Kenyan Dam Protester Arrested, Shot

KISUMU, Kenya, January 11, 2001 (ENS) - A Kenyan activist working with dam affected people has been arrested, beaten and faces criminal charges for holding meetings and trying to share information about the Sondu Miriu hydroelectric dam project in southwestern Kenya.

Argwings Odera of the Africa Water Network was protesting the dam on environmental and public health grounds on December 26, 2000 when the arrest took place. This was his third arrest for protesting the project.

On the day of the arrest, Odera was shot in the arm by police, but the bullet that was aimed at his head and meant to be fatal so as to "silence him," a provincial police officer of Nyanza Province told Odera.

"They blew the door and forced the already profusely bleeding man out of the car. He was rained on with punches, kicks and blows to the protest of community members who were present, according to a statement by the Africa Water Network.

Odera was released on KES 100,000 (US$1,272) bond with surety of a similar amount. The activist has been charged with tresspass, resisting arrest, incitement of the public against the dam, and publication of a false document - a letter to the government of Japan expressing community objections to the dam.

The Japanese government is partially funding the dam project, and the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, arrived in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday for a three day state visit, the first African trip by a serving Japanese prime minister.

Kenya is the largest recipient in Africa of Japanese Official Development Assistance. In 1999, Japan spent more than 57 million dollars in Kenya in the form of grants and loans, an embassy statement said.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry has sent an official letter to the government of Kenya stating that Japanese government is concerned about the security of Argwings Odera.

There is reason for concern. Last week Odera was in his office when he says, "Somebody called saying, 'We know where you are. We will get you.' For the first time I shook with fright. I fled the office in the dark!"


Kisumu Bay, Winam Gulf, Lake Victoria (Photo by Clean Lakes Inc./Aquatics courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The Sondu Miriu project is a 60 megawatt hydro power station about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Kenya's capital city of Nairobi. It is being built by KenGen, which is responsible for managing all public power generation facilities in Kenya. Hydroelectric power currently forms 70 percent of the country's total electricity output.

The Sondu Miriu River, one of the six major rivers in the Lake Victoria basin, drains 3,470 square kilometers in the western part of Kenya. The river originates from the western slopes of the Mau Escarpment and flows through a narrow gorge, penetrating the Nyakach Escarpment. It then meanders into the Odino Falls before entering the flood plains of Nyakwere where it drains into the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria.

KenGen plans to divert water from the Sondu Miriu river into a million cubic meter reservoir. This water will then be led into the main power house via a 7.2 kilometer (4.5 mile) tunnel.

Construction of camp sites, roads, a bridge, communication facilities and the initial stages of blasting the tunnel are now taking place.

The civil works are being carried out by Konoike Construction JV with Viedekke Heavy Construction Company of Norway and Murray & Roberts Contractors International of South Africa. Nippon Koei Company of Japan is consultant to the project.

The Japan Bank for International Cooperation and KenGen are funding the project. The power station is scheduled for commissioning by the year 2003.

The environmental effects of the dam and diversion of the river have not been adequately addressed, according to the Africa Water Network. "The hydrological and ecological formation of the river will be greatly disturbed when it is eventually diverted. The generating company is clearly avoiding these issues by saying these are the responsibilities of relevant government ministries," the group said in a statement.

Wildlife, especially colobus monkeys and hippopotamus, dependent on the river water will be forced to seek a source of water at the lower populous Nyakwere plains disturbing their habitat. The aquatic system will be disrupted with far reaching repercussions, issues that the group says KenGen is avoiding.

KenGen claims that a trickle of water will be left to flow over the river's original course. But the Africa Water Network (AWN) points to similar river diversion projects for the Turkwel Gorge and Masinga hydropower dams. In those cases the rivers dried up permanently or became seasonal.

Environmental degradation will be the result of blasting the tunnel through pre-cambrian rocks that take greater than normal amounts of dynamite to penetrate. They fear the entire water table may be affected by the construction.


Home near Kisumu (Photo courtesy Kisumu Museum)
Health precaution measures have not been put in place to handle the effects of the great dust clouds that come off the construction project. "Most members of the community are already suffering from eye and respiratory problems. They are forced to pay for expensive medical care or, for the very poor, live with the problem. A sanitary centre has been constructed to be used exclusively by the project employees. Nothing has been put up for the community," AWN says.

The local communities complain that they were promised electricity and irrigation facilities in the initial project documents to win their goodwill. But now, KenGen says it will not provide these two components of the plan because it is not within their mandate, Odera says.

The community is heavily dependent on the river water for domestic and agricultural use. Diverting the river will cause a serious water deficit affecting over 1,500 households, says Odera. KenGen has made no plans to provide alternative sources of water.

The project has so far displaced 1,000 households through involuntary resettlement. A KenGen spokesperson told Odera in March 2000 that the company has no plans to relocate people who will be affected by power transmission lines from the dam.