July 6, 2002
The Lesotho Highlands water project is the largest civil engineering feat in Africa. It involves building five dams in the tiny kingdom’s Maluti Highlands over 30 years at an estimated cost of $8bn [about pounds 5.2bn]. The scheme, due to be completed in 2020, is about providing water for South Africa and electricity for Lesotho. About 40% of the water in the Senqunyane river basin will be diverted through tunnels to South Africa’s Ash river and on to the Vaal dam 70 km (44 miles) south of Johannesburg. The first dam, Katse, on the Malibamatso river, has been built. Muela, the next, will generate electricity.
In the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid regime was under international sanctions. To avoid difficulties for the international banks which provided some of the loans for the project, a London-based trust fund was set up to channel the money. Lesotho was the nominal borrower, but South Africa was responsible for repaying the money.
Like all big dam projects, Lesotho’s has been the subject of widespread criticism from environment-alists. More than 24,000 people lost their farms or access to communal grazing land as a result of the first dam. Muela will affect a further 7,400. Critics have pointed to poor compensat-ion, delays in rehousing, exacerbated soil erosion and troubled labour relations.
In 1996, after 2,300 workers were sacked for “illegal striking”, five men were shot dead and 30 injured by police called to evict workers from a site run by the consortium that includes Balfour Beatty.