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Sand harvesters make a living in River Migori infested with crocodiles

 Caroline Anyango and Esther Atieno harvest sand in River Migori, which they say has helped them earn a leaving. [Caleb Kingwara, standard]

Four women stand on the bank of River Migori in Suna East, buckets in hand, as they survey the visible stretch of water for any signs of a crocodile.

For the four women, and many other locals in that area, the river that flows past Migori town on its way to Lake Victoria, is a necessary and bittersweet dice with death.

On one hand, it is the sole source of their daily bread as they sell sand harvested from the riverbed, but on the other, crocodiles that have infested the river are a danger in waiting.

A few minutes later, the women begin what has become a daily ritual before getting into the river. They shout as they hit their buckets, then jump in to scoop sand.

According to them, the noise is a distraction, their only way to scare away crocodiles that may be hiding in the brown waters, where the prized commodity - huge sand deposits - lie.

One of the women remains outside the water to look around for any signs of the reptiles, what they refer to as floating logs, as the rest scoop out sand. Once inside the water, the women use their legs to distinguish between fresh sand and mud deposits.

They quickly scoop the sand and get out in the shortest time possible. The sand is then gathered in a pile until it is enough to be collected in a three-tonne lorry.

This is the life of many families around River Migori. Locals here claim the effects of climate change have made agriculture unsustainable. They say persistent crop failure has pushed them to sand harvesting in the dangerous river.

Caroline Anyango, a mother of five, has been harvesting sand since 1999. The widow says she was pushed to the sand business after farming, which she had relied on for years, declined due to erratic weather patterns.

“I started sand harvesting in the river more than 10 years ago. It is very dangerous because of the fear of crocodile attacks,” she says, adding that in one day, she makes about Sh300 after the owner of the land where the collection site lies sells the sand to dealers in lorries. 

The women admit the practice is also destructive to the environment as it escalates erosion on the river banks and the riverbed. The effects of sand harvesting are evident in the colour of the water, which is dark brown.

For Maurine Apiyo, a mother of two, the dangers of the trade are glaring. A deep wound she says she sustained after stepping on a crocodile is still fresh. The scute, an armoured skin of a crocodile, left a deep wound on her left leg.

“My worst experience was when I stepped on a crocodile two years ago. The crocodile slapped me with its tail but I pulled myself out of the river before it could bite me,” she says.

In the same village, a man who was bitten on the arm by the reptile survived and has vowed never to engage in sand harvesting again. 

Michael Owiro says he had gone to the river alone and was in the process of harvesting sand when a crocodile grabbed him by the arm. He was saved by a group of people who had gone there to buy sand.

“Most people resort to sand harvesting because crops are failing. Those who have been cultivating sugarcane also do not get paid in time, and it is the reason most people have resorted to sand mining,” he said.

As demand for sand is set to grow, experts advise that there is need for authorities and residents to come up with alternatives to avoid a looming crisis posed by extreme harvesting.

Tom Togo, a National Environmental Management Authority director, says sand harvesting along the rivers has adverse effects on biodiversity and affects the breeding grounds of some aquatic creatures. “There are national guidelines, but some people are not following them. It is also a challenge to monitor some of them because they move from place to place.”

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