused to approve the project, citing lack of information.”
Are these minor concerns? If the governments that are implementing this project don’t want to listen to the local people, who is this ‘development’ project meant for?
It is for big finance. Small people can be ignored. Kibaki said the project has the support of “Comesa, the East African Community, SADC, the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.” They are the ones that matter most? What about the fears expressed by the local people?
And the media doesn’t seem to realise that there is a serious problem here. Has the media also become part of big finance? Has it become complicit in the fraudulent rhetoric of ‘development’?
We pick up from where we left last week on ‘development’.
“Kibaki launches Sh3b homes project”. That was a headline in the Standard last Wednesday, March 7, 2012. “President Kibaki has underscored his desire to leave behind a rich legacy in infrastructural development,” the report began. The slum-upgrading project in Kibera came just days after Kibaki commissioned the multi-billion-shilling Lamu Port. Upgrading slums has been political talk for ages.
“My wish is to see development in this country and this should be the desire of all Kenyans,” the Standard quoted the president as saying. “Already if you go round the country you will see it all. From roads to houses to factories, we have done a lot. It can be seen, unless you do not have eyes.”
Indeed. We have eyes here at The Bulletin.
“Mum, baby bleed to death in strike horror”. That was the lead story in the Daily Nation the next day, Thursday, March 8 – International Women’s Day. A pregnant woman in Africa has one foot in the grave, it is often said in ‘development’ circles.
“A mother and her new-born son bled to death at the gates of a dispensary after striking nurses refused to attend to them, the family said”, Nation reported.
Nurses in public service have “downed their tools” to protest poor terms of service. The government does not have the money to meet their demands and has declared the strike illegal. They were even sacked. There have been unconfirmed reports of several deaths in public hospitals around the country.
The government does not have money to offer nurses better terms of service. The country already has a serious shortage of nurses because many of these professionals opt to work in the private sector or leave the country for better pay.
But the same government can find the money to build multi-billion-shilling ‘development’ projects: roads, factories, houses, a major port, etc. Kibaki’s legacy.
So, what is ‘development’?
Millions of poor people in Kenya face starvation. Again. This year we will have poor rains. Again. The harvests will be poor. The cost of food is just too high. We cannot figure out how to produce enough food to feed our people or how to ensure public health facilities offer the “much-needed” services for which they were put up.
“Murugi seeks Sh6bn famine kitty for Baringo, Turkana,” read a headline in the Star on Friday, March 9, 2012. “The government requires Sh6 billion to avert a famine that may threaten more than five million Kenyans within four months,” the story said.
Are we going to launch another ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ campaign? We had better make it an annual event. Famine is now a permanent feature in Kenya. We have no way to deal with it once and for all.
But we can find the money to finance President Kibaki’s “rich legacy in infrastructural development.” It is about Kibaki. Is that why some of these ‘development’ projects are being undertaken now, in the dying months of his presidency?
Where is the money coming from? “We are borrowing funds from donors to accomplish some of these things and we have developed a programme of repaying these loans…” the president said in Kibera, according to Standard.
Kenya’s foreign debt stands at a staggering $7.9 billion. Yet we are borrowing more to finance Kibaki’s legacy, not to save lives of Kenyans rendered vulnerable by hunger and disease.
What were the terms of the loans we have just received to finance ‘development’? Why can’t the government make that information public? Why doesn’t the media seek and publish this information, so that Kenyans know how much we owe, whom we owe and for how long we are going to repay? Isn’t this important?
We probably need Lamu Port. But why is it a priority over food, water and health services for millions of people in Kenya? We are going to build three international airports in Lamu, Isiolo and Turkana. We will build a highway from Lamu to Juba and Addis Ababa. But we can’t finance irrigated agriculture in Tana River or Ukambani to save lives. Why?
Because, we guess, it is more difficult to get funds from the World Bank, IMF and other predatory western lenders to finance basic services for the many poor people. It doesn’t make sense in the capitalist model of ‘development’ that we have adopted.
Capitalist ‘development’ is basically geared towards service delivery for those who are able and willing to pay. That is why over the years African governments have been under intense pressure from Western donors to cut back on basic public services. Invest for the rich.
The infrastructural ‘development’ financed by donors is really not targeted at ordinary people. What capacity do the local people have to utilise Lamu Port, or an international airport in Isiolo, when they cannot afford food or water? Most will probably only benefit as low-paid unskilled workers, hawkers, prostitutes, etc around these mega-projects. And who will be using the airport? What will they be coming to do in a poor area populated by starving citizens?
No, there is a reason. This ‘development’ is meant to facilitate foreign investment, which, regardless of the rhetoric, is, as a matter of fact, the looting of resources in Africa by giant global corporates.
Nations do not develop through ‘foreign investment’ and a tiny, extremely wealthy local elite; they do through expanded and innovative local capacity. In other words, it is the citizens who build their own country, not foreigners.
But who are these citizens in our case? They are 35-year-old Chari Katana and her newborn son who died a horrific death in Kinango, Kwale County, because their government does not have the money to ensure they got urgent, live-saving medical attention. But we can get billions of shillings to finance a “rich legacy in infrastructural development.”