BY PASCAL MWANDAMBO
Voi river, a key water source in Taita-Taveta County is facing imminent death due to excessive sand harvesting, block making and cultivation into the river banks.
Even though the local communities living near the river rely on this resource for survival, those in charge of environmental management in the county seem to have buried their heads in the sand as the water source goes into total ruin.
And now two public institutions have joined the list of culprits who are assaulting the Voi river.
The Voi Girls Secondary School which now faces relocation to pave way for the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway line(SGR) has been constructed right inside a flood area of the Voi river.
This raises questions as to how the institutions’ building plan was approved and if an environmental impact assessment study was conducted before this was done.
The Coast Institute of Technology(CIT) is another culprit. Right now the institution is putting up a perimeter wall around sections of the river near Sofia village where locals are making building blocks.
“We cannot issue a blanket ban on sand harvesting and block making at the Voi river as these are the sources of our peoples’ livelihood. What is of paramount importance is for regulation of these activities to ensure that the river is not totally destroyed as future generations will still need it for survival,” said tourism and environment CEC Alexander Mwangeka when he addressed sand harvesters and block makers at Sofia recently.
Upstream from the Voi upper bridge, between Mleghwa and Mto Mwagodi, Voi river has now virtually died out.
The scramble for sand has reached alarming levels as traders and sand “brokers” rush to make a kill from the sand, destroying the environment right into the river banks where the lorries access the sand loading sites.
We find Mary Mkandoe frantically scooping out sand from the river bed with a shovel, filling it into twenty kilo plastic containers and ferrying it to the river banks to wait for buyers.
With one hand akimbo, she motions to her two other colleagues, who take the cue and begin ferrying the sand to the riverside.
The sun is scorching hot but the women seem undeterred, as they go about their business. This is their way of life and they have learnt to endure whatever challenges come their way.
Mkandoe says a blanket ban on sand harvesting is not a good idea as this is a source of livelihood for hundreds of youths and women in the area, as well as providing a vital material for the construction industry.
“We are aware of the grave danger that uncontrolled sand harvesting can have on this important water source but we have taken the initiative to protect the river banks since our activities are limited to just enough sand that we can sell while the rest remains to hold the river bed in place,” she says.
She says the locals need to be empowered to sustainably exploit sand as a resource and at the same time conserve the environment .
“The price of the commodity should be raised to enable the genuine sand dealers get enough money to meet their immediate needs. We deserve to benefit from our labour but not the unscrupulous middlemen,” she says.
Another sand harvester John Mginda laments that they get very little from the sand that they scoop from the river despite toiling day and night to earn a living from the trade.
“While a tonne of sand costs over Sh3,000 in Mombasa here we are paid a paltry Sh120,” complained the sand harvester.
It is estimated that sand from the Voi river generates upwards of Sh 50m annually, with the lions share of the proceeds going into the pockets of middlemen, while the local sand harvesters languish in poverty.
He said the National Environment Management Authority(NEMA) has failed to come up with a clear policy on sustainable sand harvesting procedures, thereby giving unscrupulous middlemen the leeway to fleece the sand harvesters.
“The government has been too eager to ban sand harvesting instead of assisting sand harvesters make a living from the resource while at the same time conserve the environment”, he said.
In fact on many occasions, NEMA has been accused of burying its head in the sand as this vital water source is laid to waste through unsustainable sand harvesting, block making by the river banks and stone harvesting.
On the other hand a raft of sand harvesting guidelines crafted by NEMA some years ago seem to have largely come a cropper.
These guidelines stipulated, among other conditions, that there should be special sand harvesting locations where the exact amount of the commodity harvested should be documented.
Upon completion of sand harvesting , the right tree species should be planted in the gullies left behind.
The guidelines further demand that the lorries accessing the sand harvesting sites should use designated routes to and from the sites. These have to be about 50 meters away from the river banks.
At the same time sand transporters are required to give priority of hiring of sand loaders to persons living in the vicinity of the sand harvesting sites who should be of good conduct and certified by the local administration and the NEMA.
According to these regulations, the proceeds from sand cess or revenue collected through harvesting of the commodity should be invested in local community projects.
Previous efforts to rehabilitate the Voi river both by the then Voi Municipal Council and other NGOs have been short-lived with no lasting solution in sight towards the full rehabilitation of this invaluable water source.
A couple of years ago the Water Resources Management Authority(WRMA) had come up with a proposal to rehabilitate the Voi river all the way to Aruba Dam in Tsavo East National Park at a tune of Sh500m. This was to include the erection of sand dams at various points along the river in order to hold back sand and reduce erosion. However the project never took off.
In fact, apart from a local sisal factory which occasionally drains effluent into the Voi river, the Voi Municipal Council is also among the negative factors polluting the river, given that the council has chosen a point a few meters from the water source where it drains the town’s sewage.
The pollution of the Voi river poses a serious environmental threat to wildlife in Tsavo East National Park that drink water from Aruba Dam.
And as though the negative forces assailing the Voi river are not enough, the water source has also been invaded by the notorious weed mathenge locally known as mrashia.
It has been alleged by some that the weed, prosopis julifora, is responsible for the decline in water volumes in the river, allegations which have been rubbished by other environmentalists.
However, a NEMA official who sought anonymity told i-mpact news that plans were afoot under the new county government to rehabilitate the Voi river and restore it to its former glory. He did not elaborate.
Paul Mwadime Kombo, the founder of the Voi-based Mseto Environmetal Agency, says the county government should come up with a raft of innovative and lasting methods of rehabilitating the Voi river in order to restore the water source to its former glory.
“Among these should be the use of vetiver technology. Vetiver grass is a formidable force against soil erosion and can serve as a bulwark against the erosive forces that assail the river during the heavy rains,” says Kombo.
Captions; top –down:
1.The Voi river during the rains
2.A heavily degraded section of the Voi river between Mleghwa and Mto Mwagodi
3.A sand harvester scooping out sand at Mleghwa section of the river
4.A block kiln at Voi river near Sofia village
5.A perimeter wall being constructed at the Voi river bank by CIT college near Sofia.