How government housing project threatens fish farming in Lake region

Proposed site for the construction of affordable houses in Homa Bay on October 11, 2022.

Photo credit: George Odiwour | Nation Media Group

Authorities have raised alarm over the destruction of biodiversity and fish breeding grounds after hundreds of fishermen in Homa Bay and Migori counties abandoned their trade to venture into sand mining for quick cash.

This comes after President William Ruto launched his affordable housing programme last year and construction of the houses has begun to create a new generation of homeowners.  

The government plans to build 250,000 houses a year for low-income earners and in January, the first phase of the 5,000 affordable houses programme was launched for Homa Bay County. Speaking during a two-day workshop organised by WorldFish, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI Africa) and partners on climate change, gender and livelihoods among fishing communities in the Lake Victoria region, George Okoth, the Homa Bay County Chief Fisheries Officer, revealed that fish stocks in the region are dwindling as fishermen turn to sand harvesting, a demanding livelihood that is destroying Lake Victoria's biodiversity.

"Sand harvesting has become a menace because our fishermen have now turned to harvesting sand to sell to those implementing the affordable housing projects launched by the President to make quick money.

This is why the Homa Bay County government is currently working on a sand harvesting policy to 'rationalise' the sand sector as part of the wider mineral harvesting," said Mr Okoth, noting that they believe that sand harvesting should not be stopped but properly managed as a 'sustainable strategy'.

"Sand is a raw material for construction and banning it may have negative social and economic impacts, but for us, rationalisation is a better approach and our experts are working on the best way to harvest it without destroying the environment while we wait for a new alternative construction technology," he said.

However, Mr Samson Kidera, Regional Coordinator for Blue Economy and Fisheries at the Ministry of Fisheries and Blue Economy, reminded Mr Okoth that sand harvesting is illegal in the country.

"It is illegal to harvest sand under the Climate Change Act, Kenya is setting up a coordination team to enforce the necessary laws on sand harvesting, including the mining ministry.

Weaknesses in the enforcement department could be contributing to this illegal venture and the enforcement of mining laws is a multi-agency team that is in place," he said, stressing that illegal fishing methods and catching immature fish make the situation much worse.

"Women play a key role in fisheries, the blue economy, but their impact is both positive and negative as we have found that women are rampantly involved in buying immature fish caught using illegal methods and gear.

 It is through them that the immature fish reaches the market and that is why as a government we have embarked on sensitisation to ensure that good practices are adopted," said Mr Kidera.

According to ENACT Observer, it takes millions of years for sand to build up in waterways - but just hours to strip it and send it along an illegal trade chain that costs Kenya millions of shillings in lost revenue every year.

"Run by violent criminal cartels, this trade is destroying local livelihoods and the environment, and increasing conflict in communities living in sand-producing areas," says ENACT Observer.

The Journal of Emerging Issues warns of the impact of sand harvesting. 

"It can destroy riverine vegetation, cause erosion, pollute water sources and reduce animal diversity. The beach and dune system habitat along coastal zones is also affected".

The two-day workshop also saw the official release of the preliminary findings of a new study conducted by Professor Dorothy Amwata of Murang'a University of Technology, Dr Rahma Adam, WorldFish Senior Scientist for Social and Economic Inclusion, Dr Philip Osano, SEI Africa Director, and researchers Nicholas Ndiema and Kevin Ouko, to assess the impact of climate change and variability on fisheries-dependent livelihoods in the Lake Victoria region.

The study highlights that Kenya's fisheries sector is a major contributor to the country's economic and social growth, contributing 0.8 per cent to GDP.

"The sector employs 500,00 people directly and two million indirectly. Climate change poses the greatest threat to fisheries because it interacts with and exacerbates current non-climatic pressures," the study says.

According to Dr Rahma, the lead researcher, the gender roles in the fish value chain observed in the field highlighted that women are now equally involved in the day-to-day management of beach management units (BMUs).

"However, data on income from the fish value chain showed that in Migori, men earn Sh40,000 every week while women take home Sh20,000, while in Migori, men take home Sh15,000 while women take home Sh80,000," Dr Rahma noted, explaining that women in Migori earn more than men because they have formed and actively participate in self-help groups (chamas).