Homa Bay's sand harvesting nightmare

Only the dead are allowed to live six feet below the earth. But in Kobala village, Homa Bay County, some dead people live six feet above where the living should reside.

Homes have been turned into big holes with houses constructed deep down the soil. All these, thanks to sand harvesting that has left the environment degraded.

Also gravely affected is the road that leads to Chuowe beach which has become almost impassable. The sand harvesters have ensured the road stands tall, albeit weak, above the dug area.

Two vehicles cannot pass at the same time within the one-kilometre stretch from the Kisumu-Homa Bay road that leads to Chuowe beach. One has to wait for the other to cross, and with all care, the other vehicle driver has to be smart not to fall into the ditch that has been formed due to the sand harvesting.

Despite the obvious degradation to their environment, residents do not seem to see anything wrong with what they are doing. It is also amazing, that they keep messing up their land for a venture that does even improve their economic situation.

Poverty levels remain high as they are only paid Sh1,000 for collecting the sand, while loaders receive Sh800, yet a truck load of sand is sold to construction sites at Sh15,000.

The rate of illiteracy in the area is also high. Given the high poverty level in the area, all they think about is how they will make the next coin from the peanuts they earn from harvesting sand.

In the digging, nothing has been spared. Harvesters go deep into the earth’s core leaving behind a series of gaping holes that make electricity poles weak.

A visit to the area reveals an already existing danger of electricity poles that have collapsed, and wires carrying high voltage power lying on the ground.

It is no longer a disaster in waiting, but one that is already here, if the case of Hildah Acheing, 19, is anything to go by.

A year ago, Achieng’ was a girl with all her limbs, anxious to sit for her KCSE. But in March last year, she lost her left hand after being electrocuted.

The March 24, 2016 incident remains engraved in Achieng’s mind. On the fateful day, she had finished her chemistry practicals and was not feeling well. She went home and her aunt Molleen Omulo took her to Rakwaro Health Centre which is several kilometers away.

“When we went to the facility, we stayed until 8pm but Achieng did not receive any treatment. We decided to come back home and as we made our way back, it started raining,” Omulo said.

They were on a motor bike enduring the heavy rain accompanied by strong winds. In a span of a second, they were sandwiched between two wires and as they tried to free themselves, the electricity pole fell on them.

“I only remember being thrown into a ditch. I was confused for some time and when I regained my senses, I started looking for my niece. I could not see her.  Then I spotted her, lying lifeless while holding one of the electricity wires in her left hand. I shouted and people came forward to assist,” she says.

Achieng says she recalls waking up at Pap Onditi Hospital with burns behind her head, on her side, legs and with her left hand feeling completely stiff and looking unnaturally black.

“I was then transferred to Jaramogi Teaching and Referral Hospital where doctors determined my hand could not be saved and it was amputated,” Achieng’ says.

Even animals have not been spared. Jecinta Akinyi, a resident, says three cows recently died from electrocution all thanks to the falling poles.

Despite the effects being caused by this activity, very little seems to have been done in the war against sand harvesting with only two arrests having being made in all the years the illicit activity has been going on.

According to National Environmental Management Authority Homa Bay County Director In charge of Environment John Maniafu, sand harvesting is a problem in the entire Homa Bay County.

“There is an ongoing sand harvesting case in Magunga. In the other case, the evidence was offloaded after the truck carrying sand hit a motorcycle rider. The crowd wanted to burn the truck, hence the sand was offloaded and the truck taken to a police station,” Maniafu says.

He adds: “In Rangwe sub-county, the practice is common along river areas. The problem is much bigger in Mbita Island, Sindo and Nyawara beach. At Rusinga Island, it is most common at Kaswanga beach”.

In Kendu Bay, sand harvesting is mainly done in Kobala and Rakwaro, all the way to Mawego and Oyugis. Sand from Rakwaro is most often taken to Kisii while the one from other areas gets sold locally.

“We need the good will of local leaders to win this fight. Lorry owners also pay taxes to county officials yet what they are doing is illegal. We need support from the county since this practice will degrade the environment irredeemably,” he says.

Maniafu says for sand harvesting activities to stop, the environment stakeholders will have to provide an alternative sustainable source of livelihood to residents.