Politics | Economy - Development | Environment - Nature
Lesotho: Water of the future, waters of the past
She and others affected by the construction were promised that nobody would be left with worsening life conditions due to the works. But, she says, "Our lives are now in trouble. Our land, which is our life, has been taken." Her land is now a seemingly idyllic shore of Lake Mohale, surrounded by Lesotho's majestic Maluti Mountains; home of the proud founders of the Basotho nation.
In Lesotho's modest capital Maseru - home to some 200,000 Basotho - the mood is quite different. "We suddenly have got a middle class in this country," notes Lawrence Keketso, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Mopheme, which regularly casts a critical eye on the Mohale project.
A new middle class certainly may seem necessary. The mountain kingdom still has a moderate GDP per capita of 2400 US$ - a little more than one forth of the equivalent number of South Africa, which surrounds the landlocked nation. The majority of the country's 2 million inhabitants still depend directly on the fruits of the drought-ridden soil, which still is causing dramatic shortages in food supply as a result of the regional, Southern African drought.
But in the middle of the drought, there is abundance of water - at least from time to time - in the many Maluti mountain brooklets. Following a deal between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa, the so-called Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) in the mid-1990s, and several of the large dams are already constructed to collect the water that is then led to the industrial areas around South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg. The World Bank is the main finance source to LHWP, which also is Africa's largest ongoing infrastructure project.
Already in its establishing phase, the LHWP had a major impact on the kingdom's economy. Thus, in 1998, it has been estimated that the project investments made up 13.6 percent of Lesotho's GDP. Fares and taxes of the water sales and other project-related incomes are expected to make up some 28 percent of government incomes when the project is finalised within few years, according to official numbers. Thousands of workers, engineers, administrators and suppliers have achieved salaries formerly unheard of in Lesotho.
Of course, Basotho scales are not universal. "It has become more expensive to hire competent people," Mr Lawrence complains. "Now, you have to pay some 2000 Maloti (US$ 280) a month for a skilled journalist." Also the real estate market is on the rise. A decent apartment in Maseru now will cost you US$ 7-8,000 - that is, buying it.
Back in Sekokoaneng, Theresa is however counting the red numbers. She gets a yearly compensation of 4000 Maloti (US$ 560) for the agricultural and pastoral lands the Mohale Dam has swallowed. "It's very meagre," she remarks laconically. "I have seven children in this house, and 4000 is nothing when I have to pay their school fees, when there is sickness or any other emergency."
Theresa emphasises that the lands she lost were producing much more values than the 4000 Maloti she gets paid each year. "I used to make about 18 bags of maize, and in between, I grew vegetables," she recalls. "We also used to grow marihuana, which was our principal cash source. There was never a shortage of cash before the project arrived, and we were even able to buy cattle from the income of the marihuana growing."
To the small village societies in the Maluti Mountains, the dam project has introduced more than the flooding of their fertile fields. The road from Maseru to Mohale - the most modern transport artery in Lesotho - has also brought many new and unwanted intruders into the mountain landscape: police, cattle thieves and courting project workers.
With the police suddenly lurking around, most peasants have seen it necessary to cease the lucrative marihuana production - at least the most visible large-scale growing. The strict customs controls from Lesotho into South Africa however indicate that there still is a sizable marihuana production within the kingdom.
Equally unwanted newcomers as the police officers are, according to Theresa, the growing numbers of cattle thieves in the area, who easily transport the beasts away on the new highway. "First, I lost 18 sheep," Theresa tells us, "then, in September, I lost 28 sheep and 2 cattle." Alone the market price of the two cattle equals the annual compensation she gets from government.
Further, the large number of construction workers dwelling in the vicinity worries the - by Basotho means - old woman. "The young girls in the village have seen lots of men coming and going, and there has been much promiscuity," she complains. It isn't so much traditional values that worry her: "New diseases have arrived," she says without elaborating, but looking to the floor. One third of Lesotho's population is HIV infected.
- But there has to be some positive change due to the project, we ask her. What about the new road and access to water? Theresa is fretting: "We don't even get a droplet of water from the project; it is all sold to South Africa." Also when it comes to the road and the new, fast link to Maseru, she
But Theresa and fellow villagers of Sekokoaneng will not become victimised without putting up a fight. While the village has presented a collective complaint to the project leadership, Theresa has led her own, private war. "They just constructed the road through my property without asking my permission, so I just as well blocked the whole road," she says enthusiastically. After a tug of war, she finally was given an extraordinary compensation of 8000 Maloti.
- People out here are starting to organise," Mr Lawrence informs. "That includes the many thousands that had to move into new houses set up by government." Throughout the mountain wilds between Maseru and Mohale, grey and monotonous brick constructions represent thousands of small scars to the settlements of round and harmonic houses of natural materials. Each and every village has got some new neighbours from the dam area, with which the now share the land resources.
Mr Lawrence tells us he is up in the mountains almost every week. None he has interviewed so far agrees government has kept its promise that nobody would be worse off. Even the new homes are below standards: "They are of poor quality, often with leakages and bad drainage." Provision of water and electricity was not even considered.
The unanimous complaints - to a large degree published in the weekly Mopheme - have not been without effect in Lesotho. Ombudsman Sekara Mafisa is in the process of investigating the large amount of complaints against the project leadership in ongoing open hearings. The ombudsman has already expressed strong concern about both the timing and the size of the compensation payments.
Acting Chief Executive of the project, Ramosehlana Mapetla, however claims his hands are tied by the agreement made between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa. "Even if we wanted to do something to increase or improve upon the compensation policy we do not have the mandate to do so," Mr Mapetla recently told the hearing. He recalled that the compensation policy of 1997 was formulated "in full consultation with the communities, chiefs and other stakeholders," and returns the ball the Maseru government.
Journalist Thabo Thakalekoala, who follows the hearings, says the affected villagers now are putting all their hope in the case put forward by ombudsman Mafisa. Mr Mafisa is to go through all the particular and collective complaints and give his assessment of both the complaints and the entire compensation policy. He however only has advisory powers.
- The complaints included delayed and inadequate compensation for communal assets, threshold payment, provision of schools, clinics and clean water, Thabo explains. "What emerged from different speakers at the formal inquiry was that the project has made the economic status of many resettled families move from bad to worse." The question of who is to be made responsible however still remains open.
Also an awaking environmental movement is entering the Mohale debate. Protests were first articulated from without, spearheaded by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which claimed the World Bank was again falling into an environmental tramp by funding the giant project. Several endangered plant and animal species in the Senqu River basin "will be placed under severe strain and may entirely disappear from project areas," the WCD concluded already at the onset of the project.
International environmental activists thus contributed to the establishment of greater environmental sensitivity in Lesotho. Even Theresa from Sekokoaneng last year participated as a delegate to the World Environmental Summit in Johannesburg. Here, she was able to contribute with first hand knowledge about the environmental damages of the dam.
- Most of the indigenous plants have disappeared, a self-confident Theresa says, using modern environmental terminology. "This also includes a plant growing by the river that we used to make baskets," she adds, bringing us back down to earth.
But the worse thing is, according to Theresa, that the dam has severely affected the microclimate. "It has grown colder, the cold is coming earlier and winds have grown stronger," she says. For the first time, we notice her regular coughing. "Yes, yes," she adds, noting our observation, "the coughing is a result of the cold."
While the debate around the consequences continues to rage in and outside Lesotho, the small town of Maseru however experiences an enhanced importance. The provincial image slowly disappears as Maseru is sloughing into a metropolis. Worsening conditions in the rural districts has made Maseru reach a population of over 200,000, and a growing middle class has meant you don't have to cross the border into South Africa each time you want to buy modern fancy-labelled items.
Looking at the history of most world cities, this is exactly how they grew into importance; by exploiting the natural resources of the surrounding countryside. Maseru, it seems, is only following an unavoidable example. But with self-confident villagers fighting for their rights - such as Theresa - and with so much of Lesotho's culture and history deeply rooted in the Maluti Mountains, nobody is well advised to write a necrology on rural Lesotho still yet.
By Rainer Chr. Hennig
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