Lesotho water transfers- no cause for celebration

Africa Policy Information Center
February 24, 1998

Today marks the inauguration of the first water supply from Lesotho to South Africa. However, it is not a day to celebrate.

Today as President Mandela, King Letsie the III, Namibian President Sam Nujoma and President Kelumile Masire of Botswana celebrate the transfer of water from the Katse dam to South Africa they are neglecting serious outstanding social, environmental and economic issues from the construction of the phase 1A Katse dam. Today, four of Southern Africa’s leaders are celebrating the completion of a project which has and could continue to adversely affect a great number of people, directly cause significant harm to the environment and set a damaging precedent for water management in southern Africa. If this region is to meet the challenge of sustainable development, we must learn to use our precious resource efficiently before forcing poor people and the environment to make sacrifices.

Large dams, such as the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), force people from their homes, submerge fertile farmlands, forests and sacred places, destroy fisheries and cause the social, cultural and economic impoverishment of affected communities In addition, because large dams often cost more than the benefits they produce, they divert funding away from the provision of important basic needs such as the provision of sanitation, safe drinking water, affordable and efficient irrigation systems, health and education.

Today we must remember that the seemingly pure water is actually tainted by substantial costs endured by thousands of poor farmers and herders in the Lesotho Highlands. Contrary to international law and professional standards, the LHWP was designed and constructed before an environmental impact assessment was completed. Since 1986, the following environmental concerns have not been addressed by either government:

  • How the reduction and regulation of the flow will affect the ecology of the Senqu and Orange Rivers,
  • What the effects of the collapse or manipulation of the natural flow canals caused by the diversion of large quantities of water,
  • The effects on fish populations in affected areas,
  • The impact of the LHWP on Namibia, a downstream user with critical water shortages, and whose government has stated its intention to increase its irrigated agriculture from the Orange River.

Construction of phase 1b will seriously undermine equitable and efficient water management efforts in the Gauteng area and the Southern African regions. Gauteng’s current water supply system losses nearly 15% to leaks and still does not service 18% of Gautengs low income residents. The Department of Water Affairs and forestry and Rand Water(the Local supplier) have started implementing creative measures to improve the efficiency of the systems and serve more people. If phase 1b proceeds, however, paying off the excessive costs of the project will make RW and the DWAF’s efficiency and equity efforts a lower priority and encourage greater use of high cost water to increase revenues. Such an approach endangers the sustainable development of Southern Africa as a whole.

Today South African, regional and international non-governmental and community based organisations call on the South African government to fulfil their obligation to the affected communities of the Lesotho Highlands as set forth in the 1986 Treaty. The government is urged to withdraw its commitment for the construction of phase 1B until all outstanding compensation and grievances against the LHDA from the construction of Phase 1A are immediately addressed and adequately settled, and an independent and cumulative assessment of environmental, social, resource economic and technical aspects of the project has been conducted. Further we urge the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) to publicly release its information on demand side management in Gauteng with regards to phase 1b.


Conceived and initiated by the apartheid regime and the military government of Lesotho, the LHWP is the largest and most costly infrastructure project in progress in Southern Africa. It will supply water to South Africa and supply hydroelectric power and a monthly income of R6,5 million from the sake of water. The agreement between the two former, illegitimate governments was set out in an international treaty signed in 1986. The LHWP project will supply water to South Africa’s industrial heartland of Gauteng through a complex system of pumps and tunnels that will essentially reverse the flow of the Senqu (Orange) river in Lesotho and divert it into the Vaal river, where it will flow to the Vaal Dam.

The Dam, Water Conservation and Equity: unanswered questions.

Further construction of the LHWP is opposed, on conservation and equity grounds, by a coalition of community organisations (led by the Alexandra Civic Organisation and Soweto SANCO), environmental non-governmental organisations, trade unions and consumer groups in Gauteng. These organisations have studied the issues and concluded that the more the local distributor –Rand Water (RW) – relies on the LHWP water, the more difficult it will be to provide universal access to water and to implement conservation measures.

The main reason is the added cost of LHWP Phase 1b water, which is at least 40% higher than existing supplies. If those existing supplies could be more efficiently utilised – in encouraging conservation by high-use households and firms, and by fixing leaks — then the demand for water would be reduced so much that the next stage of the LHWP would not be needed for an estimated two decades. The money saved on the R7 billion phase 1B — R560 million per year at current real interest rates of 8% — could be used for many other urgent social purposes, including the great expense of building the infrastructure to get water supplies to historically disadvantaged communities and fixing leaking pipes- a cost that is likely to be overwhelming to a Water department saddled with a hugely expensive project like the LHWP.

Presently, RW supplies water to eight million people — one fifth of the South African population — and 60% of South African industry. RW estimates that as much as 50% or 125 mega litres- 2500 residential swimming pools- is leaked in delivery to Soweto. Other recorded losses of water due to le aks are: Johannesburg 15%, Sandton 12%, Roodepoort 10% and Randburg 6%.

Water is leaking into the ground at a time when millions of South Africans are without access to clean water. Such water supply would have enormous positive impact on personal and public health and hygiene, the environment, women’s time and the local economy (with small farms and micro enterpri ses emerging due to availability of water). The Reconstruction and Development Program commits 50 litres of water per day for households on a “lifeline” basis, and it is easy to achieve this if tariffs are implemented that penalise large users and make the first (relatively tiny) bloc of consumpti on free to all.

The problem is that if Phase 1B goes forward, RW and DWAF will face a disincentive to make the current water supply system more efficient and equitable. Presently, in order to promote conservation, RW and DWAF are embarking upon creative programs including education, new water-saving products ( such as dual-flush systems), tariff reform and fixing leaks and plumbing systems. However, if RW must pay for the unnecessary Phase 1B water, then it will have less incentive to limit consumer demand. Currently RW’s top ten customers account for 48% of its annual water deliveries and 45% of its revenues. The huge water users will become increasingly important to RW as its costs rise with the LHWP. There will be decreasing incentive in encouraging these clients to use less water. RW may be less likely to attempt cross-subsidisation from large, wasteful users, to low-income South Africans who require at least 50 litres of water a day on a lifeline basis.

In short, the infusion of huge amounts of extremely expensive LHWP water will both spoil the incentive for Gauteng users (through RW) to conserve, and may make it prohibitively expensive to offer low-income people basic access to water along the lines of the RDP promise.

Katse’s trail of poverty

Phase 1A of the LHWP directly affected 2 000 people -approximately 300 households – and indirectly affected at least 20 000 more by their losing the use of common resources or income through the loss of 925ha of arable and 3000ha of grazing land.

The compensation program for affected household was intended to offset losses caused by the project. Major elements include the annual delivery of foodstuffs as compensation for the loss of arable land, single cash payments for gardens, baled fodder for lost rangeland, cash and replacement seedlings for trees, and incidental repairs and replacement of damaged property. Since its inception, there have been problems with the program and its implementation, causing affected people anguish for many years. A new program, mostly untried is now underway.

In late 1997 the Highlands Church and Solidarity Action Group (HCSAG) conducted a qualitative study of 93 households in the villages of Khohlontso, Ha Nkokana, Ha Mensel, Ha Theko, Ha Ramanamane, Ha Seshote, and Ha Lejone. All of these villages are in close vicinity to the Katse Reservoir. They found that:

  • 40 % of the grievances lodged 3 years ago were not addressed in any way whatsoever; 55% of the grievances were, to varying degrees, partially addressed; and 5 % of the grievances were fully addressed. It is worth noting that two of the four households whose grievances were fully addressed claimed not to be satisfied with the compensation.
  • Only 2 of the 93 households reported to be satisfied with their compensation. Of the 38 claims that were not addressed in any way whatsoever, 26 (68%) received no reason from LHDA as to why this was the case; 10 (26%) received promises of compensation, but nothing was ever delivered; and 2 (5%) received an explanation as to why no action had been taken.

The LHWP Treaty signed in 1986 guarantees that people will “be enabled to maintain a standard of living not inferior to that obtaining at the time of first disturbance.” [Article 7, paragraph 18]. Contrary to the commitment established in the 1986 agreement, the HCSAG survey of affected households found that,

  • 75% felt that their standard of living had decreased since the beginning of the project;
  • 15% felt that they were living at the same level and
  • 10% felt that their standard of living had been raised since the beginning of the project.

The program that is intended to help affected people find new livelihoods is particularly weak and few highlanders have been helped in any significant way by it. Called the “Rural Development Program” it has been marked by a lack of capital to help local people start new businesses, not enough or inadequate training opportunities, and little information on finding replacement land for those who wish to continue farming but have lost their lands to the project.

Clearly the project and the governments of Lesotho and South Africa have not fulfilled their obligation to the people of the Highlands and as a result the poor Highland communities continue to carry the burden of satisfying Gauteng’s thirst. Meanwhile pre construction activities for Phase 1B ha ve begun without community complaints from the construction of the Katse Dam being satisfactorily settled. Phase 1B will displace up to 400 households – between 1 200 and 1 500 people. A larger number will need to be compensated for the partial loss of land and loss of assets. MOST of the people affected by the LHWP live in the Thaba Tseka district. This district is one of the two poorest districts in the country. The continued construction of any phases of the LHWP without the adequate settlement of grievances and compensation(due to the loss of fields, access to firewood, grazing land and food) will exacerbate the already high poverty levels in the Highlands.

Requests to the Governments of South Africa and Lesotho, and the World Bank

In 1996, South African Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Kader Asmal made a commitment to the LHWP as well as a “personal undertaking to ensure that the provisions of the treaty, in its protection of the rights of people affected by the project will be adhered to.”

Today we challenge the minister, who also chairs the World Commission on Dams, to live up to his personal commitment and ensure that justice is delivered to communities in Gauteng, the Lesotho Highlands and the Orange River basin.

Thus the undersigned non-governmental organisations call on President Nelson Mandela and Minister Asmal, as well as the Government of Lesotho, to halt construction on Phase 1b immediately and to discontinue any further work until:

– All compensation and grievances of affected Highlands households against the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) are immediately addressed and adequately settled;

– An independent and cumulative assessment of the environmental, social, resource economic and technical aspects of the project are considered;

– Rand Water and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry publish figures and ensure public debate on conservation of water, including tariff reform and community-oriented maintenance programs especially since it is possible that phase 1b could be postponed for many years with such measures;

– The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry takes measures to ensure that heavy consumers from the industrial, agricultural, forestry and residential sectors implement efficient water conservation measures and applies penalties to polluters and wasteful users.

– Furthermore, we call on the Governments on Lesotho and South Africa to abandon plans to continue with the construction of Phase 2, 3 and 4 of the LHWP on the grounds that there is enough scientific information to suggest that the Orange/Senqu river systems can not sustain more dams.

Finally, we call on the World Bank — which catalyzed the LHWP during an era of intensive political repression in both Lesotho and South Africa, at a time of financial sanctions against the apartheid regime — not to approve further funding of the LHWP as scheduled in coming months unless the previously mentioned conditions are fulfilled. Instead, the Bank’s Inspection Panel should document the projects’ many aspects that fail to meet World Bank policy.

Issued Johannesburg, January 23, 1998

Statement endorsed by:

The Group for Environmental Monitoring (GEM), Alexandra Civic Organisation, Soweto SANCO, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg (ELA JHB), Environmental Justice Networking Forum Gauteng Provincial Steering Committee (EJNF Gauteng), Highland Church Solidarity and Action Group, International Rivers Network, Environmental Defense Fund, Berne Declaration, Reform the World Bank Campaign

[For more information, including links to sites with information and views favorable to and critical of the project, see Lesotho Highlands Water Project page of the Southern Africa Environment Project (

President Nelson Mandela’s speech opening the project on January 22 can be found on the African National Congress site (gopher://]

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