LHWP: Not without controversy

IMG_5553I cannot claim superior knowledge of environmental degradation or of actual economic impacts by large-scale hydro-electric projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Neither will I say the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is the first of its kind to throw academics, politicians, and concerned citizens into a frenzy (see in particular: Grand Inga Dam Hydro Project in DRC). Yet, I am fairly confident that most such projects are greeted, at least at the outset, with ceremonial pomp and flair. This was certainly the case last Thursday when ‘M’e Nthabeleng and I visited the LHWP Phase II launch celebration at the Polihali Dam site.

IMG_5526Attendees ranged from local high school students, who were liberated from their classroom confines to perform at the event, to King Letsie III of Lesotho and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. Essentially, the launch was a grand opportunity for the local community to gather (alongside the foreign dignitaries of Lesotho’s only national neighbor), sing, dance, and uncork a few bottles of champagne. No shame.

IMG_5558But celebrations aside, one wonders how much the LHWP will benefit Lesotho in the long run, and how Polihali Dam will benefit Mokhotlong District in particular.

Entire villages must be relocated out of the path of future inundation. Their compensation is small and strictly monetary – no alternative housing, land, or counseling offered. Thousands of temporary jobs are created with each new phase of construction, to the benefit of local laborers, but as each section of LHWP is completed, so too are those contracts with few alternative or continuing employment options. Infrastructure erected to aid in efficient project-completion comprises roads and electrical lines – admirable undertakings, but short on long-term maintenance. Furthermore, the pre-project environmental studies conducted, supposedly with input from those same locals about to be booted from their homes, have produced cheery results and verbage but few enough solid facts to support the ecological overhaul about to take place. Already Lesotho faces horrific effects from construction projects that degrade the landscape, which naturally erodes at an alarming rate.

[The LHWP] is an ambitious 30-year, US$16 billion bilateral venture that envisions building five or six large dams in Lesotho … The largest water infrastructure project on the African continent, when completed it will transfer over 70 cubic metres of water per second to South Africa. [via IRIN]

The unavoidable inter-dependency of Lesotho and South Africa is unfortunate at best. Lesotho’s most valuable resource, water, is also its largest export to its dry, wealthy border-mate at 25% of total export revenue, 3-5% of overall GDP per annum. Already South Africa claims a huge percentage of Lesotho’s workforce, as jobs are scarce in the mountain kingdom, and controls much of Lesotho’s food imports, particularly to remote regions such as Mokhotlong.

À mon avis, Lesotho comes out on bottom in this deal, but what choice does it have? A question I cannot answer.

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