Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lesotho water project needs scrutiny


Lesotho water project needs scrutiny


IN AUGUST, SA�s minister of water affairs and Lesotho�s minister of
natural resources signed an official agreement to implement Phase 2 of
the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)

Published: 2011/10/04 07:29:42 AM

IN AUGUST, SA�s minister of water affairs and Lesotho�s minister of
natural resources signed an official agreement to implement Phase 2 of
the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). It was a momentous
occasion: the construction of Polihali Dam in Lesotho, with its
capacity of 2,2-billion cubic meters, will make the LHWP one of the
largest transboundary water-transfer schemes in the world. The signing
went virtually unnoticed in SA.

The LHWP has been fraught with problems since the treaty was signed in
1986. Phase 1 left thousands of Basotho worse off than before the
project began. While Lesotho was encouraged by the World Bank to
export its "white gold" for poverty alleviation purposes, an internal
World Bank study last year rated the project a failure on this key goal.

But there are good reasons the public should be paying more attention
to this huge development. First, there are better alternatives to
building more huge dams in Lesotho. Moves to increase water supply to
Gauteng should only come after moves to increase the efficiency of
urban water infrastructure. Developing water recycling schemes and
repairing leaking municipal water infrastructure would boost the
economy, provide jobs and spare the mountain valleys of Lesotho � all
at a fraction of the R7,8bn cost of LHWP Phase 2. These and other
demand-side management strategies are also a smarter approach for a
southern Africa that will be drier as a result of climate change.

South Africans should also be sc eptical about Phase 2 because of the
effects on one of the region�s great rivers. Thousands of kilometres
of the Senqu/Orange River, from Lesotho to its mouth at the Atlantic
Ocean, will become water-starved in the name of Gauteng water
consumers. Rivers are the most endangered natural systems on the
planet and climate change will make their overall health even more
precarious. Even with advanced river- modelling and mitigation
programmes, it is difficult to say how downstream areas will react to
drastically reduced flows.

Lesotho�s food security is also at risk, with implications for the
region�s overall prospects. Upstream of the Polihali Dam, thousands of
square kilometres of fertile land will be inundated. According to
estimates by project authorities, more than 20000 Basotho will be
resettled or lose grazing and agricultural fields. While the LHWP is
billed as a development initiative for Lesotho � and indeed it will
bring much-needed infrastructure, hydroelectric power and temporary
employment � many rural Basotho will suffer greatly as a result.
Unless the LHWP brings sustainable economic activity to Lesotho, South
Africans can expect more migration from Lesotho. Recent tightening of
immigration restrictions by South African authorities will mean many
of these migrants will go undocumented.

South Africans should also be concerned about the LHWP�s significance
for regional good governance. Corruption is a major problem on large
dam projects and the LHWP suffered from widespread corruption in Phase
1. Lesotho was lauded for trying and successfully convicting former
LHWP CEO Masupha Sole for accepting bribes from international
contracting companies, and for its dogged pursuit of guilty verdicts
for the companies.

On August 1, however, the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission appointed
the recently paroled Sole as chief technical adviser for the Lesotho
delegation. In such a capacity, Sole will have more administrative
control than he did as CEO, and will oversee several people who
testified against him.

What is more, German company Lahmeyer International, which was found
to have bribed Sole with about R5,9m, was recently removed from the
World Bank�s black list two years early, and is now eligible to bid on
Phase 2 contracts.

Finally, there has been little discussion of the fact that water costs
as calculated by SA�s water boards derive largely from the costs of
water diversion. The South African financing of the LHWP will come
directly from the end user. Activists and policy makers would do well
to integrate their concerns regarding water access with those raised
by the LHWP.

The phrase "water connects" reminds us that we can�t take our water
bonds for granted. The fate of urban SA is linked with its rural
neighbour by water in complex ways that demand public attention:
southern African environmental security, social stability, good
governance and water access are at stake.

� Hoag is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Pottinger is with International Rivers.

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