Along the earth road in Kobala, a village at the boundary of Homa Bay and Kisumu counties, dozens of dump trucks shuttle back and forth ferrying tons of sand from the remote beach.
Erick Nyasuna, a resident, emerges from his hut holding a hoe and a shovel ready for work at a nearby sand quarry.
Nyasuna is semi-educated and jobless. Sand harvesting, which he does alongside other jobless young men in the village, is his source of livelihood.
He had initially tried his hand in fishing in Lake Victoria, but a declining fish population forced him out of the trade. And now sand harvesting is proving a better gamble for the 29-year-old Nyasuna as he can earn up to Sh800 on a good day.
“We charge Sh1,700 for a six-wheel truck full of sand, but I pocket Sh800 because I have to give Sh900 to the quarry owner. This is better compared to fishing, where one toils throughout the night without the certainty of getting a catch. At times, one comes back empty handed,” explained Nyasuna, who dropped out of school in Form Two.
Nyasuna and his fellow miners shovel the ground to scoop sand, not minding about the adverse effects that the activity has on the environment.
At Kobala village, the impact of sand harvesting is as grievous as a double-edged sword. It has destroyed the environment and the topography of the region.
Over the last few years, hundreds of Kobala residents have had to build their houses deep down the soils in some derelict mines resembling dungeons.
In addition, soil erosion has become a widespread problem in the area and vegetation is decreasing by the day. This has resulted in climatic shocks, impacting negatively on food production. Surprisingly, villagers don’t see anything wrong with sand harvesting.
According to Kenya County Climate risk profile, over 82 per cent of the households in Homa Bay County lack enough food throughout the year.
William Amuom is one of the residents who have built their houses on abandoned sand quarrying sites. Amuom, a smallholder farmer, owns a small plot of unproductive land which he decided to turn into a quarry in the hope that he would be left with a loamy productive soil beneath after digging and selling the sandy part.
But the remnant soils are still sandy, and his maize crops are just as lackluster as those of his neighbours who refused to venture into sand harvesting.
THREATS TO PEOPLE AND ENVIRONMENT
Upon realising he had been stroking a disaster, Amuom began reclaiming the plot by planting trees and fruits to mitigate erosions.
“We don’t earn much selling the sand. Plot owners earn only Sh900 for a truck of sand yet the aftermath is so dire,” says Amuom, who has started rallying his village mates to plant trees.
In the digging, nothing has been spared. Sand harvesters go deep into the earth’s core leaving behind series of gaping holes and destabilising roads. In other instances, electricity poles are left leaning dangerously due to the loose earth on which they stand.
Some murram roads snaking through the village –particularly the one connecting Chouwe Beach and Kobala Centre – have been abandoned by motorists who fear they might cave in.
The other ugly side of sand harvesting is that the miners sometimes exhume dead bodies.
Sophia Aoko, a resident, said such outcomes torment villagers as it is considered an offence to the dead.
“We nowadays dig shallow graves instead of the usual six-feet depth because most homes are built on sand mines and the water table is just below them. If you dig deep graves, you see water coming out,” she pointed out.
In homes where graves are visible, sand harvesters only dig the sand around it, leaving the graveyard hanging.
A few months ago, an erosion exposed a skeleton at a graveyard in a site where miners had been scooping sand. One miner said the incident scared villagers, and no one was willing to bury the skeleton.
Similar circumstances also occur when harvesting sand in areas where the miners have no idea a graveyard exists.
Despite the perils, over 50 trucks make routine trips into the village for sand before chugging back their way at full speed to faraway construction sites to deliver their cargo.
The cargo, a building material that has high demand, is used to build houses in fast growing towns such as Kisii, where constructors are in a hurry to meet a soaring housing demand.
A truck driver told DN2 that they sell the commodity for Sh20,000 in Kisii.
Notably, sand mining poses adverse threats to people and the environment. They vary from cosmetic to catastrophic depending on the scale of mining. But while riverbed sand mining is the most common across the country, mining on land is quickly emerging and its consequences are even worse, according to experts.
Excavation on land means that acres of vegetation must be destroyed, resulting in desertification and destruction of water resources.
The Kenya Forestry Service (KFS) forest cover report of 2015 estimates that Homa Bay County has only 2.59 per cent tree cover which is almost 4 per cent shy of the national average of 7.14 per cent.
“In fishing, it’s true that one can get so much or even nothing, but it is sustainable compared to sand harvesting. What will these harvesters do when the sand is depleted? They’ll come back to fishing,” said Elijah Onyango, a resident who refused to give up his plot for sand harvesting.
Gerphas Opondo, an environmental expert and Environmental Compliance Institute executive director, reckoned that sand excavation on farms translates into land degradation and soil erosions which compromise water quality when swept into water sources.
According to Opondo, degradation of top soil further exposes the residents to food insecurity because farms are turned into mines.
He proposes that the villagers should consult their local agricultural experts to advise them on crop varieties which are adaptable to their sandy soil.
“The top soil is what supports agriculture even if it is sandy. The soil that remains after removing the top soil might not contain sand but it cannot support crop growth effectively,” explains Opondo
The environmentalist says there are no enforceable laws that government agencies such as the National Environment Management Authority can use towards enforcing sustainable sand harvesting in areas like Kobala.
He, however, emphasised that environmental impact assessment and social impact assessment needs to be done before any kind of mining is carried out.
“The problem is that there are many small-scale miners, which becomes hard to control to allow progressive mining, “he says.
Willis Okeyo, the chairman of Aluora Makare Community-based organisation which promotes healthy environment and conservation in the area, says the activity does not profit land owners or the rural environment. He also accuses those buying the sand of exploitation, saying the quarrying does not promote an inch of the area’s economy.
“The harvesting is done without any environmental guidelines. There are no weighbridges and furthermore, land owners earn very little from the activity.
DEPLETES WATER RESOURCES
“Sadly, the county government is collecting cess from the trucks without controlling the quarrying,” he said.
Homa Bay Water, Environment and Natural Resources Executive Dickson Nyawinda told DN2 they are aware of the situation and are working on modalities of putting the activity under control.
The modalities will include restricting mining to certain areas while reclaiming areas which have been ruined by quarrying, he said.
“The excavation has been happening for almost 20 years and the activity has brought severe damage to the environment. There is even water shortage in some of areas due to destruction of water pipes during the excavations,” noted Mr Nyawinda.
“We are working with some local non-governmental organisations to put up fish ponds and cage fishing so as to provide alternative employment opportunities to residents. Other measures will include massive planting of trees and bananas,” he added.
Due to the high housing demand in neighbouring towns such as Kendu Bay, Oyugis and Kisii, which fuels the voracious demand for sand, villages in Homa Bay could be staring at a disaster.
“And as counties open up for development, the demand for sand will definitely grow, leading to severe degradation, yet it is difficult to completely ban sand harvesting,” said Mr Opondo.
He added that the county government would conduct strategic environment assessment to find out for how long sand in a particular area had been harvested, then rehabilitates the area by bringing soil from another place to back fill the gullies before opening a new quarrying site.
Samwel Jakinda, project coordinator at Neighbours Institute Alliance –an environmental NGO –warns that uncontrolled sand harvesting depletes water resources especially along the river beds, and the impact is even severe if it is done on farms.
“The outcome is very low water tables and creation of deserts. County governments need to put in place sustainable policy to manage
The menace that has refused to go away
Sand mining which remains a widespread activity in the country has led to massive environmental degradations and loss of lives.
Like any big-money black market, illegal sand trade is inciting violence. In January this year, a police officer was hacked to death at Mangala in Makueni County, in the latest incident related to the harvesting and sale of sand.
The authorities said that the attack was related to the officer’s firm stand against sand harvesting in the area.
The Ministry of Mining banned commercial harvesting of sand in Makueni, Isiolo, Kitui, Nairobi and Kajiado in December 2017, and deployed inspectors to audit quarries and sand harvesting sites in the areas.
“In order to curb the menace the ministry has, with immediate effect, deployed inspectors of mines to all affected counties to jointly work with the National Environment Management Authority, occupational and safety officials and county officers to carry out an audit of all quarry and sand harvesting sites,” stated the statement from the ministry.
The statement said all operators of quarries and sand harvesting sites must seek clearance before resuming mining, thereby enabling the government to advise them on the next course of action.
Makueni and Kitui counties signed an agreement in January this year with an aim to conserve sand in the two regions.
The two counties have been experiencing illegal harvesting of sand, which affects water conservation in the water-starved regions. A lot of illegal sand harvesting is still going on in the areas due to laxity in enforcing the ban.
Other than the six counties, illegal sand mining is currently being carried out in parts of Homa Bay County and the situation is increasingly becoming alarming.
Experts say that derelicts can be reclaimed through planting trees and back filling using top soils extracted from road constructions or other construction sites.
The legal sand extraction industry is worth $70 billion (Sh7 trillion), roughly equivalent to Kenya’s GDP.
The 2014 UN report “Sand, rarer than one thinks” estimated that in 2012, the world used up to 29.6 billion tonnes of sand, or, “enough concrete to build a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide around the equator.”
“The current situation will continue unless sand extraction is correctly priced and taxed so that other options become economically viable,” the report warned.