Lesotho Project Needs Scrutiny

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A version of this commentary appeared in Business Day (South Africa).

In August, the South African Minister of Water Affairs and the Lesotho Minister of Natural Resources signed an official agreement to implement Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). It was a momentous occasion: the construction of Polihali Dam in the mountains of Lesotho, with its reservoir capacity of 2.2 billion cubic meters, will make the LHWP one of the largest transboundary water transfer schemes in the world. Surprisingly, it went virtually unnoticed in South Africa.

“>widespread corruption on Phase I.  ILesotho was lauded for trying and successfully convicting former LHWP CEO Masupha Sole  for accepting millions in bribes from international contracting companies, and for its dogged pursuit of guilty verdicts of the companies. On August 1, however, the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission appointed the recently paroled Sole as Chief Technical Advisor for the Lesotho delegation. In such a capacity, Sole will have more administrative control than he did as CEO, and will oversee several people who testified against him. What is more, the German company Lahmeyer International, which was found to have bribed Mr. Sole with some R5.9 million, was recently removed from the World Bank’s blacklist two years early, and is now eligible to bid on LHWP Phase II contracts.

Finally, despite significant public protest over efforts to charge end users for the water they consume, there has been little discussion of the fact that water costs as figured by South Africa’s Water Boards derive largely from the costs of water diversion. The South African financing of the LHWP will come directly from the end user (though if energy use in South Africa is any indication, large industrial users are not as likely as average consumers to end up paying their fair share). Activists and policy makers would do well to integrate their concerns regarding water access with those raised by the LHWP.

The phrase “water connects” reminds us that we can’t take our water bonds for granted.   The fate of urban South Africa is linked with its rural neighbor by water in complex ways that demand public attention; Southern African environmental security, social stability, good governance, and water access are at stake.

Colin Hoag lived in Lesotho as a US Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003-2005. He is currently a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz; his dissertation will focus on the LHWP. Lori Pottinger has followed the LHWP for 16 years for International Rivers.