Botswana Water Transfer Project Abandons Injured Worker

A worker employed as a guard on a construction site is demanding compensation for loss of livelihood after he was injured at work. The South African company that was employing him as a guard on the Lesotho-Botswana Water Transfer Project in Tsinyane, Malealea, has refused to acknowledge responsibility saying that he did not get injured at work. But, they do not seem to have the full details, not even the correct date of the injury.

Seabata Monare (62) was hired by Geomechanics, which prides itself on being a leader in geotechnical investigations in Southern Africa, as a guard on the site being prepared for the Makhaleng Dam. 

In order to conduct feasibility studies prior to the construction of the Makhaleng Dam, which is intended to export water to South Africa, Botswana, and Lesotho, the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM) hired Geomechanics to perform packer tests, piezometer installation, and rotary core drilling in Tsinyane.

Monare lives in the area earmarked for a dam. He told MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism that he was left disabled and unable to fend for himself after the injury he sustained while working at the Geomechanics site, along the Makhaleng river’s gravel surface.

Monare’s medical records from July 22 2023 show that Malealea Clinic referred him to Mafeteng District Hospital where an x-ray was done, which diagnosed a fracture on his right hand and wrist.

A cast was applied for six weeks but when he went for his check-up, the doctor ordered that the cast remain because his fracture had not healed enough.  Another x-ray was requested and it detected yet again poor healing and the cast had to be re-applied for another six weeks.

The cast eventually came off on its own, but Monare’s hand was never the same again. The aftermath of the accident has left Monare unable to continue his farming, his primary source of livelihood, plunging him and his family into food insufficiency.

Monare’s account is supported by three people, one also a guard who witnessed the incident and was with him at the time and another colleague who worked the night shift. A local councillor has also stated that she discovered Monare at the scene during routine inspections and inquired about his injuries.

Responding to MNN questions, Laura-Lee Rijsmus who is the Accounts and Marketing Director for Geogroup, which is Geomechanics’ parent company, insists that Monare arrived at work already injured. She distanced the company from any wrongdoing.

“There is a possibility of bias from an eyewitness who knows Monare”, said Rijsmus who does leave room for the possibility that Geomechanics could be accountable for Monare’s injury saying that the eyewitness accounts shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.

For them to conclude this matter, she says they would need “…a written statement from the witness detailing what they saw and see how the witness’s story aligns with Monare’s and any other available information.”

MNN declined to facilitate this process as it understands it is the responsibility of the company to acquire such statements from its former employees.

Speaking to MNN, Teboho Mokala, the eyewitness who was on the same shift with Monare making them the only two people who were on the site when the injury occurred, said he was not entirely shocked that Geomechanics was now claiming innocence.

“The manner in which the whole situation was handled left a lot to be desired,” he said.

Mokala and Monare’s both said during separate interviews that: “It was clear that they were trying to avoid taking responsibility.”

Monare, Mokala and another colleague Keresemese Mokala who worked the night shift were appalled at the insinuation that Monare did not get injured onsite. Mokala [Teboho] told MNN that he arrived for work with Monare that fateful day and he was still fine.

Nthabiseng Tlaleane, a local government councillor in Malealea at the time said she encountered Monare’s injury when she went to inspect work onsite. She says she noticed Monare’s casted hand and asked him what happened.

Tlaleane explained that Monare told her he fell on the gravel onsite [pointing to it] and hit his hand against a rock. She says the account surrounding his injury is the same report they received from the Human Rights Defenders committee, a committee formed by villagers on advice of Seinoli Legal Centre, a human rights organisation concerned with protecting rights of people in large development areas.

While the company denies responsibility over Monare’s injury, it kept him, even changed shifts and allocated him lighter duties as he was using one hand. Asked why they didn’t replace him if he was injured elsewhere, Rijsmus said they considered it unjustified to cancel his contract and render him unemployed.

As MNN has established, Monare was injured on July 22, 2023, but Rijsmus told MNN that Monare arrived at work already injured five days later.

“Mr. Monare reported for work on July 27, 2023, with an injury from before the shift. Our Site Manager had kept him aside, he did not work that day,” she said.

Presented with the information from Monare’s medical records proving that he was injured on July 22, the day he reported to the Malealea Clinic, Rijsmus said they had made an error with the dates.

Copies of Geomechanics’ workman’s compensation that MNN managed to get do not state the exact criteria. They only said associated costs are covered if an injury takes places on duty and is documented.

Because only the guards were onsite when he got injured, Monare says he had to wait for the company officers to arrive but instead of getting immediate medical attention, he waited seven hours as offloading materials from a truck was more important for his supervisors.

He says he sat on the sidelines and waited for them to knock-off.

Geomechanics dismissed the wait and neglect, stating “although the injury happened off duty, our Site Manager, Mr Luthuli got the drilling teams going in the morning and then took Mr Monare to a clinic as a kind gesture to assist him.”

However, Monare’s colleague Mokala [Teboho] corroborated Monare’s ordeal, that their superiors waited to knock-off that Saturday before taking him to the clinic. But even then, Mokala says the supervisors left Monare at the Malealea Lodge gate where they stayed, leaving him to walk to the clinic in his bruised, bandaged hand.

MNN heard from Mokala [Keresemese] how an accident was bound to happen, describing the site as sloppy and slippery due to the gravel-like particles that formed when the excavator was paving way into the Makhaleng River where the dam would possibly be built.

Efforts by advocacy groups, such as the Malealea Human Rights Defenders, to seek help for Monare have been met with challenges as the contractor packed up and left for South Africa as they were trying to address his situation.

ORASECOM’s communication and knowledge management specialist Elita Banda told MNN that they were not aware of Monare’s injury but their office has since launched investigations into the matter.

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Police Accused Of Bungling Minor’s Case

By Matiisetso Mosala  LESCIJ LESCIJ

A young girl, who became pregnant while still a minor, has been charged with getting an abortion, which is illegal in Lesotho. But, the family is questioning why the man who made her pregnant has not been charged as an accomplice to this crime and for having sex with a minor, which is also illegal.

*Mpho Sempe [pseudonym] of Ha-Ramonakalali in the Malingoaneng ward of Mokhotlong was charged with illegal termination of pregnancy after her father took her to the Tlokoeng Police Station in Mapholaneng to report that a contractor, Bahlakoana Kenela, had sexually offended her. Kenela was an employee of Rumdel AC Joint Venture, which includes South African firm Rumdel Construction and Lesotho-based A&C Holdings which is busy constructing a 32.86km road connecting the Semenanyane River to the Polihali Dam site.

Lesotho criminalises abortion under Section 45 of the Penal Code Act of 2012, which provides that “A person who does any act bringing about the premature termination of pregnancy in a female person to procure a miscarriage, commits the offence of abortion.”

It also criminalises sex with a minor. Penal Code of 2012 states that anyone under the age of 18 is regarded as a child and therefore unable to consent.

Mpho, who was 15 years old when she had the abortion, told MNN how she missed her period in August 2023. She informed Kenela, her married lover, who then gave her pills to abort the pregnancy because he did not “want the news to reach her family”. She says that she consented without realising that she was committing a crime. 

When Mpho’s family took her to the police station on August 22, 2023 to report the matter, her father, *Lehlohonolo Sempe [pseudonym] says the police took his daughter to the hospital, and he was told: “We will take it from here and see how we deal with it,”  a statement that should have set off alarm bells for the Sempe family considering they were not even given a case number.

When they left the police station, Mpho’s family say that they did not know that their daughter had been criminally charged. Police at the Tlokoeng police station, they argue, did not inform them that they charged Mpho with illegal abortion or give them a case number to confirm this. Sempe told MNN that no one told them that Mpho was charged. Station manager, Mphelehetse Khatleli swore on his officers’ competence, saying they must have informed the family.

Mpho’s family want to know why Kenela was not charged alongside their daughter for helping her with the abortion. Kenela told MNN that it was Mpho’s choice to terminate the pregnancy, he did not force her. 

He also does not deny having sex with Mpho but argues that he was unaware she was a minor.

Kenela also told MNN that he was called in for questioning by the police who casually asked him if he and Mpho were dating, and let him go upon his confirmation that they were.  While Mpho’s family is demanding answers as to why Kenela was not charged with having sex with a minor, police officers at Tlokoeng police station who refused to identify themselves because they didn’t have the authority to comment, admitted to MNN that Kenela should have been charged but could not explain why that had not happened eight months later.

But, station manager Khatleli’s response to this to MNN was different.  Khatleli said that police would not take any action until they received Mpho’s birth certificate proving her minor status. When MNN asked Khatleli why the police had not taken the initiative to gather this evidence since August 2023, he said it was because Mpho’s parents were not available when the officers went to her home.

The official police comment also stated to MNN that they had charged Mpho but not Kenela at the time because they were only made aware of Mpho’s case when she had already terminated her pregnancy.  They did not consider that she had an accomplice when charging the young woman.

Mpho’s family is surprised by the claim that police are waiting for Mpho’s documents proving her age. The family say that, they have been waiting for a police update but have not heard anything yet. Local residents in the area told MNN that they have not seen any law enforcement officers carrying out this investigation. MNN has uncovered another layer of mystery surrounding this case. The Tlokoeng police initially told MNN that there was no record of Mpho’s reported case, that it did not appear in the sexual offences and gender-based-violence cases between 2018 and 2023 statistics that MNN had requested. 

Did the police only choose to open an abortion case, and not a sexual offence case; hence, it was untraceable? Khatleli explains that sexual offence cases are sensitive by nature, and because people are always trying to make them disappear, dockets are locked away in a cabinet and the officer in charge was unavailable when compiling the data.

Sempe revealed that he was not surprised that the police claimed there was no trace of their case considering the treatment that they received when they went to report the case. He told MNN that when they arrived at the police station, an unidentified police officer remarked “we know that with such situations, we are expected to go and arrest someone” a statement that he says was a clear sign that no thorough investigations would be conducted. The station manager subtly brushed this off saying, “you know how people are”.

Sempe states: “We are told to report a crime to the police, but when we do, there is no use because nothing ever comes of it, no updates are made months later”.

Asked if he is aware he crossed legal boundaries and as a result, ought to face the might of the law, Kenela said “Yes, I do realise”. Nonetheless, while Mpho has a criminal case hanging over her head, Kenela is still a free man. While the police have not charged Kenela, they admit that considering Mpho’s age, they are convinced she was aided in terminating her pregnancy as “she could not have executed it on her own”.

Khatleli revealed that the abortion case has gone cold due to insufficient evidence, and “it is not easy to prosecute a minor, but we are still waiting on her family to provide us with documents proving she is underage so that we can investigate the matter and find those who were involved”.

Sempe says seeing his daughter’s perpetrator almost daily is hard and triggering for him because he was advised by the same police who are not investigating the case thoroughly not to have any interaction with him, as it was now in police custody.

Since August when he reported the matter to the police, Sempe told MNN that he has not followed up on the progress of the case because the reception at police stations is never welcoming.

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Gender and Development

Gender-based violence is a prominent plague in the fabric of Lesotho. Large infrastructure development projects such as the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase II where operations are ongoing, are breeding grounds for more cases of GBV and other human violations within communities living in the project areas. This has increased women’s dependency and vulnerability to sexual exploitation for financial gain. The following story is one of the many cases of women who are left vulnerable and destitute in the name of development.

Mamothepane Thita (not her real name) narrates her predicament, who lives in one of the communities being affected by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase II.

“I got married to a Mr. Khapane Thita (names withheld for victim’s protection) in 1992 under customary law and was blessed with three children, currently aged 30, 27, and 23 respectively. To sustain our living, my family ploughed 5 fields, from which we harvested five large bags of maize,
four bags of sorghum, and one bag of sugar beans. This yield was sufficient to sustain my family for a year or more. Things, however, took a turn, when the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase II began implementation in my community. All the five fields from which my family and I sustained a living were affected and as such lost to the project.

Our fears were however allayed when we were informed by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHWP’s implementing authority) that our household will be duly compensated. Indeed, we got the first tranche of compensation which was issued by cheque. The compensation is however insufficient to cover all basic needs. That is when I decided to go work at the Factories in Maputsoe. As I was working there, my husband called me informing me that LHDA had issued a lump sum of
about M263,500.00 as final compensation for our fields. I instructed him to use some of that money to buy food for our children and other essentials.

Instead, he went and brought his mistress into our home neglecting our children’s needs. I also immediately got a call from my oldest son saying I should come home immediately, there’s a problem. I left work and found my husband living with this woman in our home. I got rid of this
woman, who previously had an affair with my husband but dismissed for the sake of our family.

My mother-in-law then gave my husband a house for him to freely live with this woman. Because we live very close to my in-laws, I was exposed to seeing everything they did with this woman and so I decided to leave and go live with my mother. After some time, I decided to go back to work and this is when I was told that my husband had built a house for himself and this woman, with the same money which was supposed to be of benefit to our family. I left work and came home and discovered that my husband had taken all our furniture with him to the new house. I reported the matter to the Chief, which he called the LHDA to be a part of. We were both taken to open a joint account, but this was
all in vain as nothing was left of the money. My husband was instructed to release the furniture which was destroyed during his violent rage. I took the furniture as is and went to live with my children, who do not have any source of income, and my four grandchildren.

The Thita family home where she lives with her three children and four grandchildren.

As a mother, I felt it was my obligation to provide for my family, which meant seeking other means of income. I eventually met a man who worked at one of the construction companies with the LHWP and we got into a romantic relationship. I was finally able to provide for my family through what this man was offering me. However, the relationship did not prolong as it originated because of the financial benefits it provided. This man had been retrenched and was no longer able to provide for me.
I now must work in other people’s fields to earn an income. Just this month, I was paid with a large bag of maize meal. I have grown vegetables in a small garden so we can have something to eat with that.

Mamothepane (not real name) grows vegetables in her small garden to feed her children and grandchildren.

Rightfully, the LHDA ought to have assisted my husband and me with opening a joint account which gives both of us authority over the compensation money. But this came after my husband had consumed all the money. The LHDA must review its policy or put in place a safeguarding policy to avoid such issues.

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Groups hold training for human rights defenders

By The Reporter.

Seinoli Legal Centre in collaboration with the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network this week conducted a three-day workshop for grass-roots human rights defenders (HRDs) in Mokhotlong.

Program Lawyer at Seinoli Legal Centre, Moeketsi Lepeli told theReporter on Wednesday this week that the purpose of the training was to equip human rights defenders with the knowledge and skills to be powerful advocates for their rights and for those communities they defend.

The workshop brought together HRDs from several villages including Masakong, Maluba-lube, Mapholaneng, Tlooa-Re-Buoe, and Ha-Ramonakalali. Police, community councilors and local chiefs also attended.

“The workshop sought to capacitate HRDs on human rights and laws protecting those rights, as well as how to engage with project implementers on community issues. We believe in empowering communities to fight for their rights,” he said.

According to Lepeli, the participants were working on a wide range of human rights issues and disputes affecting communities such as land compensation and displacement or relocation of households affected by Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

He indicated that they had realised that disputes between projects implementers – in this case the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) which is overseeing the water project – and the communities affected by the water project led to harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Lesotho.

“Such acts prompted us as rights groups to capacitate the HRDs so that they know legal routes to take when their rights are being intimidated. They need to understand legal ways of fighting or protecting their rights.  We believe that together, we can bring about positive change,” Lepeli said.

The rights groups had also realised that human rights defenders encounter a lot of challenges in defending the environment and the rights of local communities owing to the lack of laws that provide protection for defenders.

“Many of them are unaware of the laws designed to protect them from such injustices. Limited access to legal assistance further marginalises these communities. That’s why our goal is to enhance oversight and strengthen the role of HRDs in monitoring and responding to human rights violations,” Lepeli explained.

Human rights defender, Lebohang Lengoasa said the workshop had provided them with an opportunity to share their experiences with the police.

This was moreso because when they peacefully fight for their rights, especially through placards delivering messages, security agencies are the first group to harass them.

In a recent joint statement dated 31 May 2023, the two human rights groups strongly condemned any actions that hinder the work of HRDs and undermine their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

“These rights are enshrined in section 14 of the Constitution of Lesotho as well as under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Lesotho is a party,” the organisations noted.

They also expressed concern over the recent acts of harassment and intimidation against HRDs in Lesotho.

“We strongly condemn any actions that hinder the work of HRDs and undermine their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. These rights are enshrined in section 14 of the Constitution of Lesotho as well as under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Lesotho is a party,” the statement added.

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Dear President Ramaphosa, as you visit Lesotho, listen to the cries of the displaced

By Reitumetse Nkoti Mabula on behalf of Seinoli Legal Centre, Survivors of Lesotho Dams, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, and Southern Africa Litigation Centre

The next phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, marked by your visit on 23 May 2023, will lead to the renewed physical and economic displacement of thousands. The result is imminent food insecurity, impoverishment, and the breakdown of social networks and culture.

Dear President Cyril Ramaphosa,

Your visit to Polihali, Mokhotlong, to officially launch full-scale construction work of Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP II) on 23 May 2023, is highly welcomed.

Mr President, when this project was concluded under the 1986 LHWP Treaty, it was celebrated for the immense economic returns that would accrue to both Lesotho and South Africa, including sustainable development for local affected communities.

South Africa and Lesotho made an undertaking in the LHWP Treaty, “to take all reasonable measures to ensure that the implementation, operation and maintenance of the Project are compatible with the protection of the existing quality of the environment and, in particular, shall pay due regard to the maintenance of the welfare of persons and communities immediately affected by the project”.

The reality for communities, however, is in stark contrast to this undertaking.

As you know, Phase I of this project, which involved construction of the Katse Dam (under Phase IA) and Mohale Dam (under Phase IB) was inaugurated in 2004. More than 20,000 people were directly affected by this first phase of LHWP.

Thousands remain without compensation for the adverse impacts of the project on their lives and no efforts have been made to actively ensure that communities get direct economic benefits. People living in the vicinity of the Katse and Mohale dams endure consistent violation of their right to access clean water, since access to natural springs and other sources have been affected by the dams.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Report raises alarm over mines’ pollution of rivers critical to Lesotho Highlands Water Project

Mr President, residents are not allowed to access water from the dams to water their animals and irrigate their crops. Women within LHWP Phase II-affected communities are already marginalised as a result of cultural stereotypes which prevent them from owning land and benefiting from compensation for land rights which are affected by the LHWP. Lack of access to water further marginalises them and exacerbates their inability to break free from poverty.

Land and other natural resources which are the basis of the communities’ livelihoods have been expropriated by the project without payment and compensation.

While there is a responsibility by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority to uphold the agreement, there is a significant perception among affected communities that impacts negatively on the image of South Africa. This fundamentally detracts from South Africa’s Africa Agenda and desire to be a partner to Africans.

Moreover, affected communities are likely to seek further economic opportunities in South Africa.

Apartheid origin

Mr President, you may recall that the LHWP Treaty was signed between the apartheid government in South Africa and a military regime in Lesotho. It was concluded during a period when both governments had no regard for human rights and the dictates of democracy and good governance.

In fact, no consultations were undertaken at all with the people of Lesotho in general and the affected communities in particular. Any dissent expressed against this project was thwarted with threats and violence. It is therefore not surprising, Mr President, that the treaty has failed to promote, respect and protect the human rights of people immediately affected by the project.

Thousands will be economically displaced as a result of acquisition and inundation of their agricultural land, grazing land, including natural resources.

When South Africa decided to implement Phase II following prolonged negotiations and signed the agreement to that effect in 2011, it was in the context of these residual issues which remain outstanding to date. This occasion of your visit to the Polihali Dam project site presents an opportunity to ensure that this phase does not repeat those mistakes, and guarantee that the communities who have given way for this dam are placed at the centre of this project.

Mr President, the further implementation of advanced infrastructure works to pave the way for construction of LHWP II, known as the Polihali Dam, has already had an adverse impact on the livelihoods of communities affected by this component of the project.

The Katse Dam is part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and supplies water to Gauteng. (Photo: Deaan Vivier / Beeld / Gallo Images)

Land and other natural resources which are the basis of the communities’ livelihoods have been expropriated by the project without payment and compensation.

The transition into the next component of LHWP II, marked by the occasion of your visit on 23 May 2023, will lead to renewed physical and economic displacement of families. The LHWP Phase II feasibility studies have estimated that about 16 villages will need to be relocated or resettled due to close proximity to the dam and/or significantly impeded access in the event of floods.

And again, thousands will be economically displaced as a result of acquisition and inundation of their agricultural land, grazing land, including natural resources. The result is imminent food insecurity, impoverishment and the breakdown of social networks and culture.

Climate change and the growing South African population and economy dictate that South Africa will increasingly rely on water from Lesotho. The role and importance of the LHWP and the anticipated phases beyond the Polihali Dam necessitate that great care be taken to secure ownership and buy-in of communities who have hitherto remained dissatisfied with this project.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Can anyone hear the socioeconomic and environmental alarm bells on Lesotho Highlands Water Project?

The challenge, Mr President, for this occasion and for the government of South Africa is to address South Africa’s interests in keeping this bilateral project more significant to both countries without losing sight of the longer-term sustainable development of local communities.

We therefore call upon you to:

  1. Review, as a matter of urgency, the LHWP Treaty to align it with the international human rights standards for better protection and promotion of the rights of affected communities;
  2. Devote your time in Lesotho to meet civil society organisations and the communities affected to hear their concerns regarding implementation of the LHWP Phase II first-hand;
  3. Engage the government of the Kingdom of Lesotho and the LHWP’s implementation authorities on the challenges facing communities affected by Phase I and Phase II of the LHWP, address human rights violations of communities, and ensure their right to development and restore their livelihoods;
  4. Assist the Kingdom of Lesotho and Lesotho Highlands Development Authority to overhaul the entire LHWP Legal and Compensation Framework, to ensure fair and adequate compensation for communities;
  5. Support the Kingdom of Lesotho and Lesotho Highlands Development Authority to formulate, as a matter of urgency, the Livelihoods Restoration Policy, which is in line with best international standards, to ensure that affected communities’ livelihoods are improved; and
  6. Undertake, as a matter of urgency, a forensic audit of all compensation funds intended for the affected people. DM

Reitumetse Nkoti Mabula is Executive Director of the Seinoli Legal Centre in Maseru, Lesotho.

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Human Rights Situation Report

Seinoli Legal Centre (SLC) with the Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) submitted a Human Rights situation report on the communities being affected by large Infrastructure projects in Lesotho at the 75th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights held in Banjul, The Gambia. The report focused on the Human Rights violations emanating under LHWP Phase II in Polihali and the L-BWT scheme in Makhaleng.

The article can be accessed in this week’s Public Eye newspaper Vol. 26. No 19 on page 16 titled “Opinion of Lesotho’s dams, environmental impact and compensation.

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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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Can anyone hear the socioeconomic and environmental alarm bells on Lesotho Highlands Water Project?

By Seinoli Legal Centre Executive Director, Reitumetse Nkoti Mabula and Oxfam South Africa Global Impact Manager, Marianne Buenaventura.

The next phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is underway, and the human rights costs are high. Hundreds of families will be involuntarily resettled and displaced from their homes and lands. Multitudes stand to lose thousands of hectares of arable and grazing land.

Recognized as one of the most outstanding engineering achievements of the last century, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is indisputably an engineering marvel that was also hailed for the profound economic benefits it would bring to both Lesotho and South Africa.

It has instead become internationally notorious for its devastating socioeconomic and environmental impacts on highland and downstream communities. But this is hardly ever highlighted as much as the engineering achievements or the perceived economic and service delivery benefits for the two countries.

Phase 1 of the project, involving the construction of Katse Dam and Muela Hydropower Station (Phase 1A) and Mohale Dam (Phase 1B), dispossessed more than 30,000 Basotho of their cropland and grazing land. The expropriation of land was executed without equitable/fair compensation and proper livelihood restoration plans.

The project submerged 1,500 hectares of arable land, 1,900 ha of cropland and more than 5,000 ha of grazing land, exacerbating soil erosion and overgrazing as farmers were forced to cultivate on progressively steeper slopes and graze animals in increasingly smaller and condensed areas.

There have been long-term concerns that communities did not get direct economic benefits and/or continued support where such benefits had been provided. Many of these communities are without water, and in some, the water supply from natural springs has been polluted while others have been destroyed due to a lack of maintenance.

Communities are not allowed to access the dam water for household use, irrigation or for livestock to drink. Fishing in the dam was for a long time expressly prohibited until recently. Communities are now permitted to fish with a fishing licence.

“The dam contributed to increasing vulnerabilities, including the risk of HIV infection. Relationships between female residents and construction workers were common, and transactional sex (the exchange of sex for money or gifts) between local schoolgirls and construction workers was rife. HIV/Aids infection rates skyrocketed in construction areas, yet these communities remain without access to basic healthcare services.”

“With the social influx and labour migration expected when construction of the dam itself commences, the risk that transactional sex will resume also increases the risk of increased HIV-infection rates, especially among young women. Research has shown that adolescent girls and young women are significantly more at risk from HIV infection due to transactional sex, compared with men and boys of the same age.”

These are known facts, to both Lesotho and South Africa, and it is heartbreaking that they have now started the second phase of the LHWP without addressing these residual issues, which violate human rights on many levels.

These violations include unfair evictions and the relocation of indigenous communities from their traditional lands; sexual and gender-based violence being exacerbated by increased labour, including migrant labour required for construction work; and extensive environmental degradation, including water and other critical natural resources on which communities rely for both sustenance and their livelihoods.

Contracts for the construction of Polihali Dam, Phase 2, were awarded in November 2022. There are 36 affected communities in the remote Mokhotlong district where the dam will be constructed.

Hundreds of families will be involuntarily resettled and displaced from their homes and lands, a process that will have significant economic and socio-cultural implications for generations to come. Multitudes stand to lose thousands of hectares of arable and grazing land.

The result is going to be food insecurity, impoverishment and the breakdown of social networks and culture. But this is not being given as much attention as the majestic bridges, the gigantic dam and the beautiful roads that open the highlands to tourists.

Up to this point, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), the project’s implementing authority, has been implementing advanced infrastructure works (such as the construction of roads and bridges and the erection of power lines) to make way for the construction of the Polihali Dam. There are nine communities that are at the epicentre of these works.

Astoundingly, the governments of South Africa and Lesotho have not learned any lessons from the implementation of Phase 1, because the same mistakes are being repeated:

  • Compensation is not being paid or is delayed and inadequate;
  • Access to water has been impeded and women are forced to walk long distances to fetch water at times from unsafe water sources shared with animals. Some are forced to collect water from river streams that have been polluted by LHDA contractors;
  • There is no access to health facilities – people are forced to walk up to two hours to access the nearest health centre; and
  • There are reported cases of sexual exploitation of young women who are forced to sell their bodies for work or for money. With the social influx and labour migration expected when construction of the dam itself commences, the risk and prevalence of HIV in these communities will increase, contributing to increasing vulnerabilities within communities and particularly among women.

Lesotho has in recent years been affected by climate change shocks including unusual dry seasons and heavy rains which have affected agricultural production, leaving the majority of the population food insecure with at least 521,000 people in food crisis. The Polihali Dam is going to worsen the situation.

It is therefore imperative that government officials from South Africa and Lesotho – and also development finance institutions supporting the project (the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the New Development Bank and the African Development Bank) – ensure that project compliance with environmental, social and climate-related standards are met from the earliest stages of the project.

There is an urgent need for the LHDA under Phase 2 to mitigate the severely negative impacts of the dam construction and operation on communities by ensuring, among others, meaningful consultation with communities throughout all project planning and implementation stages; adequate and fair compensation for resettlement, including for women; and devising a responsive livelihoods restoration policy which takes into consideration climate change shocks.

It is well known that large infrastructure projects can increase the risk of several forms of gender-based violence (GBV) such as sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment, including the demand for sex work. Mega-infrastructure projects such as the first phase of the LHWP have proven to increase the vulnerability, including worsening levels of poverty, inequality and GBV, of affected communities.

In the case of the LHWP 1, when land redistribution occurred, women were extremely vulnerable to GBV, not only physical but also economic violence. In Lesotho, where the legal system precludes women from holding land titles, families who had received some limited minimal compensation for resettlement often excluded women and female-headed households.

This problem is not unique to Phase 1 of the project; even under Phase 2, women continue to face the same challenges.

Manako Lethari of Tloha-Re-Bue, Mokhotlong, is an example of the majority of women affected by the Polihali Dam. Like them, she has been excluded from compensation in favour of her estranged husband who was deemed as the head of the household by the LHDA. Her complaints and pleas for assistance have fallen on deaf ears.

Lethari continues to live in abject poverty with her 36-year-old disabled daughter. Her dilapidated wheelchair occupies the side of the small traditional rondavel which they call their home. It has weeds growing out of the thatch roofing that is already in a desperate state of disrepair. It is a miracle that it has not yet collapsed with the heavy rains and strong winds the country has recently experienced.  

It is high time that infrastructure development projects such as LHWP 2 – which include support from development finance institutions mandated to promote inclusive, sustainable development – empower and not disempower women.

All stakeholders involved in LHWP 2 should commit to making every effort to learn from the mistakes made in the first phase of LHWP. At the very least, LHWP 2 should convene effective and timely community consultations, provide basic services such as clean water, and ensure adequate and fair compensation to all affected communities – especially women who have in the past been left behind.

This would be a real way in which South Africa, Lesotho and all stakeholders involved in LHWP 2 can honour Human Rights Month. The 2023 theme for Human Rights Month in South Africa is, “#LeaveNoOneBehind – walk for your rights”.

Now is the time to take concrete action towards meaningful engagement with affected communities in Lesotho and move forward, not backward, on the UN Sustainable Development GoalsDM

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New water project worries rural dwellers

By The Reporter

Residents of Ha Joele, Ribaneng in Mafeteng district are fearful that the impending implementation of the Lesotho-Botswana Water Transfer Scheme will plunge them into the doom of losing their valuable properties. This emerged during the launch of Seinoli Legal Centre’s new website and the screening of two films depicting the voices of the residents and how they might be impacted by the giant transnational project.

The films showcase the impact of water infrastructure projects on host communities in the country, with Ribaneng community being one of them. Lesotho-Botswana Water Project compromises the construction of a dam and water storage reservoir in the Lesotho lowlands. The objective of the project is to undertake a full feasibility study for the bulk water conveyance system from the proposed dam on the Makhaleng River to transfer water to Botswana through South Africa, covering the technical, economic, and financial feasibility of the project. A chunk of villagers who will be affected lives in the area located between Makhaleng and Ribaneng rivers.

The Orange-Senqu Commission (ORASECOM) signed a Memorandum of Understanding in March 2013 to facilitate the implementation of executing feasibility studies on the project. An amount of US$2.68 million (slightly over
M45 million) was sourced from the African Development Bank (AFDB) through ORASECOM. According to documentation by the AFDB, the feasibility studies began in April 2021 with an expected completion date of June 2023.

Commenting on concerns raised by the Makhaleng community in the film, a consultant and senior lecturer in development studies at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Setšabi Setšabi observed that public participation plays a vital role in issues that affect the community. As a result, he added, such participation should be taken into consideration before the commencement of the project as required by international law.

He said the film by Seinoli highlighted the theme of public participation and the anxiety of the people who are to be affected by the project. It also showed how through the grapevine the communities heard that they may be relocated. “These two things highlighted a major gap in access to information about the proposed dam. “Imagine after working so hard being told by the grapevines that your house will be relocated and your ways of living might change. That simply shows how anxious the community is over the project,” Setšabi added.

Further, he noted that Ribaneng community has its own way of life and culture which include farming, rearing livestock, and access to resources such as water and wood. “As a result, changing the way they live is going to be difficult for them especially if they do not have enough information on how the matter will be undertaken,” he warned. Setšabi said the document called The Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement (2018) outlines the major public participation activities before, during, and after evictions.

He explained that before evictions the following activities should take place: appropriate notice, information
dissemination to affected communities, and dialogue with affected communities. Additionally, sensitization on human rights, participation in environmental, social, and human rights impact assessments as well as assessments of all personal assets should also be taken into consideration.

“During evictions all human rights standards must be observed, especially the rights of women, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly,” he observed. Setšabi added that after evictions, governments must ensure that the shelter – housing, food, water and sanitation, medical services, livelihood resources, education for children as well as standards of living are observed. Setšabi urged that the community should benefit from their own developments that are through access to jobs, greater food security, and access to potable water and water for their livestock.

The community also has rights to improved access to sustainable energy, improved road infrastructure, access to rangelands as well as access to fishing in the dam. For his part, legal practitioner Advocate Borenahabokhethe Sekonyela emphasised that public participation is one of the fundamental human rights for the communities to be part of decision-making in matters that affect their livelihoods. He said the legal right to access information is
also critical for the affected people adding that “people perish for lack of knowledge.” He noted: “Full information is required on the standard of living of the people in terms of health, socio-economic status, and others have to be fully documented before the commencement of the project,” He said the community has to benefit through compensation fund after losing their properties, especially land.

“Compensation should also be done because land is permanently taken from communities while compensation is only temporary for a 50-year period. “Future generations of the communities will never enjoy any benefit from the land which the forefathers had,” Sekonyela stressed. Seinoli is a public interest law centre that provides free legal services and support to communities which get affected by the implementation of large infrastructure development projects in the country. The center’s unique approach leverages strategic litigation, advocacy, and capacity strengthening of communities to empower such communities to demand and assert their rights.

In Southern Africa and specifically in Lesotho, the displacement of rural communities from their land, with little or no compensation, represents one of the negative impacts of land-based investments such as the construction of dams. It results in the displacement of rural communities from the land they depend on for growing food, building shelters, fetching water, grazing their animals, and accessing land-based resources.

The launch of the website was said to be a great milestone that will enable Seinoli to share its work with affected communities, members of the public, and other important stakeholders locally, regionally, and internationally. It will also enable the law NGO to receive feedback and learn how best to support the communities and improve services. The website is

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