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People and nature gang up against River Voi

By | March 5th 2012


Voi River, the only source of water for Voi town and its environs, is on its deathbed. It is also the source of life to livestock and wildlife at Tsavo East National Park.

The river has been assailed by numerous factors, among them the uncontrolled sand harvesting, cultivation by the riverbanks, block making and stone harvesting.

The danger is real, but no one seems bothered enough to take action to protect the river. Environment officers in the area have ignored the river’s eminent demise. But so have the residents who continue with economic activities along the river with impunity.

There have been some feeble warnings from those concerned with environmental matters. But these are largely ignored. A case in point is a recent ban on sand harvesting by the Voi environmental committee, as harvesting continues with abandon.

As if nature has conspired with humans to dry up the river, the notorious ‘mathenge’ weed, prosopis juliflora, which is locally known as mrashia, has also invaded the river.

The weed has colonised vast sections of the river and is partly responsible for the drastic fall in water levels.

Despite the signs of damage to the river being clear, sand harvesters are not ready to save it.

"Sand harvesting is our only source of livelihood. We have no other means of earning a living," says Mwakio Cholla, a sand harvester.

He adds that the Government cannot ban sand harvesting because the construction industry needs the commodity.

Instead, he wants the cartels controlling the exploitation and sale of the commodity smashed and local youths empowered to control the sale of the sand.

"There are rich sand buyers from Mombasa who exploit us by buying sand at very low prices and selling it at exorbitant prices," Mwakio says.

Talking to The Standard, Hannah Kijala, the chairperson of Sere Kwa Wose Women Group in Tanzania Village in Voi, which deals sand harvesting business, said it was time the business was reviewed for the sake of the river’s survival.

Only source of income

"The locals need to be empowered to sustainably exploit sand as a resource and at the same time conserve the environment," says Kijala.

To succeed in doing this, Kijala points out, the price of sand should be raised to enable the genuine sand harvesters benefit from their labour.

"When sand harvesters are paid very little for the commodity they will be forced to get more of it and in the process lead to massive environmental degradation," she says.

She is against the blanket ban on sand harvesting saying they have families to raise and this business is their only source of livelihood.

Voi District Officer One George Matundura says the state of degradation of the river has reached alarming levels and its restoration and rehabilitation has to be undertaken as a matter of urgency.

"The ban on sand harvesting should not be seen as punitive but a means of ensuring that there is regeneration of the water source. On most sections of the river all sand has been depleted and the water is running on basement rock. If we continue doing this, there will be a time when there will be no more sand left to exploit."

He adds: "That’s the main reason a temporary ban is necessary to ensure that enough sand accumulates before the sand harvesting can resume."

Coincidentally, this is among the main issues that form a raft of sand harvesting regulations recently adopted by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) which could go a long way in ensuring the sustainable exploitation of sand as a vital resource and a key construction material.

Vital river

For many years, sand harvesters have been exploited for middlemen. This leads to harvesting of more sand for that extra money. But it is important for everyone to understand that the river is vital.

Environmentalists should have raised the alarm earlier. Without the river’s sustainability, there is no sand harvesting business.

But they watched in silence as the river was degraded. Rocks on the river’s bed were uprooted and taken to construction sites, so were building blocks in addition to the sand. The river was exploited mercilessly — and continues to suffer degradation.

"It’s time the government came out to help in restoring the Voi River instead of merely banning sand harvesting and other human activities. The locals cannot do without this vital water source," says Paul Kombo, a Voi farmer and environmentalist.

Stopping erosion

Kombo was honoured as an ‘environmental hero’ for his efforts at propagating the highly valued and rare vetiver grass which is used for river bank stabilisation, during celebrations to mark last year’s Mashujaa Day in Voi.

Kombo, who is chairman of the Mseto Environmetal Group, says his organisation plans to address the rapid erosion at the Voi river by planting the rare vetiver grass along the river banks.

This grass is known worldwide for its role in stemming soil erosion and is aptly described as a natural gabion against soil erosion.

"The vetiver grass will play a vital role in restoring the eroded sections of Voi River banks," says Kombo, "but for this to succeed, goodwill from other stakeholders as well as local leaders is necessary."

On the other hand, plans which were mooted by the Water Resources Management Authority about four years ago that were to see to the rehabilitation of Voi river at a tune of Sh500 million seem to have come a cropper.

For, if nothing is done urgently, and radically, Voi River might only be found in history books sooner than later.

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