Striking Lesotho Dam Workers Killed by Police - NGOs Urge World Bank to Take Action

Thursday, September 26, 1996

Five workers were shot dead and some 30 injured when police evicted striking workers from a Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) construction camp in Lesotho on September 14. For at least a week after the killings, up to 1,000 workers remained in a nearby Catholic church where they had sought refuge after the bloody encounter.

The World Bank has loaned $110 million for the Katse Dam, the first to be built in the multi–dam water transfer scheme, and is currently considering making loans for a second, Mohale Dam. It also lent $8 million in concessionary loans for project design. The project's water is destined for South Africa, which is funding the bulk of the multi–billion–dollar project.

Lori Pottinger, Southern Africa Campaigns Coordinator for International Rivers Network, says:

"Local and international NGOs are asking the World Bank to use its good offices to intervene at the highest levels of government, to ensure that an impartial, independent investigation is conducted and that the perpetrators of this tragedy are brought to justice."

According to a press statement by the Lesotho Council of NGOs, which talked with workers soon after the confrontation, "police charged upon [workers] while they were in peaceful occupation and were not destroying any property. [Police] threw a great quantity of tear gas and as the workers started fleeing, they started shooting at them. They shot and injured or killed some of them even after the workers had escaped the camp and were in a nearby donga [gully] The police were also shooting at ambulances that were coming to the assistance of injured people. One ambulance driver with injured people in the vehicle was even arrested and shot."

The slain Basotho (native to Lesotho) workers were all employed by a project consortium that includes five contractors: LTA Ltd. (South Africa), Spie Batignolles (France), Balfour Beatty Ltd. (UK), Campenon Bernard (France), and Ed Züblin AG (Germany). All were working on a hydropower project linked to Katse Dam. The contractors requested the police to evict the workers from the camp shortly after firing 2,300 workers for "illegally striking."

The South African Business Day reports that two Lesotho opposition parties "have called on President Mandela, the World Bank, EU and Lesotho governments to ensure the supension of officials implicated in striking workers' deaths."

The US$8 billion scheme––huge by international construction project standards––threatens to overwhelm tiny Lesotho, where the average yearly income is US$440 and the government has no experience managing large construction projects.

James Lamont wrote in the South African newspaper supplement Business Report (September 20), "Many questions are drifting down from the Lesotho Highlands, foremost of which is whether the Lesotho government has the capacity to administer a project of this size."

This is the latest in a series of labor disputes that date back to May of this year. The September strike was called for a number of reasons, including lower pay for Basotho workers compared to those from other countries; police harassment of workers, and the contractors' dismantling of negotiating structures set up with the local construction workers' union, the Construction and Allied Workers Union of Lesotho.

The LHWP has fallen under increased public scrutiny recently. An international workshop on the project, held in Johannesburg last month, revealed ongoing social issues arising from the project. Project authorities have also been battling increasingly bad press over problems with compensation and resettlement issues. On Sept. 2, the South African newspaper supplement Business Report quoted the World Bank's task manager for the project, John Roome, as saying, "For us to proceed with the next phase, environmental and social elements of [Katse Dam] have to be satisfactorily met."