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Controversy won’t pull plug on LHWP

Despite protests, Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is going ahead

By Mark van Dijk

, |

Controversy won’t pull plug on LHWP

Despite protests, Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is going ahead

By Mark van Dijk

, |

3 min read

Work on the multi-billion-rand, cross-border Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is going ahead, despite protests from local activists and NGOs.

Phase II begins

The project has been hit by allegations of bullying of local communities, and of failing to adequately plan for – or compensate – the 534 households with approximately 2,500 people who would be affected.

The project remains one of the largest ongoing development projects in the world. Initiated in 1986 through a treaty between Lesotho and South Africa, the LHWP aims to harness the water resources of the Lesotho Highlands to supply water to South Africa and generate hydroelectric power for Lesotho.

Katse dam overspilling LHDA

Phase 1 of the project involved the construction of tunnels and dams, including the 185-metre Katse Dam, to divert water from the Orange/Senqu River to South Africa’s Ash River. Phase 1 was completed in 2003. In 2014, following a protracted feasibility study, work began on Phase II, which includes construction of the Polihali Dam. Phase II will incrementally increase the project’s current water supply rate of 780 million cubic metres per annum to more than 1,270 million cubic metres per annum.

‘Socially disastrous’

Then, in early 2020, controversy struck. In early February, Lesotho NGO, the Seinoli Legal Centre, claimed that the LHWP was bullying the affected communities in Mokhotlong. Some 200 households will be submerged when the dam is filled, while a further 300-odd will have to give up land to make way for roads and offices. The agreement was that the submerged households would be resettled and the others compensated, but the Seinoli Legal Centre claims that no such compensation has been received, even though construction work has started.

EWN quoted spokesperson Mothusi Seqhee as saying: ‘According to their own laws, which they are now circumventing, they ought to have compensated the community before they interfered with their properties.’

Then Amnesty International weighed in, alleging that ‘nearly 8,000 people are facing the loss of their homes or livelihoods’ due to the project, and claiming that it had ‘seen receipts which show that some displaced people were given as little as the equivalent of just over US$1 as compensation for being resettled around Mokhotlong – far from their current homes – to make way for the project.’


‘The dam construction could be socially and economically disastrous to the almost 8,000 people living in the affected areas,’ claimed Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa. ‘South Africa, which will benefit from the new water supply, also has an obligation to ensure that the project complies with human rights while pursuing this water deal.’

Resettlement or compensation

The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) issued a response, which might offer some comfort to the hundreds of villages affected by the project, and to South Africans – primarily in Gauteng – whose water supplies will be enhanced by the LHWP.

‘The fact is that resettlement has not even started,’ the LHDA stated. ‘Not a single household has been resettled. In five cases where there was a requirement to move people temporarily to make way for construction activities, the LHDA has organised temporary accommodation for those households after consulting with them.’ The authority added that it was paying their rent and providing a ‘disturbance allowance’ of more than M25,000 (about R24,700) per household for this temporary relocation.

img LHDA

‘It would appear that Amnesty International is using the terms “compensation” and “resettlement” interchangeably,’ the authority added. ‘In the context of LHDA, compensation means payment in kind or other legal payment tendered for the property or resource that is acquired or affected by the project, while resettlement means the process of addressing the effects of physical and economic displacement. This incorporates compensation, relocation and livelihood improvement. Households are compensated for all assets affected by the project.’

The LHDA dismissed Amnesty’s claim that 8,000 people would be affected as being ‘factually incorrect’. ‘The fact is, an estimated 2,300 households will be affected by the implementation of Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project; of these only 340 households from a total of nine villages will be physically relocated. The number of physically displaced people has been significantly reduced due to extensive consultations with affected communities and other stakeholders,’ it said.

At the time of the claims by Amnesty International and Seinoli Legal Centre, the resettlement process was still in the planning stage. As the LHDA pointed out, ‘large-scale infrastructure projects like the LHWP do disrupt people’s lives.’ It might have added that projects like these take time. Phase I took almost 30 years.

For property developers and residential estates in Gauteng – whose long-term water security will be enhanced by the LHWP – that big-picture outlook will surely override any short-term concerns around compensation and resettlement.

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