Electricity at all costs

It is another hot day in Kribi, a booming coastal city of 80,000 people that’s located 300 kilometres from the capital of Cameroon, Yaoundé. Kribi sits on a road that stretches along a rainforest, one of the largest in Africa, before it begins to follow the coastline. Off the coast lie the gas reserves of Sanaga South.

The coastal town draws most of its income from tourism but for several years now, it has been at the heart of a cluster of energy projects which involve the construction of a port and a gas-powered electricity station nine kilometres from the city. Locals initially greeted these projects with enthusiasm, expecting economic opportunities and more electricity for their homes. The construction of the electricity plant, which is connected to the offshore gas facility by an 18 km pipeline, began in 2012. Commercial operations started the following year.

Two years earlier the project promoter, Cameroon’s national electricity producer AES SONEL, had commissioned an environmental and social impact study of the future plant. In the meantime, the project’s financing plan had been finalized; the EIB joined a consortium of development financiers, which included the World Bank’s development arm (IFC), with a loan of almost thirty million Euros. Like the World Bank, the EIB’s decision to come on board was made after study of the impact assessment that the promoter provided.

The gas processing plant was originally designed to use four gas turbines. But the project ended up with piston engines instead, a cheaper technology that is considered outdated.
People living near the station quickly realized that the plant was not the bargain they had envisaged. They did get a new primary school and free electricity, but a new hospital never materialized and access to water remained far from ideal. On top of this, the plant generates vibrations and a loud, persistent, humming. “We thought it might be something temporary”, says one woman who lives nearby, “and that at some point we would be free of the noise, but we live with it 24 hours a day. Even at night the machines do not stop working”.

The plant was built too close to many homes and its designers didn’t seem to have anticipated these side effects, especially as the city continues to expand and grow closer to the plant.

“We had seminars”, recalls a man who lives next to the plant and who, like most of the interviewees, doesn’t want to give his name, “but we were not told there would be so much noise. We were even told that you could live 100 metres away and you would be fine. But to our surprise, it’s a problem. I currently suffer from problems with nerves and if I stay here too long it causes me headaches”. Children and adults complain of hearing problems, but that risk was totally ignored by the impact report. Ironically, the noise risk assessment in the impact study was commissioned from the very company that supplied the piston engines, Wärtsilä.

Today, most of the inhabitants have become experts in imitating this persistent whirring, which they describe as a kind of aural bombardment that causes a constant ripple of noise across the roofs of sheet metal.

“It only stops only when controllers come and visit the plant”, adds another inhabitant. Above their heads, the electric transmission line from the power station cuts through the forest, close to the roofs of some houses. According to Victorien Mba, director of a local NGO called APED (Support for the Protection of the Environment and Development), noise pollution is a daily reality: “When the turbines start, you feel these enormous vibrations. When it gets hot, the pylons that carry electricity whistle terribly. It’s as if your eardrums are going to crack, with these noises”.

A few kilometres from the power plant Simon Mvoum, a leader in Mpolongowe village, has a more acute problem: access to drinking water. The project has provided water wells, to help the community, but the well set up at the entrance to his house doesn’t produce drinkable water. He says that most of the time the well doesn’t work properly and calls to the company to have it repaired have fallen on deaf ears. “In fact, this well doesn’t exist”, he says. “The water is salty, almost like sea water, so we don’t drink it. The only available well is on the road near the entrance to the power station. But sometimes the water pumps stop and we have to wait up to a week for any drinking water”.

The Kribi inhabitants who live near the plant are resigned. Victorien Mba spent a long time trying to understand how the project works. But he cannot find the documents he needs: “To start with, we do not know how the [project] promoter planned to mitigate these effects. So there are problems, such as access to drinking water and the pollution of running water. Only a few families, living at the centre of the project, have received compensation. The other families, living more than 100 metres away, have been abandoned and continue to suffer the full impact of the power plant”.

Mba’s quest for the truth was further complicated when it appeared that the project’s financial backers were themselves sometimes lost in statistics. When in 2012, the World Bank was talking of 60 displaced families, the EIB cited about 680 while the study commissioned by the project promoter said there were 94. It was in these confusing circumstances that some residents said they received “envelopes” with money – but not enough to buy property elsewhere. The result was that they stayed where they were. On top of this, a substantial part of the affected population was left totally in the dark: local tribes (BaKola, BaGyeli, Baka). The electric transmission line cuts through part of their territory. “They did not receive any compensation and they were not consulted either”, insists Mba. It was clear the situation was problematic. In 2014, the World Bank acknowledged as much when it called for the establishment of a better grievance mechanism system for the indigenous communities in Kribi.

Meanwhile, in Kribi itself, the inhabitants complain of persistent power shortages. The electricity they expected from the project is diverted elsewhere in Cameroon and continues to elude them. As a new project to enlarge the Kribi power station is under consideration, some lenders have issued a kind of mea culpa: the noise may sometimes exceed the internationally-accepted limits, admits the World Bank. Wärtsilä took this opportunity to suggest the sale of silencers for the engines and the plant is trying to repair some of the homes which were damaged by vibrations. But there is no evidence that these measures will have a long-term effect, says the World Bank’s IFC.

In this development project, the EIB has seemed strangely absent. This is perhaps because most of the environment and social impact assessment and monitoring was in the hands of the IFC, operating from its Dakar office. Yet, the EIB insists it has been and still is a very active party in the project. Although the EIB is not part of the financing for the extension of the plant, its staff say it keeps visiting and assessing the Kribi 1 plant. Last year, the EIB opened a regional office in Yaoundé and its portfolio in Cameroon has now reached half a billion Euros. Meanwhile, the original promoter of the Kribi plant, AES Sonel, has left the running of the operation. The Kribi plant is now owned by Globeleq Africa, an entity owned by the Norwegian government’s development fund (Norfund) and the UK government’s financial development institution (the CDC group). It remains to be seen whether this will change anything for the inhabitants of Kribi.

There are signs that Globeleq Africa is not totally ignoring their situation: in a written reply to the issues raised by the inhabitants, Hans Francis Simb Nag, General Manager of Kribi Power Development Corporation (KPDC), said it was only after the plant became operational “that the vibration/noise issue was raised by the affected community members”.

“This was a new phenomenon, which had never been experienced in similar plants elsewhere in the world”, he said. KPDC commissioned an independent consultancy study which suggested either adding extra silencers or rehabilitating houses, all of which had been badly built. KPDC has opted for the second solution. “The vibration reduction program is ongoing around the power plant to ensure all affected community members are satisfied”, said Nag.

He acknowledged a water access problem, recalling that “over time it seems some of the wells began to malfunction due to lack of service” but stressed that “Kribi has implemented a maintenance programme to ensure the pumps remain in good working order”. Although people on the ground don’t seem to agree, KPDC describes its grievance mechanism as “functional and effective”.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Kribi remain unaware that international development money is financing the project and that the government of Cameroon has just a 44% stake in it. For them, the government is running it.

“Since it is a state project, we have to accept it. Still, they should take our opinion into account”, stresses one local. “When the project started, we were happy. We did not know that this project would hurt us”.

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Photo credit: Aboubakar Mounchili

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