Sand and the City

It had every ingredient of a scene from a Hollywood movie. At midnight, police acting on a tip off from a local, were informed of ongoing sand harvesting along Nguutani River in Mwingi West, Kitui. As they were driving to the scene, a lorry full of sand passed by them, a pursuit followed.
Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu had banned sand harvesting and charcoal burning in her county just two weeks before this night and the police were determined to make some arrests.  After about eight kilometers of a high-speed chase while Nguutani village was deep asleep, unaware of the drama happening outside their houses, the police land cruiser decided to overtake the lorry hoping to force it to stop. Then the lorry driver did the unexpected, he rammed into the police vehicle stopping it in its tracks. Suspects jumped out of the lorry and disappeared into the night.
Of note was the sheer audacity of the men who wanted sand at all costs and were willing to kill for it.  Scenes like this are replicated across Ukambani counties of Machakos, Kitui and Makueni.

Isolated environmental wars are erupting in Makueni & Machakos counties and it has everything to do with Nairobi. As the real estate sector grows in Kenya’s capital at unprecedented levels, the thirst for construction materials, especially sand has soared.

Race to the sky

At Upper Hill, a prime commercial district in Nairobi; just next to red rapes screaming ‘To Let’, a massive excavation site now in its fourth year deepens. By the year 2020, the structure that will rise from this deep hole will bring Nairobi the bragging rights of having the tallest skyscraper in Africa. The Pinnacle, which will rise to a staggering 300 metres, will play host to a brand new Hilton Hotel, 42 floors of residential apartments, 20 floors of offices, a five-storey mall and three floors of underground parking, adding more glitz to Nairobi’s ever-changing sky line

By this time, three out of the five tallest buildings in Africa will be in Nairobi, placing Kenya at the top in the renewed race to the sky. The top two was until recently a preserve of Nigeria and South Africa, Africa’s two richest economies driven by oil and gold.
“Could Nairobi be the next Dubai? Does the start of Africa’s tallest building signal the end of Kenya’s boom?” asked global business magazine, The Economist in January this year.

“A thriving property market has underpinned growth, particularly in Nairobi,” said CNN last year.
The numbers are staggering. Last year, the Nairobi County government approved construction of buildings worth Sh240 billion. A further Sh345 billion worth of buildings got completed according to the recently released National Economic Survey. In the last five years buildings worth Sh1.1 trillion were approved for construction while Sh345 billion worth of buildings came into the pipeline.,

Number of Buildings Approved in Nairobi over the last 5 years

Value of approved & completed buildings (in millions)

Disappearing rivers

But this impressive real estate run is coming at a high cost with the harshest impact felt by villagers such as Joyce Ndunge, a resident of Kwa Ndolo village in Makueni, 165km South East of Nairobi. She has painfully seen water levels at local rivers disappear in the last decade. So bad is the situation that she and other villagers now spend the whole day scooping water from a hole they have dug on the dried river bed where river Muti once run.

The river is now a mere shadow of its former self. She reminisces its past glory each time she almost returns home with no water.

“There is no water in the river for us to dig another hole,” she complains as she dips a bowl in the 2 meter-deep hole in order to draw water. It is a routine she undertakes to fill a 20 litre jerrican. Then start all over again.

“If we dig another hole, the water in this one will dry up. So we have accepted to share this single water hole because there is no option,”.

Her children who are just back from school have joined in the water hunt as her husband searches for food.

“If my kids go to school how will it help me because if I don’t get water to take home we will sleep hungry,” she says.

Sand; a naturally regenerating aggregate has for years been a lifesaver for the residents of Makueni since few perennial rivers run in the county. During the rainy season, water seeps into and is stored in the sand of Makueni’s nine seasonal rivers.

Sand mining cartels

In the last few years however, the demand for sand in Nairobi has turned the resource into white gold.  Cartels have descended on not only Kwa Ndolo but also every village where there is sand and they are taking it in thousands of tonnes without any regard for existing sand harvesting regulation, authority or the environment.

At Mua Hills in Machakos, 80 km from Kwa Ndolo, one farmer has been forced to erect a perimeter wall to protect his land from that of his neighbor’s, where sand merchants have eaten into his property after exhausting sand in the adjacent plot.

Peter Kavita, whose father’s farm is the one that has been fenced off says there is little they can do if they are to survive. Their farm, a lush green tract of land divided into two by a brown valley has turned to a mini desert following years of mining. Three goats and a cow graze precariously on the edge of one side of the farm, next to a sand valley.

“Everyone here is involved in mining sand. It is the only thing you can do,” he says.

“Our sand is good for mixing the clay used in making tiles. Factories come all the way from Thika to look for it,” he says proudly.

Kavita makes Sh400 for every lorry he helps fill with sand. Like other residents in the greater Ukambani area, he is conflicted between protecting the environment and making money out of it despite the degradation involved.

The conflict

The sand mining wars take place at two levels. The first pits the battle between sand harvesters and farm owners where the resource is available. When all the sand has been extracted, environmental degradation sets in. Degradation leads to reduction of water in the rivers, which kicks in the second level of conflict: Fight for water.

Such conflicts usually end in deadly violence. On one Friday evening this year, a mob of young men attacked Geofrey Kasyoki, a police officer. They shot him with poisoned arrows, plucked his eyes from the eyeballs, and slashed him with machetes before crushing his head.

His wife Irene Kasyoki said that he was killed for one reason, sand. He had for seven years been fighting against the vice and had made several arrests, which resulted in convictions. This war with sand cartels had to reach an end at some point and it did with his life.

“This sand trade is like drug trade because you get a lot of money very quickly,” says Makueni governor Kivutha Kibwana.

“One lorry might be Sh50,000 to Sh60,000 shillings in Nairobi. So if one of the transporters has three trips, that is like Sh150,000 to Sh180,000 per day.

In the last two years alone, seven people have died in mining accidents or sand-related violence. Clashes involving residents, harvesters, truck drivers who collect sand and county officials have wounded many more. That is just in Makueni and the ripple effects extend to almost every sector.

At Matangini primary school in Yatta constituency, deputy head teacher Mutisya Wilson says many pupils skip classes to engage in casual work in sand harvesting fields. He said boys escape at nights from homestead to scoop at sand on the rivers bed in order to make little money due to influence from villagers.

“Cases of pregnancies, sexual affairs and drug abuse are prevalent in most schools in areas where sand harvesting is taking place,” he says.

Globally, between 47 and 59 billion tonnes of construction material is mined annually of which sand and gravel, hereafter known as aggregates, account for both the largest share (from 68% to 85%) according to UNEP. The absence of local data on sand mining makes environmental assessment very difficult and has contributed to the lack of awareness about this issue.

The National Environment Manangement Authority (NEMA) which is supposed to be in control of the situation mostly steps in when there is a conflict by declaring a ban in sand harvesting in the affected areas. In the last two months NEMA has declared bans in Kajiado county, which neighbours Makueni to the south and Narok, Nairobi’s neighbour in the South.

The future

Meanwhile, some innovative scientists and developers are coming up with alternative construction technologies which if adopted could save the environment in a big way. One of the new technologies gaining currency locally is the use of interlocking bricks. Using a pressing machine, two bags of cement and 10 wheelbarrows of soil, one can make up to 100 bricks. During the construction process, the bricks interlock with each other eliminating the need for sand and cement aggregate. Houses built using this technology are not only cheap, but use fewer materials and manpower. This according to experts reduces construction costs by up to a third.
In a column published by the Business Daily in February , real estate expert Kariuki Gathuitu urged the government to adopt environmentally friendly building technologies as it rolls out its ambitious housing project under President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big 4 agenda.

“Sand and timber are also important factors. Unfortunately, they are non-renewable and have contributed to the degradation of the environment. Disputes have also arisen in counties as water becomes scarce and rivers dry up,” said Gathuitu.

Use of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) for example is being experimented by some developers as an alternative to the conventional brick and mortar that we are used to. Polystyrene is a versatile plastic used to make a wide variety of consumer products. When it is added with foam, it adds insulating and cushioning properties making it hardy enough to be used for construction. While these new technologies are just catching up, those who have adopted them say they cannot only save building costs but also go a long way in saving the environment.

Report by Anne Okumu, Felix Nyawara, Galgalo Bocha and Vincent Achuka