Lesotho Project Needs Scrutiny

Lori Pottinger and Colin Hoag
Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A version of this commentary appeared in Business Day (South Africa).

In August, the South African Minister of Water Affairs and the Lesotho Minister of Natural Resources signed an official agreement to implement Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). It was a momentous occasion: the construction of Polihali Dam in the mountains of Lesotho, with its reservoir capacity of 2.2 billion cubic meters, will make the LHWP one of the largest transboundary water transfer schemes in the world. Surprisingly, it went virtually unnoticed in South Africa.

Meeting to discuss LHWP, Lesotho
Meeting to discuss LHWP, Lesotho

The LHWP has been fraught with problems since the treaty was signed in 1986. Phase I left thousands of Basotho worse off than before the project began. While Lesotho was encouraged by the World Bank to export its “white gold” for poverty alleviation purposes, an internal World Bank study in 2010 rated the LHWP thus far as a failure on this key goal. According to the report, “The community-driven development program supporting the project’s primary objective failed… LHWP-1B’s successful water infrastructure program will be a main pillar in Lesotho’s development for decades to come. But the royalties did not go to poverty reduction, the project’s most fundamental objective.”

Perhaps it is natural that ordinary South Africans have shown so little interest in the costs – economic as well as social and environmental – of this huge project. But there are good reasons that the public should be paying more attention to this massive development.

First, there are better alternatives to building more huge dams in Lesotho. Moves to increase water supply to Gauteng should only come after moves to increase the efficiency of urban water infrastructure. Developing water recycling schemes and repairing leaking municipal water infrastructure would boost the South African economy, provide jobs to South Africans, and spare the mountain valleys of Lesotho – all at a fraction of the R7.8 billion cost of LHWP Phase II. These and other demand-side management strategies are also a smarter approach for a Southern Africa that will be drier as a result of climate change.

South Africans should also be skeptical about the LHWP Phase II because of the impacts to one of the region’s great rivers. Thousands of kilometers of the Senqu/Orange River, from Lesotho to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean, will become water-starved in the name of Gauteng water consumers. If the LHWP Phase I is any indication, the river below the Polihali Dam could be reduced to as little as 2% of its original flow. Healthy ecosystems are critical to all life on the planet, including our human communities, and river environments are of particular import to us all. Yet rivers are the most endangered natural systems on the planet, and climate change will make their overall health even more precarious. Even with the most advanced river modeling and mitigation programs, it is difficult to say how downstream areas will react to these drastically reduced flows.

Basotho woman with maize crop
Basotho woman with maize crop
Lesotho’s food security is also at risk, with implications for the region’s overall prospects. Upstream of the Polihali Dam, thousands of square kilometers of fertile land will be inundated. According to estimates made by project authorities, over 20,000 Basotho will be resettled or lose grazing and agricultural fields. While the LHWP is billed as a development initiative for Lesotho – and indeed it will bring much-needed infrastructure, hydroelectric power, and temporary employment – many rural Basotho will suffer greatly as a result. Unless the LHWP brings sustainable economic activity to Lesotho, South Africans can expect more migration from Lesotho. Recent tightening of immigration restrictions by South African authorities will mean that many of these migrants will go undocumented.

South Africans should also be concerned about the LHWP’s significance for regional good governance. Corruption is a major problem on large dam projects, and the LHWP suffered from widespread corruption on Phase I.  ILesotho was lauded for trying and successfully convicting former LHWP CEO Masupha Sole  for accepting millions in bribes from international contracting companies, and for its dogged pursuit of guilty verdicts of the companies. On August 1, however, the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission appointed the recently paroled Sole as Chief Technical Advisor for the Lesotho delegation. In such a capacity, Sole will have more administrative control than he did as CEO, and will oversee several people who testified against him. What is more, the German company Lahmeyer International, which was found to have bribed Mr. Sole with some R5.9 million, was recently removed from the World Bank’s blacklist two years early, and is now eligible to bid on LHWP Phase II contracts.

Finally, despite significant public protest over efforts to charge end users for the water they consume, there has been little discussion of the fact that water costs as figured by South Africa’s Water Boards derive largely from the costs of water diversion. The South African financing of the LHWP will come directly from the end user (though if energy use in South Africa is any indication, large industrial users are not as likely as average consumers to end up paying their fair share). Activists and policy makers would do well to integrate their concerns regarding water access with those raised by the LHWP.

The phrase “water connects” reminds us that we can't take our water bonds for granted.   The fate of urban South Africa is linked with its rural neighbor by water in complex ways that demand public attention; Southern African environmental security, social stability, good governance, and water access are at stake.

Colin Hoag lived in Lesotho as a US Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003-2005. He is currently a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz; his dissertation will focus on the LHWP. Lori Pottinger has followed the LHWP for 16 years for International Rivers.