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Lesotho's water: Will villagers be compensated?

Martina Schwikowski
June 17, 2024

Lesotho supplies its bigger neighbor, South Africa, with much-needed water. In return, it receives millions of dollars that experts say should be used to compensate resettled villagers.

Water of the Katse Dam in the green Maluti-Mountains in Lesotho
Lesotho's Katse Dam in the Maluti Mountains provides water to neighboring South AfricaImage: DW

The tiny kingdom of Lesotho lies in the Maluti Mountains, whose highest peak rises over 3,000 meters (9,842 ft) above sea level. There, Lesotho possesses a sought-after treasure: water. Lesotho channels this vital resource into huge dams and trade in water is flourishing. For more than two decades, Lesotho has been exporting water to neighboring South Africa , which surrounds Lesotho. South Africa's economic hub, Johannesburg, heavily relies on this water supply from Lesotho. 

Water resources in southern Africa are unevenly distributed. Despite its smaller size, Lesotho is rich in water, while larger South Africa lacks enough water to meet the growing demand.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project boasts dams, reservoirs and tunnels that capture water in the Senqu/Orange River's upper reaches and channel it to South Africa into the Vaal River, almost 400 km (248 miles) away. 

Lesotho built the Katse and Mohale dams in 1998 and 2003. The Polihali Dam, which is currently under construction, is expected to increase the volume of water used in South Africa and produce electricity for the two nations once it is completed in 2028. 

Rising demand for water

Water trading is lucrative for Lesotho given the increasing drought in South Africa, but it "does not benefit many people in Lesotho," Lepeli Moeketsi, a lawyer who works for Seinoli Legal Centre, a non-governmental organization in Maseru, told DW.

Moeketsi is concerned that the rights of locals are still being ignored and that little information about possible plans for compensation is being made public. 

Many people in Lesotho live from livestock farming and field cultivation. Climate change has already left its mark: Persistent droughts have negatively affected their harvest. 

"They have lost their most productive farmland due to resettlement," Moeketsi said. "Access to clean water, the loss of livelihoods, the destruction of the environment, the damage to their homes, the lack of adequate compensation; these are major challenges they are facing." 

Lesotho's deal with water

Boost for Lesotho's economy

However, Moeketsi acknowledged that the project did have some benefits. The construction of dams in Lesotho had proven to be an essential accelerator for economic growth. 

Lesotho is highly dependent on more than €180 million ($192 million), which South Africa pays annually for the water. According to Mohlomi Moleko, Lesotho's Minister of Natural Resources, this sum doubled in May 2024.  

The apartheid regime of South Africa signed the agreement with Lesotho in 1986. It granted the mountainous kingdom royalties from South Africa in return for water and hydroelectricity generation. 

A Basotho in a red blanket high in mountains hearding sheep
Many people in Lesotho depend on livestock and agriculture for sustenanceImage: Stefan Möhl/DW

Communities not adequately compensated

However, the responsible authority, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), has not informed communities about infrastructure projects that affect their land. "They have not yet paid any compensation for the communal land, postponing it until the year of the planned completion in 2028," said Moeketsi, adding that even then, it remained doubtful if the government would compensate villagers. 

Not all residents have been relocated either even though construction work is progressing in their communities. The authorities have neglected air and noise pollution, which may lead to serious health problems. "The government undoubtedly lacks the political will to ensure the proper implementation of this project in line with international standards."

Moeketsi called for a revision of the 38-year-old agreement and the recognition of the socio-economic and cultural rights of the villagers instead of just looking at these projects as a means to economic growth. An application for a court case is already underway. 

Severe drought in southern Africa leaves millions in need

Water for thirsty Botswana

Meanwhile, Lesotho is working on another major project — the Lesotho-Botswana Transfer Scheme. Water will be pumped from a new dam in Lesotho over 700 km through a pipeline via South Africa to arid Botswana, where supplies could become scarce as early as 2025. 

150 million cubic meters of water are to flow to Botswana annually. A feasibility study in the Malealea area was carried out at the end of 2023. The new dam on the Makhaleng River will generate hydropower too.

All three countries — Lesotho, South Africa and Botswana — will benefit from this, according to the cross-border Orange-Senqu River Commission (Orasecom). 

Far away, Namibia is involved as an observer and contractual partner but does not need any water imports. International organizations such as the World Bank support the project, which was signed in 2017, as a model of regional cooperation. 

Susanne Schmeier heads the Water Governance Department at the Institute for Hydrological Education in Delft, a UNESCO institute that organizes global education and training related to water and water supply. She called for better living conditions for villagers near the water projects and for their resettlement.   

Water running through a grey mountain area near the Katse Dam
Lesotho has abundant water resourcesImage: Roger Jardine

Water projects should benefit all

Schmeier urged the Lesotho government to ensure that profits from the water trade are fairly distributed in the country and benefit the poorest. "There is a need for improvement in Lesotho to allow the disadvantaged groups, the rural and urban population to share equally in the profits," Schmeier told DW. 

For Lesotho's economy, cooperation with its neighbors is a significant source of income. However, analysts say the country has the potential to build more infrastructure and create jobs if it fights corruption and connects more villagers to the electricity grid and water supply. 

"Compared to many transboundary water catchment areas around the world, the Orange Basin in southern Africa can certainly be seen as a model for success," Schmeier added. 

This rare mechanism has led to benefits for both South Africa and Lesotho. The countries were able to practice good cooperation over many years — a good example is that when Botswana was severely affected by drought in 2015 the three countries agreed to extend the existing system to Botswana. 

"Instead of becoming embroiled in a conflict in which the countries argued about water or distribution, they tackled the problem together."

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu