Making the Earth Rumble: The Lesotho-South African Water Connection

Article excerpt

MAPELENG, LESOTHO - Small earthquakes have been rumbling in recent months through the Maluti Mountains in the small landlocked nation of Lesotho, which is entirely surrounded by South Africa. Mountain villages now live in fear of the ongoing earth tremors, such as the one that left a crack through the middle of the village of Mapeleng, and damaged many traditional stone-built rondavels (round houses).

"For 60 years we lived comfortably here, until October 1995. My family is sitting on a crevice," says a Mapeleng villager. "When I ask, I am told the foundations to my huts are weak. Yet for 60 years those huts stood strong. I fear that one day when the tremors attack, I shall run outside only to get swallowed by the crevice running between my huts."

According to expert seismologists, the reason for the earthquakes is the filling of the Katse dam, which at a height of 182 meters is the highest dam ever built in Africa. About 2.4 million cubic meters of concrete were used to build the dam, and the reservoir will extend over an area of about 15 square miles.

Funded by the World Bank, European export credit agencies, international and South African banks and various bilateral donors, including the French, British and German donor agencies, the Katse dam is the centerpiece of Phase 1A of the Lesotho Highlands Water Development Project. Phase 1A also includes the building of more than 50 miles of tunnels to be blasted through the mountain landscape, a hydropower station and the building or upgrading of 250 miles of roads. The entire project consists of what are effectively five separate phases (IA, IB, II, III and IV), including the building of five large dams, two smaller dams and 140 miles of tunnels. The last phase is due to be completed in the year 2017. The entire scheme's cost is estimated to be $8 billion.

The purpose of the project is to export water from the Senqu River, known as the Orange River in South Africa, to the Johannesburg region, the industrial heartland of South Africa. The project will first store the southwesterly flowing headwaters of the Senqu River and then redirect the water northward via a system of tunnels and pumping stations to South Africa's power and population center in Gauteng Province, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located. Phases 1A and 1B, both of which are covered by a 1986 treaty negotiated by the South African apartheid government and a Lesotho military government which reportedly took power through a coup engineered by South Africa months before the treaty's signing, are to deliver 2 billion cubic meters of water to South Africa per year.

A small hydropower component, the Muela power plant, was added to the project in response to Lesotho sensitivities about further deepening its already overwhelming economic dependence on South Africa. The Muela hydropower station, construction of which has been suspended for many months because of unspecified "procurement problems" - a likely euphemism for corruption charges - is supposed to help make Lesotho more self-sufficient in energy production.

Phase 1A is itself mammoth, especially in the context of Lesotho, an impoverished mountain kingdom the size of the state of Maryland with about 2 million inhabitants and an approximately $750 million gross domestic product. The project is overwhelming the country and is likely to determine the political economy of Lesotho for generations to come.

John Roome, the World Bank's task manager for the project, says, "The main impact of the project on Lesotho's economy will be the royalties from the sale of water, estimated at about $55 million per year once the first two large dams are operational. This will be a net contribution to the Lesotho government, which will put this money into a development fund to be used for community-identified and poverty-focused investments."

In contrast, a World Bank supervision report of October 1995 is less clear about what the benefits and possible tradeoffs of the project might be. …