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HomeFood Security Made SimpleSand Dams: A Metaphor for Re-thinking Development

Sand Dams: A Metaphor for Re-thinking Development

Kenya is facing one of the most acute droughts in its history. 3.5 million Kenyans are in food distress after three years of poor rains, forcing citizens to take desperate measures to survive in what could turn into a famine of catastrophic proportions. It would seem that the Kenyan government has failed to develop a coherent policy response to address the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Or perhaps it simply does not care as Kenya’s political class enters an electioneering season that is largely about nothing. But this story is not about the sad state of affairs in the country today; it is about silangas—sand dams.

Tuesday is market day in Wote, Makueni County. Marigiti—the main market in Wote Township—is abuzz with activity. Fresh farm produce, household products, second-hand clothing, and other goods are everywhere in display. I arrive on a Tuesday morning around 9 a.m.; the day dawned cloudy and a light rain has turned it chilly. In one of the stalls next to the market, a group of women is discussing the management and use of their sand dam.

I first came across water preservation and soil conservation using sand dams in my early twenties when I accompanied my father and his friends on an excursion into the rural backwaters of Machakos County. The novelty, brilliance and simplicity of an innovation that could conserve water to produce crops and change the lives of a community left me deeply impressed. To create sand dams, reinforced concrete walls are built across the dry riverbeds of seasonal rivers. They initially fill up with water but after one or two seasons, sand collects behind the dam while silt is taken further downstream. The sand filters the water stored beneath it and prevents evaporation and the proliferation of parasites. About 40 per cent of the volume retained by the dam is water; a typical silanga can hold an incredible two to ten million litres of water that is harvested from a pipe placed at the lower end of the dam or by digging holes in the sand.

Mary Kiloki, a member of the Nzangule Women’s Group, tells me that through the Kutwiikanya Kiwu programme—a strategy to enhance community and household water harvesting—the County Government of Makueni has built a sand dam for the women’s group that is providing water for domestic and commercial use.

“The sand dam is a real blessing,” she tells me. “Now, even during the dry season water is available, providing a year-round water supply to up to 1,200 people, their farms and their animals. Previously, we would walk two hours a day and up to eight hours during droughts to fetch water. We have more time and energy to invest in other activities in the home, the farm, and in the market.”

Mary grows French beans, tomatoes, red and green peppers, sukuma wiki (collard greens), maize and green grams on her farm. She tells me that she has customers who drive all the way from Nairobi to buy fresh vegetables. With access to water, Mary has been able to create an alternative source of income for her household. Moreover, access to water in sufficient quantities has created a local food market with local supply chains and networks.

I meet Albanus Muli, caretaker at Wote Water and Sewerage Company. Muli has overseen the operations at Kaiti river sand dam for the last eight years and tells me that although sand dams have now become more popular with the community, they were not immediately embraced when they were first re-introduced.

“The Kaiti sand dam was constructed by the British in 1956 initially to create a water source to attract wild animals during hunting expeditions as the dams created steady sources of drinking water for animals. The Africans who built the dam were forced under the repressive colonial ‘chief’s law’ to trek many days through the bush to a railhead for dam supplies. Understandably, Africans associated sand dams with imperial foreign rule.

However, during a drought in the 1970s, silangas were re-introduced and built by the communities themselves within the traditional system of mwethya, a mechanism of mutual community support and shared labour. Community self-help groups that grew out of mwethya now form the backbone for implementing food farming and water conservation using sand dams.”

According to Professor Jesse Mugambi, religious studies and philosophy professor at the University of Nairobi, the efficacy of sand dams is dependent on proper design and community ownership. Indeed, the overarching lesson from successful sand dam projects is that it is crucial to adapt technology to the local context and introduce it using indigenous knowledge systems and values. Only when the Kamba community was able to implement the silanga project within their mwethya tradition were the benefits of sand dams realized.

For Makueni County, a semi-arid region of high temperatures and low rainfall, silangas are pivotal to renewing the local water resource. They provide a permanent and reliable supply of clean water for communities, improving water availability for people, crops and livestock. Not only do silangas conserve water but they also rejuvenate the surrounding environment. This is significant in a county where agriculture remains a key driver of growth, contributing 50 per cent of the Gross County Product (GCP). Agriculture also accounts for 78 per cent of household incomes.

Rosemary Maundu, Minister for Water and Sanitation, explains that it is against this backdrop that the Makueni County Government has implemented a raft of policies and programmes to provide water for the people of the county. “In the last 10 years since the current Prof. Kivutha Kibwana-led county administration took over office, the county has constructed 50 sand dams through the Makueni public participation framework and the community development projects to provide readily fresh water for its citizens. This has provided much relief to the people of Makueni and greatly increased agricultural productivity in the county,” says Maundu.

Kawive Wambua, former Devolution Minister at the County Government of Makueni, explains that because riverbeds must have sufficient sandy sediment for silangas to hold water, the county government has regulated sand harvesting in the county. Unregulated sand harvesting results in reduced water availability in riverbeds, the drying up of boreholes and increased soil erosion among other environmental impacts that, aggravated by the effects of climate change, lead to a reduction in agricultural productivity and to the loss of livelihoods. Indeed, emphasizes Kawive, “Because of water, sand is the most important resource in Makueni.”

In 2014, Governor Kivutha Kibwana appointed a task force to look into sand harvesting and how the sand resource could be harnessed for socio-economic development, and recommend policy and legislation to guide the management of sand in the county. The work of the task force resulted in the enactment of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Act of 2015 that formed the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority. The enactment and implementation of the Sand Conservation and Utilization Act has not been easy, explains Halinishi Yusuf, the Managing Director of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority. “In Kenya, three factors make regulating the sand industry difficult: youth unemployment and easy access to cheap labour, a rapidly urbanizing landscape which requires large quantities of sand, and political corruption. The latter has been the hardest to deal with,” says Yusuf.

For the past several years, county authorities, sand miners and “sand mafias” have been in conflict over the new regulations governing the sand industry. In August 2015, more than 40 men attacked a dozen county officers on the highway to Nairobi, beating them and setting their vehicles on fire. In December of the same year, two men were shot with arrows and four others were attacked with machetes, allegedly by sand miners. And in 2016, a Makueni County police officer was hacked to death by suspected sand miners. Makueni governor Kivutha Kibwana has directly accused local police officers and provincial administrators of involvement in the illegal sand trade.

Still, Halinishi is confident that the Sand Regulations are making a difference. “Order is brought to the sand industry, and because of the law in place, illegal crime is being curbed.” “Importantly,” she adds, “through the sand authority, Makueni County has managed to sensitize the community on issues related to sand governance, and construct more silangas which will go a long way in restoring the environment and providing water for crops, animals and domestic use.”


In Kenya, as in much of the developing world, cities are growing at a frenzied pace. In 2020, 28 per cent of Kenya’s total population lived in cities and urban areas and estimates indicate that by 2030 the figure will be 50 per cent. Nairobi’s population has increased tenfold in the past 60 years, and is now fast approaching five million. Prodigious quantities of sand will be required to sustain the rapid urbanization. However, urbanization comes at a high environmental cost to the communities where sand harvesting takes place.

In his book The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Walter Mignolo argues that Western civilization is supported by two pillars: modernity and coloniality. He notes that the European narrative of progress, enlightenment and civilization conceals a dark underbelly—coloniality. That is to say that, contrary to popular belief, the unprecedented increases in the opulence and “freedoms” enjoyed in the West over the last 500 years have come about through the oppression and subjugation of the peoples at the “periphery” and the forceful extraction of their resources.

Modernity and coloniality, Mignolo argues, “are supported by a complex and diverse structure of knowledge, basically, Christian theology and secular sciences and philosophy. That edifice is at its turn supported by specific institutions created in tandem with the structure of knowledge: Knowledge requires actors and institutions, and actors and institutions conserve, expand, change the structure of knowledge but within the same matrix: the colonial matrix of power.”

Mignolo concludes that delinking from the colonial matrix of power that underpins Western modernity in order to imagine and build global futures in which human beings and the natural world are no longer exploited in the relentless quest for wealth accumulation would require a decolonial pathway, that is, engaging in an epistemic reconstitution to create new pathways to ways of thinking, language, ways of life and of being in a future world where the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality are disavowed.

The food farming models in these sand dam initiatives provide one such pathway. By putting scientific tools at the service of the people, incorporating traditional knowledge systems, and centring the project around the community that is taking its destiny into its own hands, sand dams stand out as an example of “decolonial doing”.

Indeed, the adoption of sand dams and the food production model that accompanies them is upending the logic of modernity—urbanization, capitalism and primitive wealth accumulation, and environmental degradation—and ushering in a future in which the residents of Makueni can live in harmony with their natural world.

The adoption of silangas has revived lost or stifled traditions and helped to create new forms of community building. It has placed local knowledges and their carriers—the women of the community—at the centre in contesting the logic of modernity; indeed, rural womenfolk are a significant pillar in the epistemic reconstitution now taking place in Makueni. Importantly, it has put food production back in the hands of the community, returning to the community the right to define its own agricultural, labour, food and land policies that are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.

By Joe Kobuthi


This article is part of the Food Series – a joint collaboration between the Route to Food Initiative and The Elephant

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