Bribery Taints World Bank–Funded Lesotho Water Project

Sunday, August 1, 1999

A dozen major international dam–building companies involved in the World Bank–funded Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) have lavishly bribed at least one top official on the project, allegedly giving nearly US$2 million in bribes over ten years, reports the South African newspaper Business Day. The information was revealed as part of a court case for the bribed official.

Patrick McCully, Campaigns Director of International Rivers Network, says: "Bribery has long distorted the decision–making process on large dams. The international dam industry should be held accountable for its corrupt practices."

  • The following list of companies and the reported bribe amounts paid was published in the July 29, 1999, edition of Business Day:
  • ABB (Swedish/Swiss) – Ff 250000 (US$40,410);
  • Acres International (Canadian) – C$279539 (US$185,002);
  • Impregilo (Italy) – US$250,000;
  • Spie Batignolles (French) – Ff 738630 (US$119,393);
  • Sogreah (French) – Ff 84000 (US$13,578);
  • Dumez International (French) – Ff 509905,62 (US$82,422).
  • Lahmeyer Consulting Engineers (German) – DM 16000 (US$8674);
  • ED Züblin (German) – DM 819862 (US$444,466);
  • Diwi Consulting (Germany) – DM 4500 (US$2439);
  • LHPC Chantiers (international consortium) – R392967 (US$63,959);
  • Highlands Water Venture (international consortium, including Impregilo, the German firm Hochtief, the French firm Bouygues, the UK firms Keir International and Stirling International, and South African firms Concor and Group Five) – $733,404;
  • Lesotho Highlands Project Contractors (international consortium which includes Balfour Beatty, Spie Batignolles, LTA, Züblin) – DM 105639 (US$57,269).

Patrick McCully of International Rivers says: "This list of corrupt companies reads like a who's who of the dam–building industry."

All of the companies implicated in this scandal are from countries that have signed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's convention on corruption and bribery. The OECD Convention obliges signatories to adopt national legislation which makes it a crime to bribe foreign public officials ( The OECD convention imposes forfeiture of a contract's total value in instances of proven corruption, according to the Financial Times (June 25, 1999).

On July 29, the Lesotho government charged the former CEO of the multi–billion–dollar LHWP, Masupha Sole, with fraud, perjury and taking bribes. The international project to bring water from Lesotho to South Africa is managed by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority and overseen by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa. Construction on one dam is completed and a second dam is underway in the 5–dam scheme, which is the largest infrastructure project under construction in Africa (for more information on the project visit or

The charge sheet states that Sole "did unlawfully, intentionally and corruptly accept bribe moneys, over the period February 1988 to December 1998, from Lesotho Highlands Water Project contractors." Sole, appointed CEO of the LHWP in 1986, was suspended in December 1994 and dismissed from his position in 1995. The Lesotho government alleges he continued to accept bribes after that. One source told Business Day that contractors paid bribes directly into Swiss and French bank accounts in Sole's name.

The World Bank has lent over $150m for the project. Its involvement obliges the bank to apply its operational regulations –– including those on fraud and corruption –– to project contractors. The bank's procurement guidelines state: "The bank will declare a firm ineligible, either indefinitely or for a stated period of time, to be awarded a bank–financed contract if it at any time determines that the firm has engaged in corrupt or fraudulent practices in competing for, or in executing, a bank–financed contract." A bank "sanctions committee" decides on these matters, and maintains a comprehensive list of debarred firms (called the Listing of Ineligible Firms). The list is not publicly available. Many of the firms implicated in this scandal have been involved in numerous dam projects funded by the World Bank.

According to a July 30 article in Business Day, the World Bank will wait until the outcome of Sole's court case before contemplating action against any of the companies named on the charge sheet. Meanwhile, South Africa's new Water Affairs and Forestry Minister, Ronnie Kasrils, said the conduct of implicated companies which were still involved in the project was being "closely scrutinized on an ongoing basis." (For full story:

Several of the companies involved in this case are closely involved with the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which is analyzing the development effectiveness of dams worldwide (see for more information).
The CEO of ABB is one of the WCD's 12 commissioners, and ABB and other industry firms have funded the WCD.

Juliette Majot, Executive Director of International Rivers, says: "The close connection between these companies and the WCD threatens to compromise its ability to frankly assess the role of corruption in the dam industry. This issue will provide a serious test of the commission's integrity."

Corruption scandals such as this have played an important role in the ongoing problem of cost overruns on large dams. The World Bank has estimated that more than 70 percent of the dams it has built since 1960 have had cost overruns of over 30 percent. The bank also estimates that the sums distributed world–wide each year as bribes total US$80 billion. The OECD calls this figure is just "the tip of the iceberg.

Background on Previous Corruption Involving These Companies

The companies implicated in this scandal are no strangers to allegations of corruption. Spie Batignolles and Sogreah were involved in Kenya's Turkwell Gorge Dam which, because of bribes reportedly paid to Kenya's president and energy minister, cost more than twice what the European Commission said it should have. A March 1986 "Financial Times" story said Kenyan officials involved were "fully aware of the disadvantages of the French deal –– but they nevertheless accepted because of high personal advantages."(1)

Impregilo, Dumez and Lahmeyer were three of the leading firms involved in the Yacyretá Dam in Argentina and Paraguay, which Argentina's President Carlos Menem has called a "monument to corruption." The process for awarding contracts on the $11.5 billion Yacyretá Dam included "influence peddling, graft, presidential tippling and –– virtually every kind of chicanery imaginable."(2)

Lahmeyer and Impregilo also had contracts on Guatemala's Chixoy Hydroelectric Project; various sources estimate that between $350 and $500 million dollars were lost to corruption on this project. "The dam was the biggest gold mine the crooked generals ever had," according to Rafael Bolaños, dean of the School of Civil Engineering at Guatemala's San Carlos University.(3)

ABB and Dumez worked on Itaipú Dam (Brazil/Paraguay), which has been described as "possibly the largest fraud in the history of capitalism."(4) The dam was originally projected to cost $3.4 bn, but skim–offs brought the final cost to around $20 bn.

ABB also worked on Tucuruí Dam in Brazil, another project tainted by major corruption. "Testimony at the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Tucuruí, held in the Para State Legislative Assembly in 1991, accused some of the most powerful men in Brazil of corruption in arranging the foreign financing and purchase contracts for Tucuruí," according to Philip Fearnside, a researcher based in Brazil.(5)


1 "Silenced Rivers" (Patrick McCully, Zed Books, 1996)
2 World Bank Annual Meeting News, Oct. 13, 1991. Yacyreta's projected cost was $2.7bn; the final cost was $11.5bn.
3 "A People Dammed: The Impact of the World Bank Chixoy Hydroelectric Project in Guatemala" by Witness for Peace (1995).
4 P.R. Schilling and R. Canese, "Itaipú: Geopolitica e Corrupçãu, CEDI, Sao Paulo, 1991.
5 "Brazil's Tucuruí Dam: Presentation to the World Commission on Dams," by Philip Fearnside, 15 June 1999.
The feasibility study for the proposed Epupa Dam in Namibia is so riddled with incorrect conclusions, false assumptions and missing data that it cannot be used as a basis for a well–informed decision on the project, according to a group of outside experts who reviewed the massive report. The reviews, which were filed on Monday with the Namibian government, clearly indicate that the Epupa project has not been justified on economic, social, environmental or power supply grounds.