THE Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) is celebrating 30 years since the landmark signing of the bi-national Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Treaty in 1986.
Although the treaty was signed under undemocratic rule for both countries, the purpose of the project under the treaty was to enhance the use of Senqu/Orange River waters by storing, regulating, diverting and controlling the flow of the river and its tributaries to effect the delivery of specified quantities of water to the designated outlet point in the Republic of South Africa and by utilizing such delivery system to generate hydro-electric power in the Kingdom of Lesotho.
In this wide-ranging interview, LHDA Social Development and Environment Divisional Manager Mahase Thokoa takes Lesotho Times (LT) Reporter Pascalinah Kabi through the challenges and successes recorded in the past three decades.
LT: Briefly tell us what the LHDA is all about.
Thokoa: LHDA is an autonomous statutory body established under the laws of the Kingdom of Lesotho in accordance with the provisions of the LHWP treaty. The authority is provided with all powers, authorisation, exemptions and rights necessary for the implementation, operation and maintenance of the project, including the procurement of land and interest in land.
LT: Since the landmark signing of the LHWP treaty between the two governments, how has been the 30-year journey?
Thokoa: It has been a very interesting journey and one of the first lap of the implementation of four phases of the project that we made after the signing of the treaty between Lesotho and South Africa. I must mention from the onset that, as the authority, we are proud of the journey we have travelled so far because of the monumental achievements we have made.
These achievements include the tangibles that are there for everyone to see. The primary mandate of the authority was construction of dams to enable us to store water and supply it to South Africa as well as utilising it to generate hydro-electric power for Lesotho.
However, the abovementioned did not happen overnight. There were preparatory works done to achieve them such as roads construction, telecommunications, and electricity installation to enable the dam construction.
However, our biggest success was managing to forge harmonious working relations with members of the communities who agreed to give up their lands for the dam construction and other ancillary developments.
The authority then facilitated the compensation pay-outs to deserving communities and I believe these are some of the achievements we have recorded.
However, there is no denying there were challenges we came across including some few aggrieved people who felt the compensations were not properly handled.
We are still working closely with them even today to try and find a long lasting solution to the problems. Each situation is handled on its own. For instance, if someone is not happy with the compensation pay out, we access which of their properties was affected by the project.
Once this process has been dealt with, we patiently take them through the compensation policy and paying procedures so that they fully understand what is going on.
This necessitates transparency and understanding between the authority and affected persons.
LT: What is your reaction to the allegation the authority is more interested in building dams than improving the lives of affected communities?
Thokoa: This project is for the peoples of the countries involved and the affected communities are the priority as far as the project is concerned. It must be noted that the legal instrument that governs the implementation of this project clearly provided that standard of living of the projected affected people should not be made worse off.
Besides the mandatory compensation pay-outs, the authority owed it to the affected communities to ensure they fully benefit from such a big project.
Firstly, I must say the authority made it its business to build and improve the standards of schools in every area that we passed through.
I must start by mentioning the tarred roads construction connecting all the project reservoirs. This made it easy for people to have access to services like healthcare facilities, police stations, shopping centre and Magistrate’s Court all built by the authority.
Though we might have constructed these roads, there are some villages which are still afar and have now decided to use their communal pay-outs for road construction. We are working on a project to help them either by working with the Ministry of Local Government and Chieftainship or Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
There are also many communities which have decided to install electricity in their households by using the communal benefits. For instance, in Bokong, Thaba-Tseka all surrounding Katse village communities now have access to electricity. The new electricity project underway is in Khohlontšo and Makhoabeng. All five Mohale villages have completed the electricity installation and there are so many communities which have asked for the same service and we work closely with the Lesotho Electricity Company.
For those villages still very far from the electricity poles, we have piloted solar energy use in four villages – Ha Mohale, Katse and two in Mokhotlong. If communities are interested in this energy source, we will go for it.
In some areas, we had to relocate people and the expectation was that the admission of children to new schools put too much strain on the receiving schools as they would be expected to admit a higher number of learners. This was a situation they had not envisioned.
So we made it our business to develop and build new schools where necessary. We also built new toilets for schools as we have a vested interest in health issues. Readers will also appreciate that the Phase I project connected water and built toilets for every household of a community that we passed through.
As part of livelihood restoration, each community established its own association which was empowered with skills to ensure that each community benefits from this project. Some of the communities still have such associations while others have died a natural death.
Under this project, there are communities which lost their communal properties like rangelands, medicinal plants and etc. Therefore, for such communities to have access to communal compensation, members of the communities were advised to establish the associations committees and they would work as a bridge between the authority and communities as well as implementers of envisioned developments by the communities.
I must stress that the committees together with their communities decided on income generation projects which they believed would continue to maintain their living standards even after the project completion.
Some build mills, business properties, physical structures for selling coffins, fashion designs and filling stations in areas like Lekhalong, Ha Theko. These are areas which showed practically that communal compensation can be used for the development of such affected communities, benefitting each household.
However, there is no denying that some of these projects are non-existent as we speak. Some of the reasons for this were unresolved conflicts among community members resulting in the collapse of such businesses.
The authority strongly advised farmers to form associations which facilitated the sustainable use of rangelands for their own livestock. Such associations are still standing even today. We also gave them high quality breed which every household has access to and can take their livestock to a communal kraal for breeding.
On issues of agriculture, we took in qualified Basotho agricultural instructors to train farmers on conservation agriculture. We specifically went for the local instructors because they know our farming system more than anyone else and are able to instil the knowledge in our local farmers. We also went for the locals to ensure there was no language barrier between farmers and instructors. The instructors were part of the authority team and there was a huge development.
For instance, there was a big shed constructed by LHDA near Ha Mohale Village that produced high quality potatoes. The purpose of the shed was to ensure that easy access to the market.
We also initiated the production of Hlaka-Leboea maize, cabbage and paprika.
These are some of the projects that were undertaken until a time when we stepped back after the Phase I project was completed. But the instructors were still supporting them even though they were transferred back to their substantive positions at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.
LT: Some of the projects are non-existent today and some of the affected households are now worse off. What really went wrong?
Thokoa: We learnt from this exercise and thoroughly investigated the root-cause of this collapse. The authority learnt that in some of the cases, once the incubator leaves such projects, they collapsed leading us to believe that the foundation was not deeply rooted.
There is very little one can achieve in the absence of education. No matter how many times educational campaigns are initiated, they should be carried out regularly because once is never enough. The recipient must also understand the importance of such education and its impact. This is because without a positive attitude, education alone is not enough.
The other thing we learnt is that soon after we left, the communities did not have access to markets as the authority was providing them on their behalf. Now that they were on their own, they did not know where to go and we have since decided that in the coming projects the authority should not be leading from the front but rather we should be driving from behind so they know the right processes.
We also learnt that these people did not have the proper implements and we are looking into facilitating easy access to finance for those who would feel there is a need.
These are challenges should be addressed going into the Phase II of the project. We are however not leaving behind communities affected by Phase I.
LT: What are some of the challenges that you have come across in the last 30 years of this project?
Thokoa: There is no journey without turbulences and the first one we came across at the very beginning was a lack of understanding of the compensation policy. Even today, there is still confusion over the compensation policy.
This is why we have taken a conscious decision to regularly talk about the compensation policy as part of efforts to ensure that people fully understand it.
The second challenge we came across was environmental. While it is true that the project has contributed towards our economy through royalties, there are some of our counterparts like the mining sector that are bringing developments in our country.
But we have since realised that the mining industry is located on the wetlands, putting too much strain on our wetlands.
Burning rangelands also has dire consequences because burnt grass or plants release nutrients into the dams and this is a big challenge for us.
On the other hand, some neighbouring communities still demand compensation despite the fact that they were not affected by the project. It means we still have a long way to go.
We are also not embarrassed to say some of the community projects are no longer functional and we need to seriously look into this sector to ensure long-term improvement on livelihoods.
On the side of the dam, we came across a situation where the constructor informed us that he came across a big rock which was not anticipated and this nearly affected the projected dam completion.
On top of that, we experienced an earthquake in Mapeleng. It was a huge challenge that we had not anticipated. We had to treat it as a special case as we had not anticipated it.
LT: LHDA has been on the receiving end of criticism with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accusing it of advancing the interests of South Africa over those of Basotho. What is your reaction?
Thokoa: Firstly, it must be understood that we are Basotho first and LHDA employees after. Therefore, we work here as children of this nation. We are patriotic citizens abiding by the laws of this country and that of the authority.
So there will never be a time when we will condone any idea of not advancing the interests of Basotho in their own country.
However, there is no denying that we work closely with the NGOs and not seeing things from the same perspective does not mean we are not working for a common goal.
We are all working together for the betterment of Basotho and Lesotho and in a situation where we agree to disagree, it must not be confused with not advancing the interests of Basotho.