Sand mining and related violence in Makueni County, Kenya

Residents are divided between those protecting the sand and those harvesting it for money. Mining without a permit is banned, but illegal harvesters come day and night in Kenya's sand mining boom.


Sand is becoming a necessary component in supporting the construction boom that is driving the rapid urbanisation and economic growth in the country. Sand mining is happening in many places.(5)(6). In the Makueni area Eastern Kenya which has epitomized the extent of the sand wars, up to ten people have lost their lives in the last two years to sand violence.(4). In mid-December 2017 it was reported that  three people were killed after a sand mine caved in at Kwa Muvai River, Makueni county. Two others were injured and rushed to a hospital. County commissioner Mohammed Maalim said the miners were trapped at night, and retrieved by residents who heard a strange sound at the site. "It is illegal to mine sand at night. It is even dangerous to access the mines at that hour when it's raining", the country commissioner said. The lorry being used by the miners was impounded by police.(1). This is one more case in a dangerous and damaging trade in  sand mining in Makueni county.  As reprted by Al-Jazzeera (2), "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 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. 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.

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Basic Data
NameSand mining and related violence in Makueni County, Kenya
ProvinceFormer Eastern Province
SiteMakueni County (many places)
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Water access rights and entitlements
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Specific CommoditiesWater
Sand, gravel
Project Details and Actors
Project Details"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.". (2). "The police are are accused of turning their roadblocks into unofficial toll stations for the sand ferrying lorries."(7).
Type of PopulationRural
Start Date2011
Relevant government actorsCounty commissioners.

National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersKenya Water Partnership.
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingArtisanal miners
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Government police officers
Forms of MobilizationCreation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Threats to use arms
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Other Environmental impacts, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation
OtherLarge scale impacts on river beds.
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Deaths
Potential: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..) , Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Militarization and increased police presence
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCorruption
Criminalization of activists
Violent targeting of activists
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Sand mining continues despite the ban. Victims are sometimes the miners themselves and sometimes police officers trying to impose the ban.
Sources and Materials

(5) Kenya's illegal sand miners destroy farms to plunder scarce resource. Shadrack Kavilu, 6 October 2016.
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(2) Aljazeera. Kenya's Sand Wars. Communities are pitted against sand harvesters, powerful cartels and one another as demand for sand in Kenya grows. By Harriet Constable
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(3)He who controls the sand: the mining 'mafias' killing each other to build cities. The Guardian.
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(1) Three killed after sand mine collapses in Makueni. Dec. 19, 2017. By MUTUA KAMETI-.
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Media Links

KBC Channel 1, 2015. Sand harvesting has suddenly become a full time business in Makueni County, thanks to the ongoing construction of the Standard Gauge Railway. Young boys and girls are dropping out of school at an alarming rate to join the now lucrative trade.
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(7) Inside bloody, illegal multi-million sand business in Makueni By Joe Ombuor | July 18th 2015
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(6) Sand harvesting threatens to displace thousands. IRIN news. 2012. On River Nzoia, near Lake Victoria.
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Other Documents

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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.
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Irene Nduku Kasyoki holds a photograph of her late husband Geoffrey Kasyoki. His death "pierced my heart," she says.
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Working on sand. "[The cartels] oppress us," Mutinda says. "They get the money but we do all the work, and put ourselves in danger doing it."
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Anthony Mua Kimeu looks at the steep cliffs of the A couple of years ago, this river was flat; now the drop from the banks to the riverbed is about ten metres.
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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.
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Meta Information
ContributorEnvJustice, ICTA-UAB
Last update03/01/2018