For export, not for villages

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

The Kingdom of Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world. In order to generate more revenue for the state, the government exports water to the neighboring country of South Africa. This has negative impacts on Lesotho’s ecosystems and local village communities.

Cool spring water flows out of two metal pipes protruding from a concrete block. A herder waters his sheep here, while two girls fill buckets and containers with water. The water comes directly from the mountains that surround the village of Ha Lejone in the highlands of Lesotho. Transporting the water is arduous: the girls carry it home in wheelbarrows and balanced on their heads.

Access to clean drinking water is limited in many areas of Lesotho, as is the case here. However, the situation contrasts sharply with the water masses in the valley. Next to it, the huge Katse Dam shimmers in the sun – the centerpiece 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.

Mammpole Molapo says that the supply of their village has not improved, but rather worsened due to the project: “Before this project, we had an abundance of water here. But many of the pipelines through which the water used to be directed to our village were damaged due to the road and construction work for the dam. It was promised that they would be repaired, but that has not happened in all these years. And so, water is scarce in our village.”

Molapo is the traditional local chief in Ha Lejone, a female chief. Her home village is located at around 2300 meters above sea level on the northern shore of the Katse Dam. The villages have not benefited from the water export.

The villages have not benefited from the water export.

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

They are sitting in the village in front of a hut on simple chairs, with the mountainous landscape of Lesotho in the background. Leonie March is talking to the village chief of Ha Lejone, Mammpole Molapo. In the background is NGO worker Mothusi Seqhee.

In the past, Ha Lejone was only accessible via rough unpaved mountain passes. Since the construction of a paved road in the 1990s as part of the dam project, it has become easier to drive down to the lowlands. The government of Lesotho promotes the road construction as a benefit, as well as electricity from hydropower and water fees, which alone generated around 58 million euros for the state treasury of the small kingdom last year. Part of this revenue should flow into the development of villages like Ha Lejone.

However, according to Chief Molapo, her life has not improved overall. The subsistence farming life of her childhood no longer exists. “Before, we had 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. Also, natural resources we used to utilize are now underwater. For example, medicinal plants. They now only exist in a botanical garden on the other side of the dam. That’s a long, expensive journey for us, and we have to pay for the medicinal plants there.”

Molapo looks at the rocky, steep mountainsides. Herders drive their livestock through the landscape on foot and horseback: cows, sheep, and Angora goats. There are no fenced pasture areas. The land is traditionally used by all. Since the valley was flooded, only the slopes remain.

At many points, they appear almost terraced, with erosion increasing. This is also fatal for water supply: wetlands that play an important role in the alpine ecosystem, storing and filtering water, would increasingly be under pressure, says ecologist Peter Chatanga. “Some of the roads lead through such wetlands. This changes their hydrology, they become more muddy, for example, and can no longer serve their function as water reservoirs. The dams also change the ecosystem and reduce grazing land, which in turn leads to overgrazing. Since these areas in the highlands have become more accessible, the population has also increased. This further exacerbates the human-made pressure on the wetlands.”

Bare mountain slopes can be seen from above, and in the valley, there is a reservoir. The Katse Dam near Ha Lejone filled the valley with water.

In addition, climate change is exacerbating the situation. Faced with a drought, Lesotho had to reduce its water exports to South Africa for the first time in ten years in 2020. And this trend could continue. More droughts, more floods, a less predictable rainy season.

The effects of climate change in Lesotho will manifest in more extremes, says Henrik Hartmann of the German Society for International Cooperation, GIZ, in Lesotho. However, a study also shows that the continuously declining water levels of the dams for the past 20 years cannot be solely attributed to climate change.

“There is strong evidence that it is due to the destruction of ecosystems. And this study we conducted also shows the consequences this would have. Assuming that water transfer to Johannesburg could be interrupted by 50 percent, it would have enormous impacts in the metropolis itself. We can expect a 10 to 11 percent economic contraction, one million jobs lost, and Lesotho itself would have to make enormous savings in the areas of health and education due to the loss of revenue. This is therefore a relevant problem, not only ecologically but also economically and socially.”

50 to 60 percent of people live in absolute poverty. The revenue from water exports constitutes a significant portion of Lesotho’s budget. The country is one of the poorest in the world. If revenue decreases, so will the resources for poverty reduction. However, poverty reduction is central to the protection of ecosystems, explains Henrik Hartmann from GIZ.

“The core cause of ecosystem damage in Lesotho is poverty. It is due to people having no other sources of income than subsistence farming. We see this in some areas where we work: according to the official definition of absolute poverty – 1.90 US dollars – 50 to 60 percent of people are below that level. This means that we are dealing with people who are chronically affected by food insecurity. So, we cannot approach this with a protection strategy that says we only focus on protecting ecosystems.”

Therefore, it is not just about creating new protected areas but also about using natural resources more sustainably. This can include simple solutions such as growing new crops that require less water than the dominant maize or building drinking troughs at the edge of wetlands so that herders can water their livestock without entering sensitive ecosystems. Environmental protection, poverty reduction, and economic development must go hand in hand.

Villages like Ha Lejone on the edge of the major dams also hoped for a better life and a way out of poverty. The responsible government agency, the “Lesotho Highlands Development Authority,” had promised tourism projects and the establishment of fisheries, among other things. However, the balance sheet is sobering.

There is a legal battle between the villagers and the government.

In a small room, the village committee of Ha Lejone has gathered to discuss their next steps. Men and women wrapped in blankets sit on wooden benches and listen to Mothusi Seqhee from the capital city of Maseru, who works for the Seinoli Legal Centre, a non-governmental organization of lawyers representing the interests of rural populations, and reports on the long struggle of the villagers.

“The treaty was signed in October 1986 by Lesotho and South Africa, and construction on the dam began about three years later. The people here and in the other affected areas were promised a better life and compensation, such as for the loss of grazing land. At first, they were given animal feed, whether or not they had livestock. Then there were financial compensations, but only until 2004. Then, for years, no money was paid, even though annual payments were agreed upon. So we went to court and won in 2015.”

But the fight is not over yet. The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority suspended payments due to cases of mismanagement in the communities. Now, the villagers are required to form committees, document their expenses, have them approved by auditors, and even submit business plans.

“The intention may have been good, but the implementation is a problem. The relevant authority has not supported the committees as intended, such as in developing business plans. The people here have done their best. They have proposed different projects, including a trout farm for the local market. But all their ideas have been rejected, without providing specific reasons. In other words, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority is not interested in the development of these communities. At the same time, they withhold money that does not belong to them.”

NGO worker Mothusi Seqhee refers to both the missing 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 a reason for the delays in the completion of the second phase of the bilateral project between Lesotho and South Africa, with the South African side being suspected. Instead of already flowing in 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, water will become scarce in the economic region of Gauteng around Johannesburg, where twelve million people live.

Furthermore, construction work for another dam is being planned.

Clean drinking water is already scarce 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 a project. Heavy construction machines drive over the new tar road, dust blows over the former grazing land 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 trapped here and have lost our livelihood: our fields and our livestock. My animals died in the last drought, others have eaten plastic waste that was not here before. But we are still waiting for the promised compensation, jobs, and relocation of our village.”

Lengoasa walks a few steps towards a tap that protrudes from the ground between his fenced village and the construction site. Previously, the villagers fetched their drinking water from a spring, but it was contaminated by wastewater from the construction workers’ settlement. The project management therefore erected this communal water tap.

“They pump the water from the river into those plastic tanks over there. They say they filter it before it comes out of the tap here. But we doubt that: when it rains, the water is brown, it smells and tastes strange. Some of us boil it, but not everyone. Children regularly get diarrhea. But when I speak out about these abuses, they try to intimidate me.”

As for what should happen next, Lengoasa shrugs helplessly. Some of his neighbors have already moved to the city, while others cling to the hope of somehow building a new livelihood here in the highlands.

Negotiating the water project anew?

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 still existed in South Africa and Lesotho was ruled by a military regime. He expected more from today’s democratically elected governments.

“They have the same mentality and treat the affected citizens the same way as before. Our politicians do not think about how the project could actually benefit our country. We should be allowed to use the water from the dams for irrigation so that we can produce enough food for the nation. The government should commission experts to develop practical and sustainable projects for a new livelihood and a replacement for the land that the people have lost here.”

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.