MASERU-SHIFTMEDIA- Communities living within sight of Lesotho’s two biggest dams endure a daily struggle to access safe water because the “white gold” they can see, but cannot reach, is destined for neighbouring South Africa.
The landlocked country has earned a total of 11.2 billion maloti ($746 million) for selling 16, 401.3 million cubic metres of clean water to its bigger, much wealthier neighbour from 1996 through 2020, according to the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), the project’s implementing agency.
In 2020 alone, Lesotho earned 1.03 billion maloti (about $69 million) when it sold approximately 780 million cubic metres of water to South Africa, according to LHDA.
Despite being touted as a successful example of regional cooperation, the villages that border these dams have not seen the government’s earnings channeled back into their communities.
In 2020 alone, Lesotho earned 1.03 billion maloti (about $69 million) when it sold approximately 780 million cubic metres of water to South Africa.
In Thabaneng, a village of several hundred people near Katse Dam, 69-year-old Mammofeng Sejanamane and her fellow villagers complain that they have not benefited from the massive water project.
“We are an abandoned village,” said Sejanamane. “Instead, the project has changed our lives for the worse.” Prior to the construction of the dam, Sejanamane says she had unlimited access to clean water and other natural resources like medicinal plants and wood for cooking. But now the area’s water is contaminated and the natural resources she depended on have become submerged under water from the dam.
Because scaling the steep side walls of the dam for clean water is too dangerous — and there are questions about the legality of even doing it — villagers like Sejanamane are forced to look elsewhere for water.
But much of the water infrastructure built to supply potable water to the villages has been destroyed in floods in recent years. And while government agencies argue over whose responsibility it is to fix these broken pipes, it is the villagers who pay the biggest price.
The communities close to the dams are regularly hit by diarrhoea outbreaks, the result of drinking contaminated water from unprotected wells in their villages. In some cases, this ongoing issue has driven villagers to take measures into their own hands, connecting their water supply to existing LHDA tanks, only to see the government take credit for their resourceful and resistant response.
Meanwhile, the daily scramble for water also places a significant burden on the villagers, especially women and girls who spend a disproportionate amount of time collecting water. This affects the education of some students, who must spend hours each day finding and collecting water from unprotected sources in Thabaneng, Ha Seshote and Sephareng near Katse Dam in Thaba-Tseka, and Sekokoaneng and Poloko Ha Mohale, which are both close to the Mohale Dam in Maseru, the nation’s capital.
“This is all so sad because we have so much water surrounding us but we do not have access to it,” 21-year-old Katse High School student Lindiwe Hloaele said.
Villagers look to South Africa with disbelief
Katse Dam is Lesotho’s biggest water reservoir, constructed under the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). Begun in 1986, it is a multi-phased, binational water project that provides water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and generates hydro-electricity for Lesotho.
A few years ago, Sejanamane worked as a domestic worker in Wonderpark in Gauteng, South Africa’s economic hub. While there, she witnessed with disbelief the wasteful usage of water by her employers and their neighbors: “Looking at how South Africans used our water, my heart bled with pain, remembering that I depended on unprotected sources back home. Katse Dam is just a stone throw away from my yard. What a stupidity!”
But Lesotho Water Minister Nkaku Kabi says it is difficult to channel water royalties into addressing dam host communities’ problems: “The challenge is that the money contributed by South Africa that is supposed to take care of the welfare of host communities goes straight to the consolidated [national] fund. It becomes a challenge when we request this money because the government always prioritises its [other] problems.”
Just consider that, in 2019, the Lesotho national government allocated 564 million maloti ($38.3 million) to the Ministry of Water and the ministry put 81.9 million maloti ($5.6 million) towards LHDA operations, according to the LHDA annual report. Yet, in that same year, the LHDA reported that Lesotho received 827.1 million maloti ($56.2 million) in royalties from South Africa.
Simply put, only a portion of water royalties are given to the Ministry of Water and only a portion of the ministry’s budget is channeled into LHDA, which has other budgetary commitments apart from addressing water woes in these host communities.
And, indeed, when we visited the areas of Thabaneng, Ha Seshote, Sekokoaneng and Poloko Ha Mohale, with the exception of toilet pits and gravel roads, we found little evidence that these water royalties were being used to improve the lives of these people.
Waterborne illnesses plague villages
Drinking water from these unprotected wells exposes villagers to serious water-related ailments, such as diarrhoea and vomiting.
“Vomiting is very common among infants in this village,” said Sejanamane, adding that her one-year-old granddaughter recently experienced episodes of retching.
“At the height of her illness, my granddaughter would cry with her hands pressed to her tummy whenever she was about to poop,” Sejanamane said.
She suspected her granddaughter’s pressing of the tummy was an indication something was wrong in her stomach.
“She looked drained. I took her to the doctor just three days ago,” said Sejanamane. The doctor’s diagnosis: contaminated food or water was likely to blame.
In five of the six villages surrounding both Mohale and Katse Dams recently visited by our crew, there are reported cases of diseases caused by drinking dirty water, all while the precious liquid in their backyards is tunnelled to South Africa.
This report was produced in collaboration with the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), supported by Wits Journalism and Civicus.