Who’s paying for the Lesotho Highlands dam project?

Tuesday 9 December 2008 by Nic

Cabinet approves a massive R7.3-billion for Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

The multi-dam project was conceived by the apartheid regime with the backing of the World Bank. Sanctions could not block this plan to secure the water supply to the Transvaal because it was approved on the pretext that the dams would bring development to Lesotho. This is not the case, however, as the 27,500 people displaced by the dams await compensation.

As the country waits anxiously for a probe into the arms deal, the African National Congress (ANC) government has approved a massive R7.3 billion for the Lesotho Highlands Dam Phase 2. Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Lindiwe Hendricks, made the announcement after a cabinet briefing last Thursday. The government claims that the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands scheme will ensure water security for industry and consumers. During the struggle against apartheid, it was the African National Congress that launched a halt on the construction of Katse Dam. By 1996, at the same time as the ANC was adopting GEAR, the ANC-led government approved the project. The World Bank (WB) had already agreed in 1991 to finance this phase of the multi-dam water transfer scheme with a $110-million loan for the Katse Dam. The WB loaned a further $45-million for the completion of the first phase.

It is estimated that 27,500 Basotho and a further 150,000 people living downstream from Katse and Mohale dams have been negatively affected according to Thayer Scudder, a sociologist and member of the project’s Panel of Experts from 1989-2002. This will increase during the completion of the second phase. There were evictions and forced removals of the indigenous people from their ancestral land with unfulfilled promises of compensation. Rather than stimulating the local economy, as the WB’s development objectives professed it would, the WB has conceded that poverty has worsened in Lesotho since construction began. In 2007, taps ran dry in Lesotho while water was pumped into the Vaal River to feed urban and industrial South Africa. It is clear that the completion of the Katse Dam project in 1997 benefited the construction companies and fed a Lesotho elite at the expense of rural communities.

We can’t also forget that on September the 14th, 1996, five workers were shot dead and 30 were injured when police evicted striking workers from a Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) construction camp in Lesotho. The slain workers were all employed by a project consortium that includes five contractors: LTA Ltd. (South Africa), Spie Batignolles (France), Balfour Beatty Ltd (UK), Campenon Bernard (France), and Ed Züblin AG (Germany). All were working on a hydropower project linked to Katse Dam. The contractors requested the police to evict the workers from the camp shortly after firing 2,300 workers for "illegally striking". These big companies trampled on workers’ rights as well as human rights in their drive for profit.

While these projects are heralded as life-improving and dignity-restoring. this has not been the case for the poor people of Lesotho and south Africa. The aim of the second phase is to pump more water into the Vaal River system which is the most critical in SA because it drives the economic heart in Gauteng and supplies water as far as to electricity power stations in Mpumalanga. The SA government is banking on the LHWP Phase 2 to secure water for Gauteng and the rest of the Vaal River water supply area. A fraction of this water goes to supplying domestic consumption. It is the thirst for water of SA’s mines and industry that has propelled the disastrous ecological and social engineering of the LHWP. Poor water users in Gauteng are meanwhile bearing the costs of importing water.

More dams are on the cards but these will drive more Basotho from accessing water they held in common. Displaced communities will be paying for their water where they have been resettled. Through the Africa Water Network, the Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP) has learnt that prepaid water meters have been introduced to Lesotho. These are the very same devices that the Johannesburg High Court declared unlawful and unconstitutional on the 30th April 2008. The Department of Water Affairs is appealing on the 23rd to 25th February 2009, together with the City of Johannesburg, to the Supreme Court of Appeals to overturn the judgement.

The LHWP will be high on the agenda of the World Water Forum that will be hosted in Turkey in February 2009. The Coalition campaigns against the commodification of water and, recognising that the cost of water is inflated by the bulk supply imported from the Maluti mountains, will campaign for the just management of our water resources. Industries’ thirst for water cannot be allowed take water out of the reach of poor communities. Practically, there will be a march organised in Lesotho in October 2009 to expose the lies of our governments.

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