There is still not much information about it out there. However, several days ago residents of Takawiri Island complained of sighting a vessel dredging and harvesting sand on the shores of Lake Victoria. While the full facts are still rather hazy, the fact that this is not the first such reported incident in the country raises concerns. A similar incident was reported on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Mombasa a few years ago.
First, sand harvesting has remained a controversial issue in Kenya’s environmental governance landscape. There has been debate about whether it is a mineral which should be part of the Mining Act, whether harvesting of sand should be encouraged at all, and who between national and county government has responsibility.
On the one hand, it is a critical component to the construction industry while on the other its harvesting is associated with negative environmental consequences. Many small-scale operators frequently get harassed for engaging in this trade. There is need for effective regulation of the sector and clarity on the regulatory standpoint beyond the Sand Harvesting Guidelines issued some years back by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).
Second, is the ownership and control of Kenya’s lakes and oceans. Reports of foreign vessels allegedly attempting to harvest sand from the shores of Kenya’s water bodies demonstrate the limited policing of our resources, especially lakes and oceans.
Despite the clear international position on ownership of the part of these international waters that fall within our boundaries, including detailed rules on the exclusive economic zone and the high seas, the practice is completely at variance.
It is more akin to viewing this as open access, not owned by anybody, and thus suffering from the famous Tragedy of the Commons associated with Garett Hardin. We still have a dispute with Somalia that is partly about our international boundaries and about international waters.
We have had a long-standing dispute with Uganda over Migingo. These should be a clear signal to the country that its treatment of its international waters is not as effective as it should be. In the quest for promoting a sustainable blue economy, this is not something that can be taken lightly any longer.
Third, is the place of citizens in environmental governance. Public participation is ingrained in our constitutional architecture as a core aspect of public policy and governance. However, too nay times it is either ignored or undertaken half-heartedly by policy makers who see it as an inconvenience. However, it took residents of the local community to raise the alarm about the suspicious activities taking place on Takawiri Island. The events demonstrate that decision-makers need to invest in meaningful and sustained engagements with citizens to enable the cultivation of a collaborative relationship.
Nema is vested with authority over environmental governance matters in the country. Its silence on this issue raises concerns about the capacity, focus and status of this institution. The continued relevance of the agency established over 15 years ago is an issue worth interrogating.
The country still has many environmental challenges. However, Nema is heard about occasionally when there is a huge calamity before it slides back into silence and inaction. This is not good, especially in a context where environmental conservation is largely seen as an obstacle to economic development. It is important that the institution be much more agile, engaged and engaging so that the policy processes can truly deliver on the commitment of sustainability.
As the sand dredging events were allegedly going on, debate also arose about Takawiri Island in Homa Bay. Many Kenyans associate clean and sandy beaches with the coastal parts of the country. Despite Homa Bay having beautiful and expansive sandy beaches, this potential has not been harnessed either by the national or county government. Promoting Takawiri and Rusinga Island as tourism destination sites is an imperative.