Takawiri Island in Homa Bay County has for years stood out as a breathtaking tourist destination.
The island in Lake Victoria boasts of white sandy beaches and palm trees and is one of the gems in the Western Kenya tourism circuit.
Apart from the sandy beaches, tourists also enjoy the breeze as they watch the sunset and the birds, chirping incessantly to herald the approaching dusk.
From a distance, fishermen navigate their wooden boats on fishing expeditions.
Wave of protests
However, the beauty and serenity has been shattered by dredging going on at Takawiri beach, which has triggered a wave of protests from residents. They are fighting to protect the beach from what they fear is an environmental calamity in waiting.
Community members in Takawiri and Mfangano Islands in Mbita Sub-county in Homa Bay County have, for the last few days, been up in arms against the national government project of dredging Lake Victoria to increase its depth.
The campaign against the dredging started on Wednesday last week when the vessel carrying out the work docked, with residents demanding to know its mission.
Some residents thought the vessel had scientists conducting marine research.
A group of fishermen decided to investigate what the vessel was doing only to discover that sand was being scooped from the bottom of the lake.
Thereafter, fishermen and residents on the two islands started a social media campaign to stop the dredger from scooping sand from the bottom of the lake, ostensibly, to increase traffic and promote cross-border trade on the lake.
Mr Raila Odinga, the Orange Democratic Movement leader and African Union special envoy for Infrastructural Development, launched the dredging last month to enable larger water vessels to operate easily between the three East African countries that share the lake — Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Part of the plan was to scoop sand from the bottom of the lake in Kisumu, Homa Bay and Migori counties, where ships would pass.
The project started successfully in Kisumu. But residents of the islands in Homa Bay are not happy with it. Community members in Takawiri and Mfangano Islands said they were not told about the dredging.
They are concerned that some of the natural beauty of the white sandy beaches around Takawiri Island will be destroyed.
Residents argued that besides the project having a negative environmental impact, their source of livelihood — tourism and fishing — will be affected.
Mfangano East Chief Samuel Dwele said his office was called when villagers saw the vessel, which had stopped about 100 metres from the shore.
“The ship stayed in the lake for at least eight hours before it moved out, leaving residents concerned,” he said.
Mr Dwele said he was called on Saturday morning when the vessel went back to the site to continue scooping sand.
“Residents demanded that the vessel leave. I had to call the police and my seniors who quelled the rising tensions. The vessel was later taken away after two hours,” he said.
The administrator said neither the public nor his office, which should have mobilised residents for a public participation forum, was told of the dredging.
Fishermen argued they would be rendered jobless if the ecosystem is destroyed.
Takawiri Beach Management Unit (BMU) chairman Bernard Ongata said the dredger prevents fishermen from operating their small boats because the water becomes turbulent when it is operating.
Mr Ongata is also concerned about the life of fish in the lake, particularly, the breeding sites. As the dredging goes on, some of the fish eggs at the bottom of the lake are destroyed, he said.
“Fish habitat would be destroyed if the dredger is allowed to continue operating in the lake. This project must be stopped,” he said.
The dredging has not gone down well with tourism sector players too.
Mr Mohammed Hersi, chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation, said he was disturbed by events at Takawiri.
While saying he is a big supporter of the project, he insisted that it should not be at the expense of the environment.
He revealed that a while back, there was a similar painful fight at the Coast for Tiwi and Diani.
“Takawiri is a God-given gift to the people of Homa Bay and there is an investor who put up a boutique resort and someone would like to make nonsense of such investment, not to mention all the fishing that happens on the lake,” said Mr Hersi.
He added that he had read the 121 environmental impact assessment report for Kisumu port and nowhere is Takawiri mentioned.
The closest mention is the one proposing Mbita causeway is removed, yet it was replaced by a bridge in 2017.
“Please don’t forget that Kenya’s share of Lake Victoria is a tiny seven per cent and we are choosing to be reckless even with that little bit. We say a big ‘No’. As tourism players we are concerned and watching keenly,” said Mr Hersi.
He added that contractors should not treat locals and stakeholders with contempt.
Demands for transparency
Mr Joshua Nyamori, a human rights activist demanded transparency on the terms of the contract to Mango Tree to help residents understand what is in it for the people.
“Geological studies have pointed to the existence of gold, oil and other minerals under Lake Victoria. What assurance do we have that the so-called dredging does not include secret mining of these minerals?” asked Mr Nyamori.
He demanded that ESIA study report on dredging be published and public participation done to assure the public that the lake is not endangered.
The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) has termed the dredging in Takawiri illegal.
Homa Bay County Nema Director Josiah Nyandoro recommended that action be taken against individuals who took the dredger to the lake to “harvest sand” last week.
Nema officials visited Takawiri Island on Monday after the residents complained. They said they were not informed about the dredging in Takawiri, although they were aware of the dredging at the Kisumu port.
“Whoever was operating the vessel in the lake did not subject the activity to an environmental impact assessment. According to our records, the activity in the lake in Homa Bay was illegal,” he said.
He recommended that the legal entity of the ship be established so that legal action can be taken against the owners of the vessel.
Nema concurred with the residents that sand harvesting in the lake affects breeding of fish. The activity also reduces light to the lake, which affects aquatic organisms.
“As the dredger harvests sand, it affects rapidity which affects marine life. Total suspended solids in the area will also increase,” Mr Nyandoro said.
He added that no institution has been licensed to harvest sand in Homa Bay County.