The water-deprived communities

By Leonie March, Freelance Journalist at AfrikaRiff, Weltreporter and RiffReporter in collaboration with Seinoli Legal Centre.

The Katse reservoir nestles picturesquely against the mountain slopes and meanders through several valleys, and the smooth water surface reflects the clouds in the Lesotho highlands. Surrounded by neighboring South Africa, the small kingdom in the mountains is considered the water tower of the entire region. The dam has supplied the South African economic center around Johannesburg with drinking water since 1998.

It is the heart of the so-called Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which consists of dams, tunnel systems, pumping stations, and hydroelectric power plants. It is one of the “most successful transboundary water management systems in the world”, according to the responsible authority, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA).

“The water belongs to South Africa and no longer to us”

But when Mothusi Seqhee looks at the huge glittering expanse of water, he sees something different: “The water belongs to South Africa and no longer to us,” he says. “We can’t use it how we want. It’s a problem.” Seqhee works for the Seinoli Legal Center – an NGO founded in 2010 to represent the interests of displaced or dispossessed villagers because of this major project.

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Bearing the costs of construction and the price of water.

Katse Dam is the first Phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project which was constructed in 1991 and completed in 1998 on the Malibamats’o River, a tributary of the Orange Senqu River. The communities living around the dam area have experienced several adverse consequences including social disarticulation, dispossession of livelihoods, and cultural alienation to name but a few. One of the glaring issues concerning this project is how the communities no longer have access to water. This past week, the world celebrated international water day, yet the communities in Katse claim not to have access to clean running water. The communities also have to walk long distances to the limited water sources which have been availed to them after losing their natural water resources.

The communities’ natural springs and wells have dried up as a result of the project, which has resulted in perplexing life changes amongst the communities. For 16 years, the village of Mapeleng lacked access to clean drinking water. During the inundation of the Katse dam, the community’s natural springs dried up. The community literally drank from ponds containing unclean water and the entire village suffered from waterborne diseases. 20 years later, the communities that sacrificed to make way for the dam project, continue to suffer immensely.

There is an urgent need to flip the lens towards the needs of communities so as to close the justice gap and safeguard the rights and sustainable livelihoods of communities being affected by large development projects. Project implementors must ensure access to water and sanitation as a preventive measure and a prerequisite for an adequate standard of living.

Water is a critical dimension of sustainable development as articulated in SDG-6 ( Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) which states that by 2030 that there should be equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations and the Water Act 2008 justifies that water is one of the most important resources.

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