/ 22 June 2023

Basotho lose out over new dam that will supply SA with more water

Flooded: The Lesotho Highlands Water Project has Katse Dam (above) and Mohale Dam, with a third, Polihali Dam, under construction. (Walter Dhladlhla/Getty Images)

A large dam that will transfer water from Lesotho to South Africa is being built near Polihali, 291km outside the capital, Maseru, but locals say they are paying a heavy price for this.

When South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and Lesotho’s King Letsie III went to Polihali to launch the dam’s construction in late May, locals brought protest placards but the army confiscated them, they say.

The Polihali dam is being built by a consortium of two Chinese companies, one South African company and one company from Lesotho. The project, worth 7.8  billion maloti ($420  million), is funded by the South African government. It will generate electricity for Lesotho and transfer water to Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province, which already imports much of its water from Lesotho.

The new dam falls under the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), which oversaw the construction of the Katse and Mohale dams, also serving South Africa’s water needs. The Lesotho government earned 1.4  billion maloti (about $75  million) in royalties from South Africa for these water transfers last year alone, and stands to earn more once Polihali is completed in 2027.

But, as construction of the new dam kicks off, residents’ many grievances remain unresolved, the main one being compensation for land. The LHDA’s employees apparently gathered locals and solicited their views on fair compensation, only to ignore their recommendations.

In the talks with the LHDA, residents called for compensation that would span their lifetime, or be fixed at between 70 and 99 years, according to Lebohang Lengoasa, a representative of Polihali residents. Lengoasa said the demand was based on the fact that the dam will deprive Basotho highlanders of access to their lands for economic activities, including farming and rearing animals, for the rest of their lives.

The LHDA offered compensation covering barely half that.

“We have reached a ceiling of 50 years. This is what was applied in phase I of the project,” said the LHDA’s Polihali operations manager Gerard Mokone. 

Phase I was completed 20 years ago. He said that although it is true that the affected people expressed different opinions concerning the compensation policy, the project was not obliged to take them on.

Lengoasa said that the LHDA’s unilateral decision “has seriously irked us”.

Mothusi Seqhee, the national coordinator of the nonprofit organisation Sold — Survivors of Lesotho Dams, said the matter may go to court because his organisation is teaming up with others to sue the LHDA.

Land compensation is not the only aspect of the dam’s construction that has aggrieved people.

Bataung Makhakhe, a parliamentarian representing the area, said that residents’ animals were already being impounded if they crossed into the construction area, and their owners were heavily fined.

Lengoasa also said very few women were being recruited to work on the dam and that local workers were being paid less than people from other countries.

Lenka Thamae, of the Policy, Environmental Justice and Water Resources Advocacy organisation, said they are pushing the LHDA to offer residents 20% of the money paid by South Africa for water.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.