LHDA sued

The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) has been sued for withholding vital socioeconomic data pertaining to communities impacted by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Phase I and II.

Seinoli Trust, an NGO and public interest law center recently lodged the application, representing communities affected by both phases of the bi-national project.

The Trust alleges that LHDA’s denial of this crucial information violates its own policy and legal obligations regarding access to information.

Reitumetse Nkoti Mabula, the Executive Director of Seinoli Legal Centre, explained in an affidavit that Seinoli’s request for socioeconomic data was met with refusal by LHDA.

Mabula said that the denial not only contravenes LHDA’s policy but also its legal commitments regarding access to information.

Papers filed in court reveal that Seinoli wrote to the LHDA in March and April this year requesting for the same information.

“Seinoli is deeply concerned about the dire situation derived from implementing Phase IA, of villages in the Katse catchment area. We have received many complaints relating to the implementation of the compensation policy as well as severe impact on the standards of livelihood of communities, read the letter Seinoli wrote to LHDA.

It added: “Seinoli has received witness statements from affected people describing how their livelihoods have been affected and how those changes impact human rights. To make a comprehensive assessment and conduct an in-depth analysis of the implementation of Phase IA, we request a completed census and socio-economic survey data set of all project-affected persons.

Among others, Seinoli demanded land and asset inventory, disclosure forms with valuation amounts, compensation values per asset, compensation offers, and signed agreement documents or grievance documents as well as an overview of cash compensation in kind that was paid out to affected persons.

The letter continued: To make a comprehensive assessment of the subject matter, we request the information above as we are alarmed by the available evidence, which suggests that LHDA is not acting in compliance with domestic and international law.

We are deeply concerned about potential human rights violations protected under the law of Lesotho and international agreements that Lesotho has signed and ratified.

On June 22, 2023, LHDA responded, stating that they conduct periodic studies on the socio-economic status of affected communities.

It explained that the latest study was ongoing and that the resulting information becomes LHDA’s intellectual property, making it unavailable for third-party sharing.

Based on the above, LHDA is unable to share data and information relating to the socio-economic status of the communities that have been affected by the LHWP to Seinoli Legal Centre and or any other third party, read the LHDA letter.

Seinoli Trust has now approached the High Court of Lesotho, seeking a declaration that LHDA’s refusal to provide information is unlawful. They further request a review of LHDA’s decision and its correction.

In doing so (refusing with the information), the LHDA denied the applicant (Seinoli) access to the requested critical information, thereby disabling the applicant to interrogate the critical questions on the basis of the scientific information and data in the possession of the LHDA, Mabula stated in her founding affidavit.

She argued that in terms of Clause 4.5 of the LHDA 2016 Environmental Policy, the LHDA made commitments with respect to stakeholders engagement that “LHDA will respond promptly to concerns and requests for information and will fully investigate substantive complaints.

“Section 14 of the constitution of Lesotho 1993 protects the applicants’ right to freedom of expression which includes the applicant’s right to receive information and ideas without interference.

I aver that there is no law in Lesotho that justifies the LHDA to limit applicants’ aforesaid entrenched right to access information for the purposes specified under section 14 (2) of the constitution of Lesotho 1993.

The refusal by LHDA therefore constitutes illegal interference with applicants’ constitutionally entrenched rights, she said.

She indicated that they depend on the technical, scientific or other information or data relevant to the objects of the applicant aforesaid. Consequently, the applicant is the bearer of the rights such as the right of access to information.

The state, parastatals or local authorities have the correlative duty and obligations to provide the information required by the applicant for the purpose of enabling the applicant to not only enjoy the vested rights but also to use this information as the vehicle towards achieving its objectives.

Communities affected by LHWP fall within beneficiaries of Seinoli Trust because they are vulnerable to rights violation and as such qualify for provision of free legal assistance and representation offered by the applicant, she said.

LHDA has always held that communal rights including communal resources and assets, will be identified and inventoried and will be paid communal compensation to the affected communities, she said.

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Film highlights the Lesotho rural communities set to be displaced by international water projects

SRT grantee the Seinoli Legal Centre has produced a  film which details the potential impact of a large-scale water-transfer project on local communities in Lesotho.

The Lesotho-Botswana Water Transfer Scheme is being conducted within an agreement between the governments of Lesotho, Botswana, and South Africa. A dam will be constructed along the Makhaleng river in the southern lowlands of Lesotho. The project will supply Botswana with water through a conveyance water pipeline going through South Africa. It will further provide the three countries with electricity to complement the system power needs of the local towns in the countries.

The Seinoli Legal Centre has consulted the 21 communities along the river, to determine their awareness of the project and the potential impact. They have produced a film from their conversations with these locals, which gives a stark look at their rural way of life, and what is at stake for them.

The Seinoli Legal Centre reported two key findings. Firstly, that no official communication has been made to the communities regarding the project which indicates that the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent has not been applied. And secondly, the standards of living and livelihoods of communities living along the river will be greatly affected, as they will be forced to resettle to make way for the dam, losing their land and the surrounding natural resources. They voiced concerns on many aspects, from what would happen to their animals, to what would happen to their graves. However, the main concern for most of the residents interviewed is that being so heavily reliant on agriculture, animal rearing and a rural way of life, many were not formally educated and didn’t feel equipped to live elsewhere.

Mamatlakala Lefume, a 68 year-old who lives in Ha Joele village, said; “We have fields that are our main source of livelihood. There are no schools nearby for our children to attend, we heavily rely on agricultural land… We plead with implementing authorities that compensation for our lost fields should be made payable for a lifetime.”

Another interviewee from the same village added that he felt “anxious about relocating to a new place, where our ways of living may be seen as odd”.

After making this film, the Seinoli Legal Centre has called on the project authorities to ensure that members of communities to be affected are put at the center of this project and that their rights and interests are respected.

The Seinoli Legal Centre is a public interest legal organisation that protects the rights of communities affected by the construction of dams and large infrastructure in Lesotho. 

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Widow’s Home Destroyed By Roadworks In Polihali

By Mamphasa Monethi

As the M562 million construction of key roads linked to the Lesotho Water Highlands Project’s phase second phase powers ahead, a widow’s house near the construction works has been left damaged and possibly unsafe to live in. Contractors have taken some responsibility, done a quick patch of the house, but refused to do more or admit that their blasting has caused lasting damage.

The home of Mantloheleng Keqe, a villager from Ha Ramolakalali was damaged on two occasions. Blasting activities by Rumdel AC Joint Venture, which comprises South Africa-based Rumdel Construction and Lesotho-based A&C Holdings and which is responsible for building a 32.86km road between Semenanyane River and the Polihali Dam site, allegedly damaged the house. A company construction vehicle then crashed into the home. During MNN’s first visit to the home in August, Keqe explained that a construction vehicle had crashed through the wall at the back of her two-roomed house, damaging the roofing, doors and other interior parts of the house, which included furniture, leaving groceries scattered all over.

Since this accident, the sharp downhill curve behind Keqe’s house, the absence of guardrails, and the recent tarring of the road caused two additional incidents where private cars hit Keqe’s house. The change from a gravel road to a tarred surface has contributed to an increase in vehicle speed posing danger to nearby residents.

This situation is made more damaging and dangerous by the blasting a few hundred metres from Kege’s home. She is nervous that her house is not safe, she is unable to sleep because of a nagging feeling that disaster could strike at any moment. As a result, Keqe told MNN that she has moved out of the house into the grass-thatched hut nearby as a temporary solution. She can’t bear the thought of something terrible happening while they were all sound asleep, completely vulnerable and unaware.

Construction near Kege’s home is part of the M562 million Polihali West Access Road and the Rehabilitation of Northern Access Road project. Rumdel is supervised by AECOM SA (Pty) Ltd, who work with AECOM Lesotho as consulting engineers that designed these roads.

While AECOM has recommended that Rundel continue to do monthly assessments of the home, Keqe is not happy with the condition of her home and fears that the construction companies are trying to shirk their responsibilities.

Environmental manager at AECOM, Felleng Ramajake, inspected the repairs on Keqe’s home and made the recommendation for monthly inspections to monitor its condition. However, she is unwilling to discuss the matter publicly and instead, says only their employer, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) can comment.

In an interview with MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism, Johan Human, Rumdel AC construction manager, admitted that a company car hit part of Keqe’s house causing parts of it to collapse. However, he refused to admit that his company’s blasting activities have anything to do with the cracks that continue to appear on her house.

“We blasted more than 400 to 500 metres away from that house…There was no blasting anywhere near that house and the recorded blasting limits were just close to half of amplitude limit [150mm/s] that could cause potential damage.”

“We are not saying Rumdel is not responsible, but we are completely ruling out blasting vibrations as the cause. The cracks must then be [caused by] something else. Blasting is completely irrelevant and immaterial,” Human insisted.

According to a complaint closure form filled out by Keqe on April 22, 2021 and submitted to the LHDA, Rumdel is accused of the “dilapidation of the house [Keqe’s] due to vibrations caused by construction activities, mainly blast”.

The same form shows that Rumdel’s Community Liaison Officer, Ntsoaki Nenesi, made a submission on May 6, 2021, stating that “the house was repaired, and the owner was satisfied with remedial works”.

But Keqe says she has never been satisfied with the repairs. While she admits that the collapsed part of the wall was rebuilt, she says the interior part was left unplastered with cracks shabbily patched. She denies claims that she was ever satisfied.

Keqe says she was given M300 to purchase plaster and plastering equipment so she could finish the wall herself. Rumdel, Kege says, argued that the wall they had patched was still wet and they couldn’t come back once it dried because they had other pressing matters to attend to.

“It’s possible, and I am not denying it,” Human told MNN.

When asked why they did not consider the actual cost of plastering the walls and only gave Keqe M300, Humane said, “We gave her materials: sand, cement and everything. The M300 was just for her to hire someone for labour.” Keqe denies this saying the company did not leave any materials when they left her home. Keqe’s position is supported by the complaints closure form which Rumdel also signed. “It was agreed that the owner of the house will continue with plastering because the contractor couldn’t plaster the wall because it was still wet. The property owner will be given M300 for plastering the house,” says the form.

MNN also had the opportunity to speak to the Rumdel employee, identified as Thabiso, who led the repairs on Keqe’s house. Thabiso said: “I did the repairs and even went further than what was damaged by the car. The car came through the back wall and we demolished that back wall and rebuilt it all around. However, MNN can confirm that not the whole section of the wall was rebuilt, but only the collapsed part was, and its interior was mud plastered by Keqe (see below pictures).

MNN asked Thabiso whether he plastered the interior wall after rebuilding, and he said, “yes we did put a bit of plaster”.

Human argued: “But on completion of the work, the lady signed a happy letter, which is a contractual obligation we have with the LHDA,” He kept emphasising that Keqe should not have signed the “happy letter” if she was unhappy.

“Nobody forced her to sign [it],” Human said.

MNN has seen this “happy letter” that Keqe’s daughter, Rehauhetsoe Keqe, had written. It was signed by her mother on June 14, 2021. This letter confirms that Keqe’s house was repaired and that she was satisfied. However, Rehauhetsoe told MNN that Nenesi forced her into writing this letter which she says did not reflect her views.  Rehauhetsoe told MNN how Nenesi had assured her that writing this happy letter would facilitate quick repairs by Rumdel. Aside from the happy letter, Nenesi, asked her to write a separate letter to go with it, she says. In this letter she asked for the cracked walls to be repaired. There is no such letter in Keqe’s file at Rumdel that MNN has seen. Keqe suspects that Nenesi did not submit that letter before she left Rumdel. One July 18, 2023 Keqe wrote another letter to the LHDA about her damaged house and asking to be relocated. She is still waiting for a response.

On June 16, 2021 AECOM’s environmental manager, Felleng Ramajake also confirmed in the complaint closure form that: “I inspected the affected structure and I confirm that the house was repaired”.  However, she did recommended “monthly monitoring to assess the structural condition of the house”.

A few months later on October 17 2023, Seinoli visited AECOM offices in Mokhotlong as they tried to find out why the company has not followed up with Rumdel to ensure compliance with their recommendation. One of the key questions was based on the fact that AECOM and Rumdel share a site office and if this could be affecting the two companies’ professional relationship, especially AECOM’s ability to oversee Rumdel. 

Ramajake did not want to talk about the issue. “I am not at liberty to speak with people from outside; that is the duty of the LHDA,” she said.

When MNN asked Human if Rumdel complied with AECOM’s recommendation, Human said: “If there is no blasting in the area and no report from complainants, we don’t visit the house at all. We only do post-construction visits and repairs where there is a need.”

Seinoli is closely working with the LHDA to ensure that Keqe’s issue is dealt with in fairness.

This story was produced by the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism in collaboration with the Seinoli Legal Centre.

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Water exports in the climate crisis: What are the consequences of the water transfer from Lesotho to Botswana?

The water shortage in Botswana is getting worse. A new dam project in Lesotho is intended to help. But it could come at the expense of the country’s own population, warn civil society organizations. There have already been problems with resettlement and compensation in Lesotho in the past. After a change of political power, however, there is now hope for the affected citizens.

Droughts and floods, extreme weather and rising temperatures: the consequences of the climate crisis are clearly felt on the African continent. Many countries are battling with extended dry periods , and the lack of water is not only exacerbating the food crisis , but is also hindering economic development. This will also be discussed by the delegates of the UN conference COP27 , which begins on Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

In the south of the continent, the small kingdom of Lesotho is considered the water tower of the region, with numerous rivers originating in the mountains. For more than two decades, Lesotho has been exporting water to its neighbouring country South Africa, supplying the economic centre around Johannesburg, among other places. Several dams already exist, and new ones are under construction.

But the projects are sometimes at the expense of the local population and the ecological balance: citizens in Lesotho complain about a lack of drinking water, communities are waiting for compensation after being relocated, and researchers are concerned about the state of the wetlands. We reported on this in detail a year ago .

Another major project is planned: the Lesotho-Botswana Transfer Scheme . Water is to be pumped from a new dam in Lesotho through a pipeline 700 kilometers long to arid Botswana, because supplies there could become scarce as early as 2025. Hydropower is also to be used to generate electricity. All three countries – Lesotho, South Africa and Botswana – would benefit from this, according to the cross-border commission, the Orange-Senqu River Commission ( ORASECOM ). International organizations such as the World Bank support the project as a model of regional cooperation.

But is the project really exemplary, has anyone learned from past mistakes? We asked Lepeli Moeketsi, a lawyer at the Seinoli Legal Centre in Lesotho. The non-governmental organisation represents the interests of the villagers who have to be relocated because of the project.

Mr Moeketsi, what do you know about the current status of the project?

Much has already been done: There is a declaration of intent and a memorandum of understanding signed by Lesotho, Botswana and South Africa. Studies have also been carried out since 2018. But very little information is reaching the public – and that is a major concern for us.

We have so far visited 21 villages affected by the project – but hardly anyone there knew about it, only a few had heard anything on the radio. There are reports that initial feasibility, environmental and social impact assessments have been carried out there, but the local people know nothing about it.

This of course raises questions: How is it possible that the social impacts of the project are being assessed without the knowledge of the affected population? I hope to find out more from the responsible water commissioner, whom I asked for a meeting some time ago.

The lawyer is wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt.
Attorney Lepeli Moeketsi

You mentioned 21 villages that you visited. How many people would have to be relocated for the new dam on the Makhaleng River?

We don’t have any official figures yet. It was important to us to at least prepare the people there for the possibility of relocation. Because we already know this from previous projects: problems with relocation, with compensation payments and negative ecological impacts. So we wanted to raise awareness in the communities about what they could expect. We also wanted to know whether they had seen ORASECOM employees surveying their fields, for example. But the answer was: no.

In a short film made by their organization, some villagers speak out about their fear for their traditional lifestyle, which is closely linked to nature, for their livelihood as small farmers and pastoralists, and for the graves of their ancestors. Very similar to the people I met during my research in the Lesotho highlands last year. Has the government changed anything in its behavior towards the rural population since the completion of the Katse Dam in the mid-1990s?

No. It is true that we faced exactly the same challenges in the first phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project . The government does not take public consultations seriously. It does not seek dialogue with those who are affected by these large infrastructure projects.

This is also a legal gap: there is no explicit law that we can use to force the government and investors to do this. However, Chapter Twenty of our Constitution enshrines the right to public participation. And then there is the principle of free, prior and informed consent, FPIC , in the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples. These are possible grounds for a lawsuit.

The authority that implements the projects, the LHDA ( Lesotho Highlands Development Authority ), makes its own laws. For example, regarding the basis for calculating compensation for fields or houses. For example, it simply states that it will pay 20 cents per square meter, but we do not know how it arrived at this amount. It also does not involve the owners of the land in these considerations. So we are still struggling with the same problems.

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Dams and water problems in Lesotho’s highlands

The dams in Lesotho’s highlands help the tiny country generate income from water exports and hydropower generation. But there are increasing problems from droughts and villagers who’ve lost their fields and grazing lands don’t feel their situation has improved.

In Lesotho, a tiny landlocked country in Southern Africa, water is a crucial issue. Though it is one of the poorest countries in the world, Lesotho plays a vital role for its richer and bigger neighbor, South Africa. It’s located in the mountains, and several important rivers rise from here – a lifeline for the entire region. In recent decades, huge dams have been built that are pumping water to South Africa. 

Without the imported water, South Africa’s economic center around Johannesburg would be left high and dry. So it sounds like a win-win: South Africa pays millions in water fees to its neighbor every year and Lesotho generates electricity from hydropower.

But for locals, the project is controversial, and ecologists are raising the alarm as well. 

This report is part of the Riffreporter project ‘Countdown Natur‘ and was supported by the European Journalism Center. 

(Report: Leonie March / Presenter: Ineke Mules)

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Water from Lesotho for Export not villages

The Kingdom of Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world. In order to get more money into the state coffers, the government exports water to neighboring South Africa. Lesotho’s ecosystems and local village communities suffer as a result.

Cool spring water flows from two metal pipes that protrude from a concrete block. A shepherd is watering his sheep here, two girls are filling buckets and canisters with water. It comes directly from the mountains that surround the village of Ha Lejone in the Lesotho highlands. Transporting it is arduous: the girls bring it home in wheelbarrows and balancing it on their heads.

Access to clean drinking water is limited, as in many areas of Lesotho. But here it stands in stark contrast to the masses of water in the valley. Right next door, the huge Katse Dam glistens in the sun – the heart of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. It consists of dams, tunnel systems, pumping stations and power plants. The water is not intended for Lesotho, but for export to South Africa.The supply of food to her village has not improved, says Mammpole Molapo. On the contrary:”Before this project, we had an abundance of water here. But the road and dam construction work damaged many of the pipes that used to bring water to our village. There were promises that they would be repaired, but that has not happened in all these years. And so our village is short of water.”Molapo is the traditional village leader in Ha Lejone, a female chief. Her home village is located at an altitude of around 2,300 meters on the northern shore of the Katse Dam.

The villages have not benefited from water exports

Here, small shops line the streets and men load sheep onto a pickup truck. Some houses are traditionally built from natural stone, covered in grass and round. Modern, rectangular houses with corrugated iron roofs can also be seen in the landscape.


They are sitting on simple chairs in front of a hut in the village. In the background is the mountainous landscape of Lesotho.

Leonie March in conversation with the village head of Ha Lejone: Mammpole Molapo. In the background is NGO employee Mothusi Seqhee.© Roger Jardine

Ha Lejone used to be difficult to reach via unpaved mountain passes. Since the tarmac road was built in the 1990s as part of the dam project, it has become easier to travel to the lowlands. The road construction is being touted by Lesotho’s government as an advantage, as are hydroelectric power and water charges, which brought around 58 million euros into the small kingdom’s coffers last year alone. Part of this should go towards the development of villages like Ha Lejone.But that is not the case, says village mayor Molapo. The bottom line is that her life has not improved. The small-scale farming life of her childhood no longer exists.”We used to have a decent life. We were subsistence farmers and grew enough to feed our families. But many fields and pastures have been flooded for the project. Natural resources that we used are now under water too. For example, medicinal plants. They are now only available in a botanical garden, but that is at the other end of the reservoir. It is a long, expensive journey for us. We also have to pay for the medicinal plants there.”Molapo looks out over the steep, rocky mountain slopes. Shepherds drive their cattle across the landscape on foot and on horseback: cows, sheep, Angora goats. There are no fenced pastures. The land is traditionally used by everyone. Since the valley was flooded, only the slopes remain.

Dams change ecosystems

In many places they appear to be terraced and erosion is increasing. This is also fatal for the water supply: wetlands, which play an important role in the alpine ecosystem, storing and filtering water, are increasingly under pressure, says ecologist Peter Chatanga.”Some of the roads lead through such wetlands. This changes their hydrology, for example they become more easily silted and can no longer fulfil their function as water reservoirs. The dams also change the ecosystem and reduce the pastureland, which in turn leads to overgrazing. Since these areas in the highlands have become more accessible, the population has also increased. This also increases the man-made pressure on the wetlands.”

Bare mountain slopes can be seen from above and a reservoir in the valley.

The Katse Dam near Ha Lejone filled the valley with water.© Roger JardineAdd to that climate change: in the face of a drought, Lesotho had to reduce water exports to South Africa in 2020 for the first time in ten years. And this trend could continue. More droughts, more floods, a less predictable rainy season.Climate change will manifest itself in more extremes in Lesotho, says Henrik Hartmann of the German Society for International Cooperation, GIZ, in Lesotho. However, a study also shows that climate change is not the only reason for the steadily falling water levels in reservoirs over the past 20 years.”There is strong evidence that it is due to the destruction of ecosystems. And this study that we have carried out also shows the consequences that would have. If you assume that the water transfer to Johannesburg could be interrupted by 50 percent, that would have enormous effects on the metropolis itself. You can assume that there will be a ten or eleven percent economic contraction. You can assume that a million jobs will be lost. You can also assume that in Lesotho itself, due to the loss of income, enormous savings will have to be made – in the areas of health and education. In that respect, this is a relevant problem, not just ecologically, but also economically and socially.”

50 to 60 percent of people live in absolute poverty

The income from water exports accounts for a significant portion of the national budget in Lesotho. The country is one of the poorest in the world. If income falls, the resources for poverty reduction also shrink. However, this is crucial for protecting ecosystems, explains Henrik Hartmann of GIZ.”The root cause of ecosystem damage in Lesotho is poverty. It is because people have no other sources of income than subsistence farming. We see this in some of the areas where we work: According to the official definition of absolute poverty – US$1.90 – 50 to 60 percent of people are below that. This means that we are dealing with people who are chronically food insecure. And you cannot approach this with a protection approach where you say: it is now only about protecting the ecosystems.”Therefore, it is not just about establishing new protected areas, but about using natural resources more sustainably. These can be simple solutions, such as growing new crops that require less water than maize, which has dominated until now. Or building drinking troughs on the edge of wetlands. This allows herders to water their livestock without entering the sensitive ecosystems. Environmental protection, poverty reduction and economic development must go hand in hand.Villages like Ha Lejone on the edge of the large dams had also hoped for a better life, a way out of poverty. The responsible government agency, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, had promised tourism projects and the establishment of fishing businesses, among other things. But the results are sobering.

Villagers’ legal battle against the government

The village committee of Ha Lejone has gathered in a small room to discuss what to do next. Men and women sit on wooden benches wrapped in blankets and listen to the news that Mothusi Seqhee brings from the capital, Maseru. He works for the Seinoli Legal Centre – a non-governmental organization of lawyers that represents the interests of the rural population and reports on the long struggle of the villagers.”The contract was signed by Lesotho and South Africa in October 1986, and construction work on the dam began about three years later. The people here and in the other affected areas were promised a better life and compensation. For example, for the loss of pastureland. At first they received animal feed, regardless of whether they had livestock or not. After that there was financial compensation, but only until 2004. Then no money was paid for years, even though annual payments had been agreed. So we went to court and won in 2015.”But the fight is not over yet. The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority said it had stopped payments due to cases of mismanagement in the communities. Now the villagers are obliged to set up committees, document their expenses precisely, have them approved by auditors and even submit business plans.”The intention may have been good, but the implementation is a problem. The responsible authority did not support the committees as intended, for example in drawing up business plans. The people here did their best. They proposed various projects, including a trout farm for the local market. But all their ideas were rejected – and without giving any concrete reasons. In other words: the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority is not interested in the development of these communities. At the same time, it is keeping money that does not belong to it.”NGO employee Mothusi Seqhee alludes to both the lack of compensation payments and the corruption scandals of recent years: funds were embezzled, bribes were paid, and even prison sentences were imposed. Corruption is also considered to be the reason why the completion of the second phase of the bilateral project between Lesotho and South Africa has been delayed by years. In this case, the South African side is under suspicion. Instead of 2019, more water will now only flow to South Africa in 2026. For Lesotho, this means that revenues will not increase. And for South Africa, it means that water is becoming scarce in the Gauteng economic region around Johannesburg, where twelve million people live.

Construction work for another dam

Clean drinking water is already rare in Masakong. The small village is located on a bend in the river, where another dam is to be built as part of the second phase of the project. Heavy construction machines drive over the new tarred road, dust blows over the former pastureland and fallow fields of small farmers. A fence has been built around their village, and the path to the river is also blocked. Residents like Lebohang Lengoasa have been waiting for years to be relocated.”We lead a miserable life. We are literally surrounded here and have lost our livelihood: our fields and our livestock. My animals died in the last drought, others ate plastic waste that was not here before. But we are still waiting for the promised compensation, jobs and relocation of our village.”Lengoasa takes a few steps towards a water tap that protrudes from the ground between his fenced-in village and the large construction site. The villagers used to get their drinking water from a spring, but it was contaminated by wastewater from the construction workers’ settlement. The project management therefore installed this communal water tap.”They first pump the water from the river into the plastic tanks over there. They say they filter it before it comes out of the tap here. But we have doubts about that: when it rains, the water is brown, it smells and tastes strange. Some of us boil it because of that, but not all of us. Children regularly get diarrhea. But when I denounce these abuses, they try to intimidate me.”What will happen next? Lengoasa shrugs his shoulders helplessly. Some of his neighbors have already moved to the city, others are holding on to the hope of somehow building a new life for themselves here in the highlands.

Renegotiate water project?

The government of Lesotho is trampling on the rights of its own citizens, says NGO worker Mothusi Seqhee. The original contract for the cross-border water project was signed in the 1980s, when apartheid was still in place in South Africa and a military regime in Lesotho. He would have expected more from today’s democratically elected governments.”They have the same mentality and approach to the affected citizens as before. Our politicians are not thinking about how the project could actually benefit our country. We should at least be allowed to use the water from the dams for irrigation so that we can produce enough food for the nation. The government should appoint experts to develop viable and sustainable projects to provide new livelihoods and replace the land that the people here have lost.”And of course every citizen has a right to clean drinking water. But the authorities are stubborn, says Mothusi Seqhee, who will soon be going back to court with his NGO’s lawyers.

This research was funded by the European Journalism Centre as part of the Riffreporter project ” Countdown Nature “.

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Kingdom of Water: Lesotho supplies southern Africa – what does the country get out of it?

Lesotho exports water to South Africa, although citizens complain about a lack of drinking water. The condition of wetlands shows that the problem could become even more serious. Photos: Roger Jardine

The Katse Dam nestles picturesquely into the mountain slopes, meandering through several valleys, the smooth surface of the water reflecting the clouds in the Lesotho highlands. The small kingdom in the mountains, which is surrounded by neighboring South Africa, is considered the water tower of the entire region. The dam has been supplying 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 cross-border water management systems in the world,” says the responsible authority, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), proudly.

“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 cannot use it as we want. That is a problem.” Seqhee works for the Seinoli Legal Centre – a non-governmental organisation founded in 2010 to represent the interests of villagers who were relocated or dispossessed because of this major project. 

In the valley between the mountains, the water surface of the Katse reservoir glitters
The Katse Dam
Seqhee stands in front of the mountain landscape, wearing a turtleneck sweater, a blue jacket and looking into the camera
Mothusi Seqhee from Seinoli Legal Centre
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Breaking the Silence: Gender-Based Challenges in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project ll

MASERU, Lesotho, Apr 3 2024 (IPS) – In the journey towards gender equality and justice, recent decades have seen strides made, yet the road ahead remains treacherous. In the race to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, attention is turning to the role that over five hundred public development banks worldwide could play.

Public development banks are increasingly exploring how to promote financial inclusion more effectively, as an important vehicle for women’s economic empowerment. Financial inclusion transcends mere access to capital; it is a radical shift of social norms, addressing social issues that hinder women’s advancement.

However, in many projects funded by PDBs, women are not only excluded and left behind, but are put in a position of harm. One such case is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) where there is growing evidence of a wide range of negative gender impacts within the affected communities.

The objective of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is to provide water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and to generate hydroelectricity for Lesotho by harnessing the waters of the Senqu/Orange River in the Lesotho highlands through the construction of a series of dams.

Hailed as a remarkable engineering feat with anticipated economic benefits, it has instead garnered international notoriety for its severe socioeconomic and environmental repercussions on communities. Phase I of the project led to the displacement of thousands without fair compensation, submerging arable and grazing land, exacerbating erosion, creating impoverishment, “social disintegration”, and limiting access to water resources.

Despite long-standing concerns and documented impacts on communities, including increased HIV/AIDS risk, the project proceeds with Phase II without adequately addressing residual issues.

The project’s impacts disproportionately affect women, exacerbating vulnerabilities through increased risks of displacement, lack of access to water and healthcare, and heightened instances of sexual exploitation, contributing to a cycle of socio-economic marginalization and health disparities.

Gender inequality in Lesotho remains a problem despite progressive legal strides in recent years. Implementation and enforcement of laws, especially in rural communities, continues to be a problem. Outdated cultural practices and stereotypes continue to create barriers to ownership of land, denying women the resources needed to secure livelihoods and increasing their economic vulnerability and susceptibility to gender-based violence.

Seinoli Legal Centre (Seinoli) is a Lesotho based public interest law centre that has been working directly with the affected communities in the Mokhotlong district where LHWP Phase II is being implemented, since the signing of the Agreement on Phase II in 2011.

Increased incidents of gender-based violations have been reported within the project affected communities which should come as no surprise; projects of this nature and scale, including the resultant forced displacement often amplify the risks of gender-based violence.

Furthermore, there are thousands of migrant workers from Lesotho itself and South Africa, who have come to work on LHWP. Migrant workers should be accommodated in designated camps, in healthy accommodations and living conditions in accordance with best practices. The situation on the ground stands in complete contrast to this; there are contractors living and renting accommodation within the communities of Masakong, Ha Ramonakalali, and Tloha-re-Bue. In the case of Ha Ramonakalali, there is also a temporary camp belonging to one of the private companies contracted to work on LHWP which is located within the communities – having profound impacts.

Cases of transactional sex between migrant workers and young women and girls have increased, including cases of abortion and concealment of birth, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and high school drop-outs.

Seinoli was recently alerted to the predicament of the fifteen-year-old Lineo (name changed to protect the victim and her family) and her parents. This young girl was impregnated by one of the migrant laborers working for an LHWP contractor. Lineo decided to have an illegal abortion – as abortion is prohibited in the country -in fear of her parents. The abortion led to health complications, which necessitated informing her parents about the events. Lineo’s parents made a complaint to the police. Seinoli received a report that the police were not able to make charges against the perpetrator as they could not locate him after he was moved to another camp by his employers. Consequently, the young girl has been left with the scourge and stigma of having had an abortion and lives in shame within her community. She has also been forced to drop out of school, which will have severe repercussions on her future and ability to earn an income.

The LHWP receives substantial funds from PDBs such as the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), the New Development Bank (NDB) and the African Development Bank (AfDB). While these banks do indicate concern for gender equality, more needs to be done for the development and strengthening of their gender strategies to ensure that the projects they fund do not violate women’s safety or security.

Currently, the Lesotho Highlands Development (LHDA), the project’s implementing authority, does not have a safeguarding policy to protect communities against sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment risk to ensure accountability.

Communities need to be better informed about their rights and have access to reporting mechanisms which can lead to expedited support for victims whilst holding the perpetrator and their employers accountable.

It has been five years since LHWP Phase II commenced, with advanced infrastructure works since January 2019. However, there has not been any shift towards protecting the rights of vulnerable women and girls since the project begun.

The role of international financial institutions and PDBs in fostering gender equality has been discussed extensively in many quarters, including the academic and research communities. However, many questions remain on the commitment of PDBs to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In practice, concerning some of the public financiers of the LHWP, the NDB still does not have a gender strategy or policy in place despite having been fully operational for close to 10 years. The DBSA and the AfDB represent financiers of the LHWP with a gender policy or strategy, however, the effectiveness of their gender frameworks is questionable considering the challenges that women are now being exposed to in projects such as the LHWP Phase II.

Basotho women faced similar difficulties during the first phase of the LHWP when women, including female-headed households were excluded from families who received some limited minimal compensation for resettlement. Women were extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence, not only physical but also economic violence. During that time, the World Bank was a major financier involved in the construction of the Katse Dam.

The World Bank gender framework has evolved, providing finance to the LHWP Phase I. The World Bank has now integrated safeguard policies against sexual exploitation and abuse in its Environmental and Social Framework as well as Procurement Framework.

These frameworks ensure that development projects take measures to reduce the risk of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment, especially within communities. After civil society groups raised complaints about gender-based violence associated with a World Bank-financed road project in Uganda, the World Bank took several measures to address this issue.

In 2020, the World Bank introduced a mechanism that can disqualify contractors for failing to comply with obligations related to the prevention of gender-based violence. The World Bank will also soon launch their World Bank Gender Strategy 2024 – 2030: Accelerate Gender Equality for a Sustainable, Resilient and Inclusive Future, which recognizes gender equality as central to sustainable development. The strategy emphasizes gender outcomes in project implementation, including eradication of gender-based violence.

All PDBs should ensure that such measures (policies and practice) are put in place to avoid the ongoing violations against women that put young girls such as Lineo at high risk.

There is a growing dialogue among PDBs and United Nations Agencies such as UN Women, including those engaging in the Finance in Common movement, on the importance of financial inclusion, which places emphasis on improving women’s access to finance. PDBs must take stronger leadership in ensuring that financial inclusion addresses social issues that are an obstacle to women’s advancement. This includes removing outdated cultural practices and stereotypes that continue to create barriers to land ownership. Women in as much as half the countries of the world are unable to assert equal land and property rights despite legal protections.

PDBs often provide substantial funds to mega-infrastructure projects such as the LHWP II in which communities are often exposed to high levels of vulnerability, including worsening levels of poverty, inequality and GBV. One way that PDBs can contribute to making real progress on the Agenda 2030, is through addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality and integrating SDG 5, “achieving gender equality” a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. There has been progress over the last decades, but the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030.

In doing so, PDBs (national, regional and international) must have robust gender policies and practice in place that support projects centred on gender equality, justice and women’s empowerment.

All PDB funded projects should have gender equality imperatives at the onset of the project cycle through rigorous impact assessment processes that involve women and their communities.

The human rights costs are high in second phase of the LHWP with hundreds of families at risk of involuntarily resettlement and displacement from their homes and lands. Achieving the SDGs will require transformative action that can deliver real impact and change for women and young girls such as in Lesotho. The DBSA, AfDB, NDB and other PDBs involved in LHWP II can play an important role in ensuring that the second phase does not repeat the same mistakes made in LHWP I and in so many other development projects.

This article has been written as part of the Forus March With Us campaign for gender justice – a full month dedicated to the stories of activists and civil society organisations at the forefront of gender equality and justice.

Marianne Buenaventura Goldman is co-Chair, Civil Society Forum of the NDB (Africa) & Project Coordinator for Financing for Sustainable Development, Forus
Reitumetse Nkoti Mabula is Executive Director, Seinoli Legal Centre

IPS UN Bureau

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Villagers Demand Answers Over Botswana Water Transfer Scheme

Residents of Tsinyane, which is a village tucked away on the outskirts of Malealea, Matelile, fear that if the Lesotho-Botswana Water Transfer Project begins it is going to mean they lose their ancestral homes as well as their livelihoods.

While residents have been paid M380 for the use of their land for feasibility works, they say they are in the dark about what will happen to them if the dam that is planned for the area does go ahead and flood the area.

So far there has been no community consultation as the environmental impact assessment process, which would require consultation, has, according to the company preparing the site for dam construction, been delayed because of a lack of funding.

Pre-feasibility studies that have been completed have recommended constructing a multi-purpose dam on the Makhaleng River, which would include a hydropower generation plant in Lesotho and a water transport system to Botswana through South Africa.

After the project is finished, it is expected to transfer 150 million cubic metres of water per year to Botswana, while supplying various users in Lesotho’s southern western parts and South Africa, with 50 million cubic meters including supplying Bloemfontein and enabling irrigation in Lesotho.

Tsinyane residents who spoke to MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism said they have learned “through the grapevine” that their ancestral homes which are built on the edges of Makhaleng River would be flooded when the Makhaleng Dam is constructed as part of the project.

“It’s essential to clarify that this stage [feasibility] is ongoing, and no conclusive results have been reached as yet,” Elita Banda who speaks on behalf of the company implementing the project, the Orange–Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM) warned in her response to MNN questions.

Tsinyane, like most Basotho rural communities, is characterised by rugged terrain, a lack of access roads and basic amenities.

The Malealea area, which includes Tsinyane only got electricity at the end of 2023. During MNN’s visit in December 2023, men employed by the Lesotho Electricity Company were pulling electricity cables and fixing them onto poles to connect the remote villages of Malealea to the country’s electricity grid.

Now that they have electricity, Tsinyane people want to continue living in the areas and want to be informed about and prepared for changes that the project will bring to their lives.

But ORASECOM does not seem ready to provide the answers the community is looking for at this stage. Banda told MNN that they “are unable to provide information on questions 1-13, as the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the project has not yet commenced and is only expected to begin in the latter half of 2024”.

MNN’s Questions 1-13 were aimed at establishing what public consultations had been held on this project as part of the required environmental and social impact assessment and community resettlement action plan. MNN has established that the public consultation will only be required once the EISA is being done. The EISA process has been delayed by a lack of funding.

This was confirmed during a press briefing held by the ORASECOM’s project office on March 7. Project coordinator Thabo Hloele told media that lack of adequate financial resources has delayed the project from carrying out the ESIA and other related works.

He said while there were funds earmarked for other studies, the bids received at the tendering stage for the Makhaleng dam ESIA, feasibility studies for the water conveyance system to Botswana and other related studies required more financial resources than anticipated.

“We are currently raising funds for the other delayed studies to be carried out,” said Hloele.

ORASECOM was established in November 2000 by the governments of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa to promote equitable and sustainable development of the resources of the Orange–Senqu River.

Communities shut out

One Tsinyane villager, Matšepiso Ralitša told MNN that Hloele had visited the area in 2022.

“He said he was inspecting the location conduciveness for dam construction. We showed him the location he asked for, but he has never given us the feedback”, said Ralitša who also explained that the community had met Hloele for a second time when he visited the area in 2023 at the start of feasibility studies. Some villagers were hired as security guards.

“We only learned from these guards that the studies were successful, and the dam construction shall take place in our village of Tsinyane. We have also learned that we shall be relocated.

“But shockingly when I inquired if they would relocate us or not, as they were talking about possibilities of a dam being erected in our area, Ntate Hloele responded that they cannot be the ones to decide and that is the duty of the government,” said Ralitša.

A community leader and Seinoli Legal Centre’s Human Rights Defender based in Malealea, Thabo Khosi, told MNN that ORASECOM had not approached communities in Malealea to sensitize and engage them about the dam openly.

“To my knowledge, ORASECOM officials came here just once. They told the people that government has intention to build a dam here in Malealea,” said Khosi, adding that in the second visit, officials were just addressing compensation issues for villagers whose fields, some cultivated, were trampled upon by tracked excavator machinery used in the feasibility studies.

“It can’t be that you [ORASECOM] keep silent when you know that these people are going to lose their communal grazing land, their agricultural land, and all other properties and ensure that they fully understand the benefits of these project and prepare them mentally.  But that those things have not been done, even though soon as the project starts the people will be removed from their ancestral lands,” said Khosi.

However, Banda said their office has not received any queries from the local authorities or community members to date. She encouraged community members to reach out to local councillors and chiefs, “who are equipped to provide accurate information”.

She claimed the project is actively collaborating with local authorities in relevant areas promising that further engagement activities would be undertaken with communities as the project continues.

Pitiful Compensation

Chief Qaba Mahao of Malealea told MNN that the project affected some of his community members fields as tracked excavators and vehicles ran over the fields as they passed through to project site. Although Qaba said that the impact was minimal, his affected subjects were each compensated M380 so that they could plant their fields.

“We looked into the cost of planting when using cattle and /or when using a tractor. We considered what it would cost to plough an acre. Those who knew price said an acre cost M380 if I recall. Hence the M380 were paid per acre affected”.

While Qaba was satisfied with the compensation, affected fields owners shared their worries about the value of this compensation with MNN.

“We were paid paltry compensation and wonder what will happen when an actual dam is constructed with all our land taken away from us. We are worried because we learned the dam is coming here from rumours and there is no official communication on our fate,” said ’Matšepiso Ralitša a resident of Tsinyane.

Mots’oanakaba Nketjoane, another villager whose field was run over by Geomechanics machinery © Billy Ntaote

Another villager, Motsoanakaba Nketjoane, said what irked them most was that Geomechanics, contractor engaged to undertake feasibility studies by ORASECOM, did not bother to seek their consent before running machinery over their fields.

“I have two fields that are adversely affected, and I was shocked to receive a mere M380. I have just ploughed the place that they compacted with their machinery, it was very hard and cost more than their M380 compensation,” said Nketjoane.

“When I tried to plough the area, it was difficult to convince tractor owners to provide me the services, so I ploughed with an ox-drawn plough and the surface was very hard due to compaction and the soil is not loose for agriculture anymore,” said Nketjoane.

Nketjoane was corroborated by Ralitša who said: “Incidents of ploughs being broken were not considered and we suspect that even tractor owners would not be willing to plough the area that is in question for just M380 we were given as compensation”.

But Banda argues that “given the project [feasibility] stage, compensation issues have not been dealt with. They will be dealt with based on the outcome of the ESIA studies that cover the entire project.

The M380 was meant to assist the individual property owners in preparing their fields by removing vehicle tracks before the ploughing season started”. She insists the M380.00 was not imposed on the Tsinyane people but was agreed upon in consultations with the property owners, under the guidance of the local authorities.

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