- Each day, tens of lorries drive to the river banks near Lake Victoria within Wang’chieng ward, and leave packed with sand.
- For miners, the presence of sand is a God-sent opportunity to mint money from truck owners whom construction engineers contract to deliver sand for construction.
- Sand mining has seen a number of school-going children skip school despite the government policy of education for all.
Cities are, to a large extent, built on sand. As global urbanization continues to take shape, the demand for sand and glass increases.
Recently, Senators approved Eldoret’s bid for city status, becoming the fifth after Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, and Nakuru.
The elevation of this town to a city opens the door wide for the construction industry, hence informing the need for sand, bricks and concrete, among other construction materials.
I visited Wang’chieng ward in Rachuonyo North Sub-county, Homa Bay County, to find answers to an activity that has existed for decades without any legislation.
The activity, embraced by most locals, including women and children, has exposed the village to storm surges, salination of aquifers and untold impacts on biodiversity.
Each day, tens of lorries drive to the river banks near Lake Victoria within Wang’chieng ward, and leave packed with sand.
Despite the searing sun experienced in this region, sand miners are not deterred as heaps of sand lay in wait for trucks to be loaded.
The trucks never disappoint, as they make a kill in the lucrative sand business venture.
Benefitting neighboring counties
This mining enterprise supports the construction of houses in the neighboring counties of Kisii and Nyamira.
However, as the neighboring counties smile, the 24-hour activity leaves protruding and ugly rocks behind and bare rivers in the affected areas.
For miners, the presence of sand is a God-sent opportunity to mint money from truck owners whom construction engineers contract to deliver sand for construction.
There is no denying that the constant sand mining could spell doom and untold climatic disaster to the residents of Wang’chieng ward, whose only concern is putting food on the table and not considering climate change threats.
This region continues to bear the brunt of constant sand mining, even as youths drop out of school to try their luck in accessing ‘quick’ money for their personal endeavors.
Without a license to regulate the booming business, the youths in this region have a field day, joining this industry in their numbers.
Local leaders believe the sand mining business won’t end soon since it is preferably the major source of income for the unemployed youths despite exposing them to death traps and displacements.
Even as landowners release hundreds of tons to the truck owners for meager pay, they believe such a move is better than sleeping hungry.
“Sand is all I cling on to survive. In a day, I can earn KSh 1200 to push through life.
Sometimes, we mine sand to the detriment of our grazing areas, leading to our animals lacking water. We are not doing this for fun – we are doing it because we have to feed our children and take them to school,” said a local resident who sought anonymity.
The uncontrolled sand mining has pushed environmental degradation to unimaginable levels.
For school-going children, women, and the elderly, it is advisable to walk through the sites either during the day or follow the foot track on the ground; otherwise, it could be a journey to death.
In 2018, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that sand mining, especially along Lake Victoria and major rivers, such as River Sondu Miriu, is increasing the risk of climate-related disasters because there is not enough sediment to protect against flooding.
“Keeping sand in the rivers is the best adaptation to climate change. If a river delta receives enough sediment, it builds itself above sea level in a natural reaction,” the WWF’s Marc Goichot said.
Fredrick Gaya, the Director of Youth Empowerment Bridge Organization (YEBO), believes there is an unavoidable need to regulate the sand mining industry.
He says the activity has swept away sections of the river banks, threatening the lives of over 100,000 locals.
Once the sand miners have exhausted a particular site, they rush to a nearby forest and begin their exploitation.
This trend exposes the area to serious deforestation and environmental degradation.
“It is not only the land that suffers degradation at the sand mining sites in Wang’chieng; the nearby forests, too, are not safe.
Every moment the miners realize their exploits are exhausted, they resort to clearing the nearby forest,” says Basil Okoth, an environmental scientist working for Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI).
According to Basil, Apuko site was a forest before.
However, the miners have kept clearing and cutting the trees to extract the sand.
This, according to him, has led to deforestation, pushing the region to the highest level of environmental intolerance.
The youth, who are the major players in this business, would hear none of this. As long as the activity guarantees food on the table, they have no business with the environment.
Most residents I interviewed claimed that their immediate needs supersede communal needs.
“Sand mining employs a number of our youths, and the construction of buildings is not ending now. However, there should be regulations on the recommended distance the activity should operate from concerning homes.
This activity leads to the drying up of aquifers, river bed erosion, water pollution, and loss of valuable animal species,” Gaya adds.
Sand mining has seen a number of school-going children skip school despite the government policy of education for all.
Despite being on a weekday, many teenagers flock to these mining sites to cushion their families against hunger and starvation.
“My brother brought me here about two years ago. I was thirteen years old then, and he was 15.
He convinced me to accompany him to work to get enough money to feed our siblings and ailing mother.
I also intended to save for my school fees. But I have never saved a shilling, two years later,” says Michael, now 15 years old.
Michael decries the negative energy and pain associated with the sand mining business.
He confirms the job is not a walk in the park, and if he had the option, he would abandon the business and join school.
His brother, a visibly life-battered laborer, has no kind words for the government of Kenya.
“I cannot lie. This business is wasting me, but I need food for my ailing mother and siblings. Where else will I get refuge? The government is not employing anymore, and the available job opportunities are given to cronies.
My elder sister is a graduate of Egerton University. Five years later, she is yet to get employed. This is discouraging and tormenting,” says Michael’s brother, who sought anonymity.
More to be done
As pressure on the county government to regulate sand mining is increasing, more needs to be done to find alternatives for use in construction and to solve the region’s continuing housing crisis.
In Singapore, for instance, recycled glass waste is being used instead of sand in 3D-printed concrete.
Illegal and artisanal sand harvesting can harm human and livestock health.
A research study by the Organization for Sustainable and Environmental Programme (OSEP-KE) found that artisanal sand harvesting is a key ecosystem destroyer.
It established that the activity can potentially cause terminal diseases such as respiratory failure and cancer.
The constitution of Kenya provides for the right to a clean and healthy environment, which is further emphasized in the Environment Management Act 1999.
The EMCA provides for the issuance of EIA licenses for proposed sand harvesting and mandate on proponents to submit annual audits of the same.
Despite regulations providing procedures streamlining sand mining, NEMA has remained reluctant to enforce legislation.
It is charged with the responsibility of ensuring sustainable utilization of the sand resource and proper management of the environment.
As a regulating body, it is expected to reduce environmental damage and facilitate economic development through the resource.
The massive destruction to the environment witnessed in this area comes at a time when the UNEP report outlines 10 recommendations for averting a sand crisis, which would largely balance the demands of the construction industry and the protection of the environment.
To make sand resource management just, sustainable, and responsible, UNEP says sand must be formalized as a “strategic resource at all levels of government and society”.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Alarm as wetlands in Nyamira dwindle
Ecosystems degraded by sand harvesting activities must be restored.