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

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."

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.