Kenya's Sand Wars

Communities are pitted against sand harvesters, powerful cartels and one another as demand for sand in Kenya grows.

Kilome, Makueni county, Kenya – On an early evening in February, in the quiet trading centre of Mangala, a mob of young men attacked a police officer named Geoffrey Kasyoki. They crushed his head, shot him with poisoned arrows, slashed him with machetes and pierced his eyes. They murdered him for one reason: sand.

The 38-year-old father of two had been fighting against illegal sand harvesting after operations began in this southern Kenyan county in 2011. He arrested illegal miners working on the riverbeds and spoke to the community about the importance of preserving sand. He became devoted to saving sand when the mining started disrupting people's water supply.

The population of nearly one million in this arid, rural county already contends with prolonged droughts. Near one dried-up river, more than 200 people and hundreds of livestock depend on a sole water pump.

Few perennial rivers run through Makueni. During the rainy season, water seeps into and is stored in the sand of the county's nine seasonal rivers. Residents collect water from holes dug into the sand. But when sand is mined down to the bedrock, the water has nowhere to accumulate.

Irene Nduku Kasyoki, 36, stands by her husband's grave. "My husband was very hardworking and loving to his family and everybody in the community," she says. Kasyoki says the sand harvesters no longer have any water and their families are suffering. They now "come and steal water from those who protect sand". Top image: What used to be a river in Makueni is now a huge crater with steep cliffs.

For years, residents harvested sand informally for construction. More recently, as Kenya rapidly develops, demand has surged.

"Big businessmen realised they could make a lot of money out of the sand by supplying the bigger construction ventures in Nairobi and in other cities, and that's when the problem started because it was no longer sustainable," says an employee of the nonprofit organisation Kenya Water Partnership who asked not to be identified.

Makueni's residents are now divided between those protecting the sand and those harvesting it for money. In 2015, mining without a county government permit was banned, but illegal harvesters still come day and night.

"The sand harvesters chase us so that when the lorries [trucks] come [we cannot] defend them from carrying the sand," Agnes Mumbua, Kasyoki's mother, says. "They burn the houses and we run to the mountains. Then, they start scooping the sand."

In the last two years, at least 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.

Kasyoki's family say his murder was a warning not to stop the miners.

"The community and I decided to bury him in sand rather than soil," says Irene Nduku Kasyoki, standing over her husband's grave behind the family home. "He died trying to save our sand."

Irene Nduku Kasyoki spoke to Al Jazeera nine days after her husband's brutal murder.

Growing demand

Sand - mainly used in concrete and glass - has become the second-most consumed natural resource on the planet after water. Only sand from water, unlike smooth, fine desert sand, can be used in construction. "It's like building with bricks versus building with marbles," says Vince Beiser, a Los Angeles-based journalist and author of an upcoming book on the deadly global war over sand.

Harvesting is a growing global problem. China's largest freshwater lake Poyang is drying up due to dredging, ruining the ecosystem and livelihoods. Dubai has exhausted its marine sand resources and the desert city now imports sand from Australia.

The 2014 UN report "Sand, rarer than one thinks" estimated that in 2012, the world used up to 29.6 billion tonnes of sand, or, "enough concrete to build a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide around the equator".

Migration to cities, rapid population growth and construction are driving demand.

Sand harvesting will increase in Kenya for the same reason it is increasing in most countries, Beiser says. "Every year, millions of people leave the countryside and move to cities."

The UN estimates that Kenya's population will grow by about one million people each year over the next 40 years to become 85 million by 2050. "Nairobi's population has increased tenfold since the country became independent in 1963 and is now fast approaching four million," Beiser says.

Huge construction projects like Kenya's new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), necessary for improving transportation for a growing population, require millions of tonnes of sand, but mining the required amount sustainably is a challenge.

In other words, Kenya's sand troubles are just beginning.

A beach in Tiwi, along Kenya's coast, where dredging beyond the reef started to shrink the beach - a key sea turtle nesting ground.

Battle on the coast

On the Kenyan coast, south of Mombasa, the conflict over sand is being fought in court.

Dredging of the pristine coastline from the Tiwi area down to Diani began in 2013, sparking an outcry from locals and environmentalists who feared the effect on the delicate ecosystem and award-winning beach.

Beijing-headquartered China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the contractors employed by Kenya Railways to construct the SGR, planned to extract 800,000 metric tonnes of sand - enough to fill 210 Olympic-sized swimming pools - from this coastal stretch to build the train container terminal.

Photos taken from the air by a member of the local community show billows of sand in the water from CRBC dredgers sucking from the ocean floor.

This coast is a haven for marine life. Sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches and feed on sea grass; thousands of different fish species live in the colourful coral gardens.

A sand dredger harvesting sand offshore near Tiwi. [Image courtesy of Marc Hawley]

"When they dredge sand, it is kicked up, covers the reef and suffocates it," says Kate Sadie*, a Diani resident who led the fight in court.

"The water was not clear, so the turtles could not feed on the grass. Many got weak and died; all the fish went away," says Said Hamisi Mwaito, a fisherman and turtle conservation volunteer.

"Beaches would have been lost … tourism would have been impacted, fishermen's livelihoods lost," says Felix Mibikira, a lawyer who represented Diani residents in court.

In February 2016, the National Environmental Tribunal ruled that a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) hadn't been undertaken and banned dredging.

Mibikira's team were able to prove in court that EIA surveyors visited the beach, but never went underwater. CRBC lodged an appeal and the case is ongoing.

Fisherman and turtle conservationist Said Hamisi Mwaito on the Kenyan coast says coconut trees have drifted away in the water due to dredging. "It's very sad," he says.Local Makueni farmer and activist Anthony Mua Kimeu says sand helped people survive droughts. "You hear people say, 'If I'm harvesting sand, I'm not harvesting water,' but it is really the opposite," he says.

"The pressure for sand harvesting to continue is huge," says Gino Cocchiaro, a lawyer with the nonprofit organisation Natural Justice.

In past year, harvesting has taken off in Makueni.

Atanas Maina, managing director of Kenya Railways, said in a phone interview that among other counties, CRBC, from 2014 until earlier this year, bought river sand from traders in Makueni who had trading licences "with the total knowledge of the county government". Regarding the environmental problems in Makueni caused by sand harvesting, Maina said if they were given harvesting licences they would also carry out restorative work.

The sand harvesters

If some traders have licences, many do not. Along a riverbed in Makueni, men in faded, ripped shirts spend their days illegally digging sand and flinging it onto piles in the baking midday sun.

On an average day, 10 trucks come and go from this stretch of river removing about 100 tonnes of sand. There can be up to 20 mining sites on each of Makueni's rivers.

Richard Mutinda, 40, has harvested sand for more than one year.

"I look for other jobs because I know the sand will run out," he says, leaning on his shovel. "I know that with the sand goes our water. I know that water is life, but what choice do I have?"

The truck drivers pay him 500 Kenyan shillings (about $5) a day. "I need to get paid so I can feed my family," he says.

"[The cartels] oppress us," Mutinda says. "They get the money but we do all the work, and put ourselves in danger doing it."

Jobs are hard to come by, so many men start mining illegally, causing rifts within communities.

Given the lack of opportunities, Mutinda says he understands why miners use violence when residents try to stop them. "Sometimes, we have to be violent," he says.

He believes better regulation around pay and working conditions would stem these tensions. "It is not a good job. It is not safe," he says, referring to the deaths caused by careless, speeding truck drivers.

Last December, a truck on a riverbed crushed 16-year-old miner Kioko Musyoka.

"Many people [who are] sand mining down the river are never seen again," says his mother Theresia Musyoka, sitting outside her home made of sand.

Across Makueni, residents, government officials and law enforcement officers told Al Jazeera that at the root of illegal sand harvesting operations are corrupt officials and powerful cartels.

Local Makueni farmer and activist Anthony Mua Kimeu talks about sand harvesting violence and the loss of water in the county. Kimeu believes the government "must come up with a clear solution, because here it's a matter of death and life".

The sand cartels

Cartels usually own the trucks, hire drivers to collect sand from labourers like Mutinda, and take the lion's share of the profits when selling to construction companies.

"We know cartels run the sand harvesting because they don't hide. They proclaim it," says George Mbala*, a county government official.

Mbala says one known individual "runs an illegal sand harvesting business and hires others to be involved. He harvests the sand, protecting his lorries with guns. He goes [to] the river, he's armed; he threatens to shoot people," Mbala says. "Once, we had a public meeting with him. The public pointed at him and said, 'You are doing this' and he didn't deny it."

Anthony Mua Kimeu looks at the steep cliffs of the "dead" Kilome Ikolya River. A couple of years ago, this river was flat; now the drop from the banks to the riverbed is about ten metres.

Mbala says local law enforcement officers are too afraid to take him on. 

"No citizen wants to confront [the cartels] because you'll die or get lost. As we speak, I have been threatened twice for not allowing sand harvesting," he says. "They claim if I continue I will be killed."

Al Jazeera contacted this cartel leader who denied being involved in illegal mining. He said he harvested sand until 2014, before mining without a permit was banned in Makueni.

For these cartels, harvesting is highly lucrative. Local farmer and activist Anthony Mua Kimeu says: "The harvesters sell the sand to lorry drivers at a low price [but the cartels] sell a truck load for 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($500)."

Some allege there are individuals in cartels who are not only connected to but also serve in the national government. Al Jazeera asked one national government official who Mbala alleges runs a cartel and they declined to comment on these allegations.

Steve Adede*, an officer with the Makueni Sand Authority, a conservation and harvesting regulation body, says he's been called off from making arrests for this reason.

Once, while checking trucks on the main road connecting Mombasa to Nairobi, he stopped a sand truck. The driver didn't have a permit, so he got in, ordering him to head to a police station. On the way, Adede says his boss called and told him to release the driver because the truck belonged to a senior sand cartel member who was also a government official. He says his boss didn't want any trouble.

Mbala says arrested harvesters or drivers are often released the next day.

When asked how illegal sand harvesting continues in broad daylight, Mbala answers, with resignation: "Forcefully."

"You feel hopeless. If, in the country where you come from, the national government is not protecting you as an individual, and it is not protecting its natural resources, and you cannot report to any police station, and when you report no action is taken, what do you do? You feel desperate," Mbala says. "I am [a member of the county government] and there is nothing I can do for people in Makueni."

Al Jazeera asked Elias Njeru, public communication officer in the Department of Environment, how the national government is addressing illegal sand mining. Njeru said: "It is the county [governments] that manage those natural resources, speak to them about how they are handling it."

Geoffrey Wahungu, director general of the National Environment Management Authority, a government department that implements environmental policies, said potential new harvesting sites must undergo the EIA process. "The Authority is not aware about these cartels; we have not received any incidents on violations based on our EIA regulations," he said.

A sand truck in Makueni. One kilometre of motorway requires 30,000 tonnes of sand, according to the 2013 documentary Sand Wars by Denis Delestrac.Bedrock signals the bottom of Nthange River's riverbed. Without sand to slow it down, rivers can diverge and travel at incredibly fast speeds over the bedrock during the rainy season. Locals describe it as "like a tsunami", which erodes the land and can sweep away people and livestock.

The war continues

There are construction alternatives to sand, such as recycled concrete rubble and glass.

"The current situation will continue unless sand extraction is correctly priced and taxed so that other options become economically viable," warns the UN report.

There is little incentive to change building materials.

"We can manufacture artificial sand by crushing up rocks, but it's cheaper to mine natural sand. Developers and builders are most interested in the bottom line," Beiser says.

In the face of powerful sand cartels, individuals on the Kenyan coast and inland are increasingly defiant.

A man collects water on Kikuu River in Makueni. During the dry season, locals dig small wells in the sand like this one to gather water.

"[We] don't care whose project it is or who's supporting it," says Sadie, the Diani resident. If the dredgers come back, "we'll fight [in court]".

In Makueni, Agnes, the mother of the murdered police officer, says her community is now steadily taking matters into their own hands, ready to fight the harvesters.

"Since 2011, people have been killed, chased. The government knows this, but nothing has been done. The lorry owners come and are fighting their brothers, taking the sand to the big man. That is why the community, old and young, we have decided to act," she says. "We will protect those areas; we will resist by going to fight those who are coming with the lorries. The war continues."

As Makueni's sand conflict brews, new harvesting sites across Kenya are being identified.

As the SGR line from Mombasa to Nairobi nears completion, plans to extend it are beginning.

Al Jazeera asked Maina from where Kenya Railways plans to buy sand for the next phase. “We will be buying from those who [are licensed to] harvest and sell sand,” he says.

"Where we get sand, we will buy it…," he adds. "There must be a lot of sand in [the inland] Narok area, in Naivasha area."

Makueni and the coast, it seems, are harbingers of Kenya's sand wars to come.

Irene Nduku Kasyoki holds a photograph of her late husband Geoffrey Kasyoki. His death "pierced my heart," she says.

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of interviewees who fear retaliation.