Inside efforts to restore damaged sandy riverbeds of Ukambani

Kitui has introduced a new sand law to curb unregulated sand harvesting. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

Although harvesting, transportation and sale of sand is a lucrative enterprise, it has over the years been dogged by controversies and bloody battles that sometimes lead to loss of lives and destruction of property.

Despite being a multi-million shillings venture, loaders of sand, who are unemployed youths and the community around the rivers where sand is harvested are impoverished.

Most of them live in abject poverty even as middlemen and cartels rake in millions by selling the commodity in big towns.

Ukambani region, with an intertwining network of seasonal rivers has for long been a playground for organised sand gangs akin to dealers of narcotics.

Middlemen and truck owners have their gangs stationed at specific points near the rivers, armed with shovels ready for duty and crude weapons to protect their turf.

The men negotiate a price, of between Sh4,000 and Sh6,000 per truck, before descending on the rivers with gushing, dusty fury to load the sand.

The loaders who are each paid a measly Sh300 per truck, pound the rivers like a swarm of hungry beetles working on a cow dung mountain.

The end result is ugly riverbeds, with bedrocks sticking out as the harvesters scoop every grain of sand without care.

For years, Makueni and Kitui Counties where rivers form rich sand banks have witnessed unparalleled environmental degradation, leaving local leaders cracking their heads on how best to handle the menace.

In 2015, Makueni County enacted Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilisation Act to regulate sand harvesting and utilisation. It also sought to protect the environment and earn revenue for the county.

The law however did not instantly deter the sand cartels and middlemen whose eyes were set on big money through the supply of sand to Nairobi and other busy construction towns.

Makueni’s chief officer for environment, natural resources, mining and climate change Dr Geoffrey Muthoka says that the implementation of the sand legislation over the years has succeeded in restoring the once degraded rivers and conserving the surrounding environment while boosting water security.

Muthoka noted that once the residents were sensitised on the importance of protection of rivers and the environment, they owned the idea thus making it easy to implement the law.

“Our once degraded rivers have come back to life due to relentless efforts on sand conservation, that has addressed the water insecurity in a big way,” said the chief officer.

He added that in some parts of Makueni, rivers are bursting with huge volumes of sand which serves to conserve underground water.

The officer revealed that the law also established sand harvesting sites which are managed by ward sand committees. The committees have the responsibility of ensuring that sand is mined up to a certain depth before closing the sites, explains Muthoka.

He said the county is currently working on a policy on how best to sustainably utilise the huge volumes of sand to ensure maximum revenue generation for the county government.

Members of Tiva Sand Harvesting Group piling heaps of sand at River Tiva. The community charges Sh6000 for every truck, money which goes towards the community's projects.  [Philip Muasya, Standard]

As the county government sought to enforce the law, the sand dealers hit back with fury.

Between 2015 and 2018, the stretch between Mtito Andei and Sultan Hamud along Mombasa road was littered with shells of trucks set ablaze as the cartels and the authority clashed.

A good number of youthful men, either involved in sand harvesting or those opposed to it, were brutally killed after sand militias clashed in the rivers, some either taken down by arrows, set on fire or hacked with machetes.

The climax of this scourge was the brutal killing of a police officer identified as Geoffrey Kasyoki in February 2017, himself a resident of Mukaa in Makueni who had taken it upon himself to fight uncontrolled sand harvesting and destruction of rivers.

With his recruited young men championing for river and environmental protection, the police officer arrested illegal sand miners working on the riverbeds.

In public meetings, Kasyoki, 38, spoke boldly against the activity and openly admonished sand cartels and their militia gangs.

He was particularly opposed to sand scooping at River Mangala which had become a playground for greedy sand traders. That was his death sentence.

One early morning, a gang of youthful men armed with bows and arrows accosted the police officer at Mangala trading centre and shot him.

By the time he fell down and breathed his last, Kasyoki had more than five arrows sticking on his neck and back. The killer gang then crushed his head with a stone, slashed his body and gouged out his eyes as locals fled.

With time, the county administration managed to bring down the menace as the law took effect, forcing the greedy, unscrupulous sand merchants to invade the neighbouring Kitui County. And for the last five years, they have engaged in wanton destruction of rivers and environmental degradation on a large scale.

The traders, mostly based in Nairobi city and Thika towns have been buoyed by lack of legislation to regulate the multi million shillings enterprise, leaving the field a free for all.

Every day, hundreds of trucks invade local rivers, ferrying sand day and night and leaving in their wake untold destruction to rivers, riparian lands and access roads while dolling out meagre pay to loaders.

This unregulated activity has led to receding water tables, drying up of some rivers and destructive floods.

Some of the most affected rivers are Kivou, Tiva, Nzeeu, Mutendea, Mwitasyano, Tyaa, Nguutani, Enziu and Mwania.

Worse, the county government has been losing out on a potential revenue base due to lack of legal structure. Over the years, water volume in most rivers has gone down, owing to uncontrolled sand harvesting, and occasioning serious water insecurity for the 1.2 million residents. This situation is made worse by prolonged droughts as a result of climate change.

To reverse the trend and breathe life to the degraded rivers, the county government under governor Julius Malombe has been constructing sand dams – concrete embankments across seasonal rivers – to trap sand which acts as underground water reservoirs and which in turn recharge the underground acquirers.

Irrigation schemes

The county government is also establishing clusters of irrigation schemes next to select sand dams where locals are being trained and equipped on how to produce food, both for domestic use and for sale.

However, if uncontrolled sand harvesting continued unabated, these initiatives were not going to bear the desired results.

The disruption of water sources has seen Governor Malombe move in to salvage the situation and bring order and sanity to the sand harvesting business.

On Friday last week, the governor signed into law the Kitui County River Basin Sand Utilisation and Conservation Act, 2023, which is an Act of the County Assembly and which seeks to regulate and ensure the sustainable utilisation of renewable resources.

The law also seeks to protect and restore degraded rivers and water catchment areas as well as conserve the environment.

Governor Malombe mooted the legislation in March 2023, and set up Sand Harvesting and Management Taskforce with strict mandate to prepare a report on the sand value chain and draft a Sand Bill and a draft policy.

For nine months, the Sand Bill, now the Act, became a concerted effort between the County Executive and the County Assembly to come up with a befitting county-specific law to address the sand harvesting menace.

“The journey to the realisation of this law has been a long one, with close consultations and discussion between the two arms of our county government. We now have a county-specific law that will bring order and sanity in the entire sand value chain,” Malombe said as he appended his signature to the law.

He advised sand traders to reorient and align their business in line with the new law.

“The enforcement of this law will not spare anyone who contravenes it,” the governor warned, adding that protection and conservation of the environment is part of his Kitui Promise agenda.

In Kitui County, the local business people feel that the implementation of the County Sand Act will boost local businesses while growing the local economy as well as create income for many.

Kitui has introduced a new sand law to curb unregulated sand harvesting. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

“The legislation only needs proper and strict implementation which will ensure that the local economy grows and revenue generation for the county,” says Alex Munyoki, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kitui chapter and a former Kitui mayor.

Progressive law

Munyoki urges local communities around the rivers to be on alert to ensure that sand harvesters do not violate the law.

“We expect our local youths to get jobs both at the rivers and at the sand aggregation yards for loading sand,” he says.

Recalling how the sand cartels had attempted to capture the Assembly in their bid to water down the legislation in their favour, Speaker Kevin Kinengo described the legislation as the most progressive law for the county and urged locals and business people to respect it.

In streamlining the sand sector, the Act has proposed a raft of measures and penalties that will bring order to the sand value chain, ensure protection and conservation of rivers and the surrounding environment, create a revenue stream for the county government as well as create jobs and opportunities for hundreds of locals.  For instance, the legislation makes it mandatory for sand harvesters and transporters to have valid licences issued by the County Executive Committee Member (CECM) in charge of natural and mineral resources.

Harvesting or transporting sand for both local and non-local commercial use without a valid permit attracts a fine of Sh200,000 or a prison sentence of not less than two years, or both. Again, harvesting and transportation of sand at night has been banned, with the operating time capped at between 6am – 6pm. Flouters of this regulation will be liable to a fine of not less than half a million shillings or an imprisonment term of not less than three years, or both.

The new law proposes identification and gazettement of specific sand harvesting sites and sand aggregation yards. This is to discourage heavy trucks from going to the rivers. Only small lorries will be allowed to ferry sand from the rivers to sand yards through designated access roads.

Any person found harvesting sand in a non gazetted site will be fined Sh500,000 or imprisonment of not less than three years, or both. Similar fate will fall those who operate unauthorised sand yards.

At the designated harvesting sites, scooping of sand will not exceed one metre depth. This is to ensure that adequate reserves of sand are retained in the river for water retention.

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