South Africa’s thirst leaves Lesotho in dire straits

Water, netball and basketball are the three pillars of evening life in Katse village, Lesotho. The basketball is played on a floodlit court built for the contractors that built the nearby Katse Dam. Netball takes place on a field flattened by running feet and the game ends when the sun sets.

Some 40 women take part in the netball game, either in playing or resolving disputes from the sidelines. During one argument over whether someone ran too far with the faded white ball, one player says: “We don’t really play by international rules.”

The noise of both sports echoes across the village, mixing with the sound of cattle bells. It then bounces off the 2 400m mountains that form Katse’s southern boundary. Katse Dam, with its sheer drop to water level, creates the other boundary. That leaves a 2km strip of rocky ground for farming and people’s homes.

Fields take up most of the land. About 75% of the local population relies on rain-fed agriculture. Katse village is squished into a small area along the spine of one of the ridges that rises into the mountains. The ground is too rocky for crops and frost restricts vegetable gardens.

With night settling in, the ball players join the rest of the villagers to queue for water at the only working tap. The reservoir was built too low down to get water to the forever-dry taps higher up at people’s homes. Dozens of white, green and yellow water containers reserve spots in the queue. Most are carried by children, who can barely lift the containers off the ground. A fortunate few strap containers on to donkeys or load them on to wheelbarrows. Three battered bakkies take water to homes more than a kilometre from the tap.

“They promised when they built the dam that we would get water all over the village,” says Nchai Thusi, who wears a baseball cap, more to match his American-style getup than for any practical reason. He doesn’t make a concession to the biting wind, leaving his leather jacket unbuttoned. “But our parents didn’t follow up and make sure that happened, so here we are.”

His father, a miner in South Africa, died – as did his mother – before water came to the village’s lone tap.

“Life here is about survival, more than about making it.”

Thusi stops talking to look at the dam, now a dark strip to the north. It is the result of a 1986 agreement between Lesotho and South Africa. The latter had to solve a problem: the economic hub of Gauteng needed water and getting it uphill from KwaZulu-Natal would use up too much electricity. Lesotho had lots of water – from summer rainfall and winter snow on its 3 800m mountain peaks – but no dams. The 185m Katse Dam wall, which curves across a valley where two rivers meet, was the result of the agreement.

Lesotho gets about R700-million a year from selling that water – 10% of government revenue. The government says the money has meant new schools, roads and electricity in previously cut-off communities. Turbines in the system generate 75-megawatts of electricity, almost enough to power the whole country.

But people in Katse say they have seen little benefit from selling their water. Rain, in any volume, last fell in 2013. The worst drought in living memory has ensued, wiping out two season’s worth of crops. That streak looks set to continue. El Niño – which drove the drought in the southern hemisphere – has faded away and Nasa predicts that its wet counterpart, La Niña, will probably not materialise to bring heavy rains to fill dams. The South African Weather Service says that, at best, good rains will come by Christmas. This is because the climate is changing, undoing the predictable patterns that farmers rely on.

In Katse the fields are being ploughed anyway. Four-oxen teams pull shiny metal ploughs, guided by one man while another follows, dropping seeds into the ploughed soil. A product of volcanic activity, this soil gives farmers here an advantage over their counterparts in Lesotho’s lowlands. But soil needs rain.

“This place should be so wet now,” says Pakalitha Mokhele. His white gumboots – a fixture on the feet of all farmers here – sink into the ground whenever he puts his weight down. Some rain fell last week, brought by a cold front sweeping in from the south. Those that planted early have been rewarded with green maize shoots popping out of the ground. But, says Mokhele, “that isn’t enough. We will have real problems now without the rain.”

He pushes his long stick into the ground so he can free up a hand to adjust the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Even in spring, the morning temperature stays in the single digits. Pointing to the scrappy cattle pulling his plough, he says: “Without the rain there will be a lot of meat in October.” The herbivore’s rib cage protrudes from under a patchy brown hide. There is little nutrition left in the local grass.

For the cattle, water is less of a problem. A tap further down from the village’s reservoir pumps water into a cement trough. Sheep, donkeys, cattle and horses shuffle each other along so they can drink. Their largesse makes a muddy pool around the trough, which trickles water into a sliver of a stream. This makes its way down a nearly dry watercourse to the dam.

Standing next to where one of these streams used to drop down the 140m to the dam, Terrence Moshoeshoe jabs his well-honed knife into the crusty grey earth.

“They are releasing too much [water from the dam].” The water level, he says, was a third of a metre higher yesterday. Lesotho has to keep releasing water to stave off a full-blown disaster in Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State. Katse supplies the Vaal Dam in Gauteng (but it’s only 30% full). Emergency water releases have sent water flowing the other way, to the Eastern Cape.

These releases have resulted in Katse Dam being at its lowest-ever level – 52%. A strip of recently exposed white rock runs along the dam’s winding cliff face. The water should be 26m above the point where Moshoeshoe is standing.

“People on that side [South Africa] don’t appreciate what they are taking from us,” he says. Like others in the village, he sees the dam as a form of South African colonialism – a project put here to help that country at the expense of locals. “It is our resource. Where is our benefit?” Moshoeshoe asks.

A new dam is planned to supplement Katse, in the second of five phases to develop Lesotho into a full-blown water resource for the whole region. Some water will also go to Botswana and Namibia.

But this expansion has been delayed for at least two years. An official working at the dam shakes his head and says: “Ministers always want their money,” when unofficially queried about the delay. That’s a reference to reports that South Africa’s water minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, has delayed the project because she wants to appoint her own contractors. She denies the claims.

The delay could be disastrous for Gauteng. The province’s water projections show that demand will exceed supply by 2020 – when the dam should have been finished. This is if there isn’t another drought.

A recent World Bank report, Lesotho Water Security and Climate Change Assessment, warned: “Delays in implementing the project could undermine water security in South Africa and limit the economic growth benefits that accrue to Lesotho.” It also leaves the 11 000 people that will be directly and indirectly employed by the project in limbo.

With precious little industry around Katse – the only big employers are the dam and local trout farms – this sort of delay means people do not have an income. In times of drought, an income is the only way people can get food. Some 20 villagers from Katse used to do a two-day hike over the mountains to Ficksburg in South Africa to work in the mines. But a downturn in that industry means only four men in the village still work at mines and send money home. Jobs outside Lesotho used to make up 20% of its gross domestic product.

It has to rain in Lesotho’s highlands. The seeds are in the ground. If the country’s most valuable natural resource doesn’t start falling from the sky, the World Food Programme warns that 700 000 people will need food assistance through to April next year. South Africa and Botswana will also run dry, as the water level at Katse Dam continues to drop.

This article was produced with Climate Home, using funding from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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