Lesotho water project needs scrutiny

Posted On Tuesday, 04 October 2011 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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Lesotho constructed Polihali Dam, with its capacity of 2,2-billion cubic meters, made the LHWP one of the largest transboundary water-transfer schemes in the world.

Water affairsIN AUGUST, SA’s minister of water affairs and Lesotho’s minister of natural resources signed an official agreement to implement Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). It was a momentous occasion: the construction of Polihali Dam in Lesotho, with its capacity of 2,2-billion cubic meters, will make the LHWP one of the largest transboundary water-transfer schemes in the world. The signing went virtually unnoticed in SA.

The LHWP has been fraught with problems since the treaty was signed in 1986. Phase 1 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 last year rated the project a failure on this key goal.

But there are good reasons the public should be paying more attention to this huge 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 economy, provide jobs and spare the mountain valleys of Lesotho — all at a fraction of the R7,8bn cost of LHWP Phase 2. 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 sceptical about Phase 2 because of the effects on one of the region’s great rivers. Thousands of kilometres 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. Rivers are the most endangered natural systems on the planet and climate change will make their overall health even more precarious. Even with advanced rivermodelling and mitigation programmes, it is difficult to say how downstream areas will react to drastically reduced flows.

Lesotho’s food security is also at risk, with implications for the region’s overall prospects. Upstream of the Polihali Dam, thousands of square kilometres of fertile land will be inundated. According to estimates by project authorities, more than 20000 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 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 in Phase 1. Lesotho was lauded for trying and successfully convicting former LHWP CEO Masupha Sole for accepting bribes from international contracting companies, and for its dogged pursuit of guilty verdicts for the companies.

On August 1, however, the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission appointed the recently paroled Sole as chief technical adviser 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, German company Lahmeyer International, which was found to have bribed Sole with about R5,9m, was recently removed from the World Bank’s black list two years early, and is now eligible to bid on Phase 2 contracts.

Finally, there has been little discussion of the fact that water costs as calculated by SA’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. 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 SA is linked with its rural neighbour by water in complex ways that demand public attention: southern African environmental security, social stability, good governance and water access are at stake.

CHoag is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Pottinger is with International Rivers.


Last modified on Tuesday, 29 October 2013 12:14

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