Makueni's epic journey to sand conservation, and its returns

Patrick Verkooijen at Ngai Ndethya sand dam in Kibwezi East. [Stephen Nzioka, Standard]

Franklin Mueke moved briskly from truck to truck, chatting with the drivers.

They had parked nearly eighty trucks on River Muooni’s sandy riverbank. As one of the few local sand brokers, Mueke was the bridge between sand loaders and truck drivers. Part of his work was to ensure each truck had sufficient loaders.

On this particular, day in early 2015, he noted with satisfaction that the sand loading was progressing speedily. Later that evening, when the trucks roared off with sand, they left behind hundreds of thousands of shillings. Frank had made nearly Sh40,000, which was more than an average Kenyan’s monthly salary. This was a particularly profitable day because he usually made an average Sh6,000 daily.

The loaders had also made a tidy sum – Sh2,000 in a single day. However, those who made the most were the sand dealers; because they sold the sand as far as Nairobi. Their profit margins were spectacular.

It is because of lucrative profits that the sand business in Makueni County ran amok. By the time Kenya’s first devolved government elections were held in 2013, hundreds of lorries roared into dozens of sand harvesting sites across the county every day. Many of these lorries were owned by influential, politically connected people. But even as these people made money, they left severely degraded river banks and troubled communities in their trail.

The vast majority of Makueni’s communities that lived closer to the rivers had lost patience with the sand business. Among them were communities from Kasikeu location in Mukaa sub-County. They had experienced numerous negative consequences of rampant sand harvesting.

“Illegal sand harvesting grew so rampant that students dropped out of school. Marriages broke. That’s when we sat with elders to deliberate on our response,” says Daniel Wambua, a local sand conservation leader from Kasikeu. He had previously been a sand dealer.

School dropouts ran straight into the lucrative sandy riverbeds, then into social vices like drug abuse, leading to addiction. Meanwhile, cases of teenage pregnancy increased.

It was at this juncture that several local men led an uprising. They included Bernard Mutuku, a stocky contemplative man with an intense gaze.

“I was motivated to lead the movement of defending our sand because of the way the robbers were dehumanising us. Everyone was afraid of losing their lives. Our children were suffering yet we were still alive. So we decided to take action,” he says.  

This action gained a renewed sense of urgency in February 2011, when a local police officer known as Geoffrey Kasyoki was murdered in cold blood. He had been an ardent defender of sand. His death inspired the sand and water defenders to double down. Unfortunately, their community was now split into two.

In December 2012, these two factions clashed violently at Mikuyu river, resulting in the death of Kimeu Kitone, a father of six. He was shot with a poisoned arrow. It was later reported in The Standard that when the deceased’s father, Kitone Mulwa, went to report the murder, he was turned away at the police station.

Makueni Governor Prof Kivutha Kibwana. [Stephen Nzioka, Standard]

One year later, Prof Kivutha Kibwana was elected Makueni County’s first governor. When he took over, sand was a key part of his mission. He was keen to ensure Makueni’s sand would empower locals in a sustainable, not exploitative manner.

Prof Kibwana started interacting with sand from an early age. “Growing up in Makueni District, as it was then known, has exposed me to the ill effects of sand harvesting,” he says.

In 2014, Prof Kibwana assembled a taskforce to explore sand intrigues and unearth ways of conserving the resource, besides utilising it sustainably. After holding multiple consultations with communities across the county, the taskforce recommended enactment of a Sand Act.

The governor embraced their recommendation. Consequently, sand dominated intense legislative debates in Wote, the headquarters of Makueni County. This debate culminated in the enactment of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilisation Act, 2015. Through this Act, the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilisation Authority was formed to captain the fight against illegal sand harvesting.

Two years later, in June 2017, this fight got its first hands-on captain when 34-year-old Halinishi Yusuf was appointed the Sand Authority’s first substantive Managing Director. Just like the governor, she had been born in Makueni’s rural enclaves and was thus acquainted with the ubiquitous water scoop holes in the seasonal riverbeds. As such, this was not just a job for her; but a mission. Backed by an equally passionate board and staff, she dived into her job with all guns blazing.

Also firmly in the sand conservation were legislators of Makueni County Assembly, led by Joseph Muema, Mukaa Ward MCA and chairman of the County Assembly Committee on Environment and Climate Change.

Despite this strong support, Ms Yusuf recalls her first weeks in office in 2017 as fraught with danger and difficulty. “In the beginning, when the county government legislated on sand, there was a lot of cheers and jeers from different stakeholders. We had cartels that were deeply rooted in this sector that were controlling the business. The high, mighty, and powerful officers in government offices, the business community that own the trucks.”

These cartels were not about to watch their lucrative businesses go up in smoke without a fight. Prof Kibwana says the cartels did not hesitate to exercise their powers. “The cartels were also very, very powerful. They really resisted us. They even burnt cars that were used in the attempts to enforce the laws. Some of our workers preferred to be transferred to other departments. Others resigned. I remember some of them being so traumatised because they were being pursued after their vehicle had been burnt. They were afraid to die.”

Section of Ngai Ndethya River in Kibwezi, Makueni County, raided by sand cartels in 2016. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Since the cartel financiers remained incognito, their only public faces were the throngs of marauding youth who descended on seasonal riverbeds for several years until 2017. When she took charge of the Sand Authority, Ms Yusuf’s in-tray had two major tasks that had to be executed simultaneously – to conserve sand and to crush the illegal sand harvesting cartels.

It was also evident that apart from the faceless cartel leaders, hundreds of community members were also firmly entrenched in the illegal sand harvesting value chain. Ms Yusuf says: “The youth who were employed as loaders, the traders who were involved in small-scale trade, food vendors... All these people were against regulated sand harvesting because it meant a reduction in the traffic that was also feeding them through the value chain. And so they became antagonists.”

Ms Yusuf had a secret weapon that she believed would help the county government win majority of community members to its side.

Prof Kibwana embraced this powerful secret weapon: “The Managing Director Halinishi came and told us we needed to reverse course and to really involve the community in terms of the protection of this resource. Instead of us using dogs or enforcement people, when the entire community knows the value of this sand resource and that it is very critical for their water consumption and agriculture...and when that idea was seized by the community, the breakthrough came.”

The Sand Authority deployed this soft power through dozens of sensitisation forums. Ms Yusuf and her team relied on persuasion, not coercion. As a result, hundreds of community members decamped from illegal sand harvesting to sand conservation. This gave the authority some breathing space to kick-start one of the most powerful sand conservation tools - construction of sand dams. They teamed up with Africa Sand Dam Foundation. They built 22 sand dams.

A sand dam is a reinforced concrete wall built across a seasonal riverbed. During rainy seasons, heavy sand is deposited behind the dam. It takes between one to four rainy seasons for the dam to be filled with sand. The sand then acts as a natural sponge that absorbs and stores fresh water. The same sand protects this water from evaporation, contamination and disease transmitters such as mosquitoes. These sand dams promote subsoil rainwater storage to support dry land agroecosystems.

In essence, sand dams conserve sand, which in turn stores water that can either be scooped by humans or tapped into by vegetation.  One of those constructed was Kaiti sand dam in Wote. Jackson Muthaisu, the Sand Authority’s former Director of Conservation and Utilisation, credits Kaiti Sand Dam for drastically improving water supply to Wote residents. “Before this sand dam was built, the area was rocky. Now there is a lot of sand and a lot of water for Wote town. We see Kaiti River as the lifeline of Wote town.”

The water beneath Kaiti Dam’s sand is stored in a large underground tank known as sump. The water is then pumped from the sump into a treatment plant and then supplied to Wote residents.

A boy fills his jerrican with water at Ngai Ndethya village in Kibwezi East, Makueni County. [Stephen Nzioka, Standard]

Becorace Wambua, the Wote Water and Sewarage Company Managing Director, says: “During wet seasons, the water that percolates in the sand is more than you can pump out. On average, within four hours, you can get 800 cubic meters of water.”

This is the water the residents of Kasikeu were protecting from illegal sand harvesters. While most parts of the county do not have sumps, residents are able to access water either through manual pumps or basic scoop holes. That same water that lurks beneath the sand also nourishes riparian vegetation. This critical role of sand dams in greening and nourishing vegetation was proved by a time series of satellite images from the US Landsat programme. This time series revealed that even during extended periods of drought, vegetation thrives at sand dam sites.

Rev Daniel Muia from Musaani can attest to the evidence provided by these satellite images. “My farm is not even near a river. It is higher up the hill. But when there is sand in the river, the soil moisture spreads. Now we have vegetables and are sustaining ourselves,” he says.

He says that when nature is left undisturbed, it enriches human lives and livelihoods greatly.

About 40km from the cleric’s restored farm is another belonging to Mueke, the former sand broker who once made a staggering Sh40,000 in a single day at Muooni River. Mueke has witnessed the power of sand first-hand. Previously, he made money by brockering the selling of sand. Today he makes money because sand has accumulated in the riverbed. “I’ve never seen as much sand as there currently is on this river bed. Even 10 years ago, before we started ferrying truckloads from here, there wasn’t as much sand,” he says.

Today Muooni’s riverbed now has so much water that it can power irrigation for Mueke’s farm on the riparian land. Consequently, he is now earning his livelihood from farming. “In December 2020, I had planted two acres of tomatoes. History repeated itself. Because the same lorries that had been ferrying sand from here were now coming to ferry my tomatoes.”

If ever there was poetic justice the people and County Government of Makueni together with the river ecosystems, this was it. A restored river ecosystem is great not just for the environment, but for people’s wellbeing and livelihoods.