Lamu County Government will be moving with speed to provide greater protection for the treasured sand dunes and the coastal environment in the archipelago.
Coastal dune systems are natural habitats for many native species and in their natural state they protect land and properties from erosion, storms, cyclones and tsunamis.
The only island in the region with a source of freshwater is Lamu old town but the water catchment area is under threat due to illegal human activities such as constructions and sand harvesting.
The Shela sand dunes, a 12 km white sandy stretch are the only freshwater reservoirs serving more than 30,000 residents of the idyllic Indian Ocean Island.
Fresh rainwater filters through the sandy dunes a ‘veritable buried treasure’ and floats on top of the salt water from where it can be pumped up, purified, and used as fresh drinking water.
Stakeholders contend that it is now abundantly clear that the protection of the water catchment area in the Shela dunes is one of the most crucial issues facing the World Heritage property.
Construction of tourist hotels, beach infrastructure development, landscaping and beautification of frontal dunes and other activities are all blamed for the degradation of sand dunes in Lamu.
Area Governor Issa Timamy contends the sand dunes are the only membrane between sea water and fresh water and they should be protected and conserved. Timamy says the sand dunes, a fascinating landscape which is also a major tourist attraction site, warrant the protection of the devolved unit and other relevant state agencies for posterity.
He says sand dunes are the most threatened landscape in Lamu archipelago and underscored the need for sand dune conservation.
Timamy says the reserve sand dunes play a crucial role in protecting the picturesque beaches and the coastline from natural hazards such as storm surges, coastal erosion and flooding.
“The dunes are indeed very special to Lamu where water scarcity has been a lingering challenge,” he said, adding that many parts of the historic archipelago are reeling under acute crisis of drinking water.
He says in the case of Lamu-Shela-Kipungani rolling huge sand dunes are the only source of fresh water for the old town and underscored the need to preserve them.
The Lamu-Shela-Kipunguni sand dunes are a sight to behold as the mass of white sand is so shiny, tall, clean and beautiful to bewitch any visitor.
Lamu Old Town is a unique and rare historical living heritage with more than 700 years of continuous settlement and was declared a World Heritage Site in 2001 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
“But we are perturbed by attempts to grab the sand dunes by influential individuals and develop properties on them,” he said, adding that they are handing over the sand dunes zones to the Water Resource Management Authority-WRMA for preservation and management.
Timamy says they will also liaise with the National Land Commission (NLC) to revoke title deeds held by individuals in the protected areas in violation of the environmental laws. He says the NLC is in the process of preparing title deeds for all the sand dunes in the archipelago in order to ring-fence them from grabbers.
“Those holding title deeds for the endangered sand dunes zones should continue holding them for ornamental purposes since it would be of no use to them once it’s revoked,” he says adding that as sea level rise and storms intensify sand dunes help protect coastal areas from flooding.
He says that his administration will be taking steps to ensure that the sand dune zones are rehabilitated and appropriate action taken to deter further illegal activities.
The County boss urged the island dwellers to bring matters of environmental concern to the attention of relevant authorities for appropriate action and remedial measures.
“Since sand dunes protect inland areas from swells, tides, and winds, they must be protected and defended as national treasures,” he says, adding that they are also a water body and as such a source of water.
He says, “no one is above the law and those with title deeds should know that we are coming after them and that we will not allow or tolerate the violation of the county’s environmental wealth, which belongs to all of us.”
According to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) curator in charge of Lamu Museums and World Heritage sites, Mohammed Mwenje, the sand dunes were gazetted by the NMK and are part of the Lamu World Heritage Sites.
He says the sand dunes which act as a beach’s first line of defence against the forces of the ocean have borne the brunt of unchecked human activities. He says a large number of dunes in Lamu are severely altered and some leveled to the ground due to construction activities.
Mwenje says as such the NMK cannot allow illegal development in sand dune zones where no extractive activity such as fishing, hunting, logging, sand mining and drilling is allowed.
“Lamu old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa and its integrity as an island town is closely connected to the sea and sand-dunes,” he says.
He says human activities were taking place unabated and sand dunes were also being destroyed in the beaches hence the need to act and protect these zones.
“The dunes are a marvel of nature as they are the source of clean water for Lamu Island inhabitants,” says Mwenje and called for concerted efforts to help restore and protect these at-risk habitats.
He says Lamu faces a major environmental threat if its water catchments that are the sand dunes areas are not protected from plunder.
Mwenje says the sand dunes at Shela and Kipungani where sand dunes destruction is prominent are the only fresh water reservoirs serving the residents of Lamu Island.
He says NMK is working with the Water Resource Management Authority (WRMA) to ensure all water towers in Lamu are conserved.
The NMK officer says sediment in sand dunes protects the land behind them from storm erosion and potential sea level rise.
“Coastal sand dunes are formed when wind and tidal waves transport sand onto the beach,” he says and underscored the need to protect them as climate change gathers pace.
The curator says excavating on coastal dunes or beaches also causes sand dune erosion by disrupting natural sediment processes and damaging delicate aquifers.
He says the Shela aquifer under the sand dunes is particularly threatened by the impact of human activities because of the increasing demand of sun and sand tourism in the region.
The senior NMK official says the sand dunes are natural barriers against powerful waves and windy storms besides being a rich habitat for specific vegetation and wildlife.
He says they offer great scenic beauty, in addition to protecting the surrounding communities from strong winds and harbouring unique species adapted to these saline environments.
“Due to unchecked human activities the sand dunes come under pressure and residents cannot afford to sit tight where water is not plentiful,” he says, adding that sand dunes are fragile and have a dynamic ecosystem.
He says it’s easy to take sand dunes for granted but they do in fact have many important values ‘since they are more than just sand as they are a source of drinking water’.
“We have ancient settlements that liter the Lamu archipelago such as the Manda, Shanga and Takwa that were abandoned in the past due to water scarcity and we don’t want Lamu old town to fall into such a state,” he says.
“We need all and sundry to be our eyes and ears. When matters of this nature are brought to our attention, we will take the strongest action possible within the law,” he says.
He says intrusive tourism is harmful for any eco-sensitive place and should be replaced by sustainable tourism or else the fragile sand dunes will be destroyed.
Mwenje says NMK and the WRMA are in agreement that the whole dune system must be a protected area and be included in the extended buffer zone, and that the area must be vigilantly patrolled to stop any further encroachment or pollution.
By Hussein Abdullahi