19 April, 2015

Revisiting the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP): Water for Life?

by M. K. Mahlakeng

“Has the provider for life become a threat to life?”
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is a bi-national collaboration between the governments of the Kingdom of Lesotho and the Republic of South Africa. The multi-billion dollar project is by far the biggest and the most complex water scheme in Africa. It has two main goals: to transfer water from Lesotho to South Africa; and, to produce hydroelectricity in Lesotho. Feasibility studies for the project were launched in 1978, and later led to the signing of the Lesotho Highlands Water Treaty (LHWT) in 1986. However, the entire water project faces contentions between both countries’ politicians and policy-makers to renegotiate the issue of “water transferred to South Africa and the royalties received by Lesotho”. This issue has been controversial and somewhat sensitive.

Katse Dam, Lesotho (Photo: Christian Wörtz)

This might be a result of two key issues. Firstly, this bilateral treaty was signed by Lesotho’s military junta that came into power through a military coup in 1986, the same year the treaty was signed. And, secondly, despite the World Bank providing funding to an illegitimate government for the construction of this hydropower project, it also failed to complete its environmental and social studies prior to releasing the funds. Furthermore, these studies were not subject to public scrutiny.

However, the most crucial controversy surrounding the LHWP is its threat to life. To-date, the project has left devastating environmental and social effects both to arable land and communities that inhabit these lands. Firstly, thousands of people were displaced from arable areas that were economically viable. Secondly, no proper compensation (at a level commensurate with the current socio-economic demands), was provided. The current economic demands are far greater than the monetary compensation provided. What is also important to note is that monetary gains can never compensate for the agricultural subsistence lost. In 1996 people who protested for proper compensation were shot at, with some wounded and some killed. Thirdly, these people are deprived of clean water and electricity. And lastly, in the face of poverty for most of Lesotho’s citizens and the country’s poor agricultural activity, arable land was damaged in the construction of this project therefore posing a threat to local food security.

What is evident is that the social and environmental implications on land and inhabitants are far greater than the hydropower potential expected. And this is due to the fact that in terms of three essential responsibilities noted in political science (i.e. national, international and humanitarian responsibilities) for the people, politicians and policy-makers in carrying out their duties were or are not being adhered to. Firstly, the national responsibility holds that “states people are responsible for the well-being of their citizens. The only fundamental standard of conduct that they should adhere to in their foreign policy is that of national self-interest”. Secondly, according to the international responsibility, “states people have a foreign obligation deriving from their state’s membership of international society, which involves rights and duties as defined by international law and therefore they must observe International Law”.

And lastly, humanitarian responsibility provides that “states people have an obligation to respect Human Rights”. This responsibility postulates that “states people must give sanctuary to those in need of material aid which you can supply at no sacrifice to yourself”. All these responsibilities are essential in curbing the corruption associated with royalties, in addressing the preservation of arable land in order to better address poor agricultural activity and food security; the provision of water and electricity; and, the provision of adequate compensation.

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