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.