Water and Politics

A former British colony surrounded by the Republic of South Africa, Lesotho is an extremely poor country with few marketable natural resources. The Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme was planned to develop its only valuable commodity in a drought-stricken southern Africa: water. The project involves diverting the flow of major rivers from Lesotho into South Africa through a system of five dams at a cost of at least $5.6 billion.

Tumelo Tsikoane, a doctoral student in African history at Boston University and a citizen of Lesotho, has been interested in the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme since its early planning stages. This article is based on an interview with Tsikoane conducted by Cultural Survival intern Stephen Peace.

My interest in the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme project started way back at its inception in late 1970s; the actual physical construction started after 1986. Initially, serious problems, mainly political in nature, impeded the implementation of the project, but after 1986, when the army took over the government in a coup, things started working. Even before then, though, I was following the planning discussions closely. When really held things up was waiting for the two major players - namely, Lesotho and South Africa - to resolve their differences. The resulting arrangement was clearly in South-Africa's favor.

The project has two major components. One is to construct dams, to dam the water in the highlands of Lesotho and redirect it to South Africa. After damming, the water is going to be sold to its major consumer, South Africa. South Africa intends to use this water primarily for industrial consumption, although it is very clean and could be used for human consumption. The project's second major component is a hydroelectric station to generate electricity for Lesotho.

A distinction has to be drawn between these two components. The hydroelectric component is supposed to be a Lesotho project alone. But the damming of the rivers is a joint venture between Lesotho and South Africa.


The government of Lesotho and the project planners sold their proposal to the public by stressing the scheme's potential for economic gain. Of course, by saying "sold," I am suggesting that this is the only way it has been talked about. Lesotho stands to gain from this project - all along, this water has been running into the Atlantic Ocean without much use. But with the project in place, the argument goes, there is going to be a lot of economic gain and benefit for Lesotho.

This project - its construction and other things - is expected to take 30 years from the time of its implementation until it becomes fully operational. The first phase, constructing the first dam, is supposed to be completed by 1996. The first phase also involves digging tunnels. Here we are talking about highlands. These dams are going to be constructed in the gorges of the Maluti Mountains to redirect the flow of the river into South Africa - actually turning the Malibamatso River almost 180 degrees. The dams will affect the tributaries that eventually flow into the Orange River. So instead of this water going down south, as it does now, it will be going down south, as it does now, it will be going up north, into South Africa.

This scheme may have nothing to do with Lesotho's development plans because it is supposed to extend over such a long period. And Lesotho does not have a 30-years development plan, only five-year plans. So it looks like the project is going to determine Lesotho's development strategy, not the other way around. This suggested that the project has not been conceived entirely with Lesotho's own economic development in mind.

So far, very little has been derived that enables one to assess the project's direct benefits. However, one of its major contributors, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), has argued that the roads that have been built as a result of the project already benefit the people in the area. I wouldn't dispute that. If a project is undertaken in a formerly inaccessible place, roads are a benefit.

But the roads shouldn't be taken as a benefit to the people per se. They benefit the people indirectly. But primarily they benefit the project planners and the project itself. Those two should not be confused. Had it not been for the project, the Lesotho government would not have thought of engaging in road building. Neither would the DBSA, which has been primarily responsible for constructing those roads. Existence of the roads shouldn't be misreads as being the result of the benevolence of the project planners. The roads are essential for them not necessarily for the people.


It is important to know and understand the direct correlation between political development in South Africa and this project. Remember that the project only came into existence as a result of the changing political climate between South Africa and Lesotho. Until 1986, the countries were in a political stalemate. Soon after the 1986 coup, relations relaxed in favor of South Africa, and as a result the project of South Africa, and as a result the project was implementated. Certainly, some of us have not been very comfortable with the political relations between South Africa and Lesotho. Thus, although masqueraded as economic, the project was implemented as a political arrangement between the military government in Lesotho and the apartheid state in South Africa. And I believe that it remains essentially so.

Aside from political concerns, however, many things would have to be reconsidered for this project to have long-term benefits for Lesotho. For example, it is quite arguable that Lesotho won't be able to use the water from the project. Given the project's capital-intensive nature - with its only purpose being to sell water to South Africa, and with Lesotho being the poor country that it is - Lesotho will not be able to buy any of its own water.

You might be surprised that I say "buy," because it looks like it should be quite simple: if Lesotho has water in its midst, it should be able to use it. But this project was designed and implemented, and this is stated very clearly in the treaty between the two governments, with the sole purpose of selling water to South Africa. So whatever water is going to be collected in those five dams when the project is finally completed comes out of this arrangement. Such water no longer belongs to Lesotho. If Lesotho wants to use that water Lesotho will have to buy it back.

This water is going to be primarily for industrial consumption in SOuth Africa and its water supply for such consumption is already running low. Maybe this explains why the project and not just in five years. Maybe it also explains why more than one dam is going to be built.

To built five dams requires a great deal of capital, and there are several major investors in the water scheme. The DBSA, basically the brainchild of South Africa, originally was contrived to channel money into the bantustans. Having achieved this primary purpose, the bank wanted to find ways out of its confinement to the bantustans, and Lesotho happened to be a country it targeted because of its poverty and the desperate need to mobilize funding for the water projects. For some time, the relationship between Lesotho and the DBSA was covert. But lately, with the changing political climate in South Africa and southern Africa in general, these relationships have become more overt.

The World Bank is another major contributor - for controversial reasons, I would say. One would have expected the World Bank to be concerned about the impact of the projects in which it invests. But the world Bank's interest like so many other banks, was to let the money flow. They did this without calculating the implications for Lesotho.

The European Community will be another major funding agency. It is going to be responsible primarily for the hydroelectric component. The Lesotho government, too, was going to contribute some money - but from where, I don't know. Maybe from the "development fund" expected to accrue from the sale of the water. Since the project is situated in Lesotho, you could argue that that is how Lesotho is going to be involved. There was talk of the United Kingdom and West Germany getting involved, too.

With all these powerful outside agencies, local planners were increasingly marginalized during the planning phase of in the scheme. The marginality of local input in the planing phase raises a number of questions, not the least being whether there is any difference between this one big development project and several of its micropredecessors that failed abysmally.


This touches on the question of culture. A number of things have already taken place that suggest that the project's planning overlooked some important areas. One of the roads leading to the project headquarters happened to run through a graveyard. There was no way the planners were prepared to change or to divert this route. So it just cut across the graveyard. In fact, they had to dig up some of the graves, much to the distress of the local people. Even though we are not talking about huge populations here, the fact that this happened at all indicates a basic insensitivity to cultural matters.

Another problem area is the question of grazing lands, or pastures. Lesotho's highlands are primarily areas for raising livestock. A certain portion of the land is going to be under water someday, but, of course, the planners argue that the affected area will not be all that substantial. In fact is, however, that this is going to touch the lives of the Basotho, the people who raise livestock in that area. One thing that I'd like to see coming out of this project is an arrangement that would lead to improving the pastures. A viable project should consider strategies for improving local economies already in place.

Another major concern is the project's compensation policy. As recently as this past December, I was reading that the local people are complaining that promises made by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, a body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the project on the Lesotho side, were not being fulfilled. Promises about employment have not been met. The compensation question entails replacement of houses demolished during road construction. Animal fodder is to be provided for a certain period, and there was talk about providing affected households with grain for a similar period. While local people persist in making their complaints known, the authority seems to be satisfied with its progress regarding compensation policies and procedures.

Employment is another problem. People were promised employment, but not many have been working on the project. A number of the foreign companies involved have brought their own people along. Those companies that have money to provide employment to the local people also set their own terms - terms that, in more cases, are quite unpleasant, including disgracefully low wages and denying individuals the right to affiliate with labor unions. You could argue that this is the status quo when profit-earning companies are involved. But with the lessons learned from other big development projects, couldn't the planners - the Lesotho government as well as the financiers of this project - have foreseen some of these problems or curtailed them before they got started?

On the question of culture, I would like to see the definition of culture extended somewhat. One of my major worries about development projects of this nature is that they all want to be like the others, and this philosophy fails to consider diversity in the definition of culture. All cultures are different, and all cultures develop out of local conditions. Now, Lesotho is a mountainous country. Mountains are an integral part of Lesotho's cultural history. We don't have to continue lamenting the country's geography, but a project of his nature ought to make use of the mountains themselves as part of our culture. It could, for instance, emphasize the use of local resources - in this case, the stone. As far of the materials, including expensive brick, come from South Africa. A lot of this money could have gone into developing money could have gone into developing local industries - a stone-dressing industry, for instance. There is abundant sandstone and something that resembles granite in our mountains.

One way in which the Katse town that has developed out of this project could have differed from those associated with other, unsuccessful projects would have been to make it a modern stone town. I'm not necessarily arguing that people should go back some 200 years, but very beautiful stone could have been chipped out of our mountains, and the town itself could have been made entirely out of stone. There are good examples in Maseru itself, where a magnificent building that is now known as the Government Complex is built of stone. Another example is the recently completed offices of the resident European Community mission to Lesotho. The entire town this project has created could have been a beautiful example of our culture.

I have always wondered if this project could not have been designed with a strong component dedicated to the revival of the cattle-based economy that Lesotho once had. Not only would that be cognizant of the local culture, but it could, I believe, go a long way toward modernizing pasture management while at the same time addressing the chronic problems of erosion and land degradation.

These are the aspects of culture that should have been taken into consideration have been taken into consideration - not the culture that makes people want to be like others. Culture that makes people want to be what they are.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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