Lesotho Water Project

"I realize that we will be plagued by hunger because life here is mainly by the thing called pokotho, that is money. Now, we find that we are lost because the money we had been promised has not been given to us. Even the money we were paid for our compensation has been reduced drastically. We found that we will end up living much more poorly than where we came from. There are some painful things about resettlement."

–A villager resettled for LHWP

The Orange River has its headwaters in the high mountains of Lesotho, a tiny nation completely surrounded by South Africa. The rural mountain communities farm and herd animals, proud of their ability to survive the harsh conditions.

Their mountain watersheds are being turned into lakes, however, by the massive Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). The multi–billion project is designed to divert water from the Orange River to South Africa’s urban and industrial center through a series of dams and tunnels blasted through the mountains.

The first two dams in the multi–dam scheme are complete, but critical social and environmental problems affecting some 20,000 Basotho people remain unresolved.  

The LHWP has also been plagued by corruption, which resulted in convictions in a Lesotho court of some of the world’s largest dam–construction and engineering firms.

An agreement to build the next phase, which includes the project's largest dam, was signed by South Africa and Lesotho in mid-2011. The Polihali Dam will displace 17 villages, reduce agricultural lands for an additional 71 villages, and reduce water quality and quantity for many more living downstream. Most of the water will be used for industrial purposes. Demand-management (water conservation) and re-use of water for industrial purposes could reduce the need for the dam, but South Africa's industrial center of Gauteng is already behind in trying to meet water-reduction targets, which aren't very aggressive to start with. 

Background Reading

A History of the LHWP

On the Wrong Side of Development: Lessons Learned from the LHWP - 145–page report published in June 2006 by Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), Lesotho.

The Irony of "White Gold" by TRC (PDF)

Pipe Dreams: The World Bank’s Failed Efforts to Restore Lives and Livelihoods of Dam-Affected People in Lesotho

More information: 

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)
The Trans–Caledon Tunnel Authority, which is responsible for the part of the LHWP that is in South Africa
Transformation Resource Centre

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