Polihali: blessing or curse?

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Lenka Thamae

Lenka Thamae

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)—a multiphase bilateral project comprising a system of dams and tunnels for water-transfer from the Orange river catchment in Lesotho to South Africa’s Gauteng province, as well as a power-generating plant at Muela—remains one of the subjects that generates heated debate among debate.

Born out of a Treaty signed in 1986 between Lesotho and South Africa, the project came under the spotlight once again on Tuesday last week during the inauguration of new Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, at Setsoto Stadium. In his address, outgoing premier, Thomas Thabane advised Dr Mosisili to ensure the project is equally beneficial to Lesotho citizens following previous arguments that it was tilted in South Africa’s favour.  The Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, this week speaks to Transformation Resource Centres Programme Head, Lenka Thamae, about the LHWP. Mr Thamae is head of water and environmental issues in the democracy and human rights non-governmental organisation.

LT: Let’s start with a bit of background regarding the LHWP. Phase 1A of the project comprised the construction of Katse and Muela dams, as well as water transfer tunnels, and this was implemented between 1990 and 1998, while Phase 1B consisted mainly of Mohale Dam, Mohale Tunnel and Matsoku Tunnel and Weir, which have also since been completed. Phase II of the project has Polihali Dam, among other developments. Could you please tell us more about this phase, which has divided opinion among Basotho as it is alleged to be tilted in South Africa’s favour, living Lesotho high and dry, so to speak?

Thamae: Polihali is one of a series of areas in which feasibility studies were conducted to check the viability of establishing a dam for the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Other areas included Taung, Mashai, Lebelonyane and Tsoelike. It was discovered that although all these areas were viable, Polihali was the most suitable because of its gradient, which meant water would flow without too much expenses being incurred. Polihali was also the best because it was realised that unlike these other areas, not many people were going to be affected or displaced by its establishment.

LT: But it is argued that the project was supposed to go to Mashai instead of Polihali. What exactly happened?

Thamae: It was first announced by the relevant authorities doing the project that Mashai was the most suitable site and not Polihali. But things later changed and Polihali was now announced the most viable of them all. This has angered the people of Mashai and Koma-Koma – the latter is a village not far away from the former. In fact the areas are just divided by the Senqu River. The villagers are mostly angered by the fact that even after a decision was made to change the project from being established in Mashai, nobody came to them to explain why. I actually interviewed them and they said they wanted to be compensated for the fact that they were promised that the dam was going to be constructed in their area and suddenly, they were told it would be built in Polihali. They are saying that some of their people, after they were told that the dam was coming, started relocating to make way for the project. The Mashai and Koma-Koma people are also saying the establishment of the dam in Polihali is still going to affect them because the construction is going to block the flow of Senqu River which passes through their area. The river is so near Koma-Koma village such that the villagers use its water on a daily basis. They want to be compensated for that too. But unfortunately, there is no one from the project who listens to what they are saying.

LT: But was there a point when they were told by the project authorities to move from their homes to make way for the dam’s construction?

Thamae: Yes; they were told that the dam was going to be built in their area, and even advised to stop building any new homes and they complied.

LT: So what are the authorities saying about this now?

Thamae: They are distancing themselves from this issue, of-course. They are saying what they know is that the dam is going to be built in Polihali not Mashai. They do not care about what these people were told before a decision to switch the dam to Polihali was made. The government, as a stakeholder in the project, will have to pronounce itself regarding this issue which has disturbed the people of Mashai. These people should be compensated.

LT: There is an agreement signed between Lesotho and South Africa over the project. The agreement has been a subject of criticism with some Basotho saying it is in favour of South Africa. What are your views regarding this issue?

Thamae: I am directly dealing with LHWP issues on behalf of TRC, to see how best this project can go in as far as benefitting the people of this country is concerned. We are looking at how the project affects people’s lives and the environment. We have since published several books related to the project where we wrote about issues such as public participation, the experiences of our people as they moved from their homes to new ones due to the project and lessons learnt from the LHWP since its establishment. We would want to help the people understand, through these publications, whether truly this is the development we are expecting with the project. Recently, I was driven by ordinary people talking about the project, to write a new book about the issue. The talk has been that the project favours and benefits South Africa over Lesotho. I am investigating to find the truth about this through a big project which is going to take some time for me to complete. But once it is done, it will go deep into details of what exactly is going on between the two countries concerning the project. It will expose all the politics surrounding the project. I am looking first at whether Lesotho was actually cheated when the Treaty was signed in 1986, and also analysing the agreements and policies to establish what they are saying about the project. Are they sidelining Lesotho from benefiting from the project? Again, people are saying that Lesotho was cheated in the second agreement signed by the two countries in 2011 for Phase Two of the project, Polihali. Mind the terminology used that the first document signed in 1986 was named a Treaty and the second signed in 2011 is called Agreement.

LT: In his speech during the inauguration of Prime Minister Mosisili, Dr Thabane requested him to carefully look into the project. What could have prompted this warning?

Thamae: If you listened carefully to what Ntate Thabane said, you felt that there was some concern and that he wanted it addressed. My interpretation from what he said was his government had wanted the Agreement revised. You see in the 2011 Agreement, unlike the 1986 Treaty, it is not clearly explained whether Lesotho will benefit in accessing both water and electricity. Actually, the Agreement only talks about water and where it mentions electricity, it has some implication that Lesotho should establish its own electricity project separate from Polihali. But the Treaty was clear that water and electricity went together. What Ntate Thabane was saying was that electricity and water should be treated in the Agreement as one thing, as it was the case in the Treaty. Because of the Treaty, Lesotho is now able to generate its own electricity from ’Muela. Before then, we used to depend entirely on South Africa for electricity.

LT: But why does the Agreement only talk about water when it should also include electricity?

Thamae: South Africa is interested in water from Lesotho. Lesotho, on the other hand, demands electricity. So you see now where there is an interest from South Africa the Agreement is clear on issues of water. The Agreement leaves Basotho with very little hope, if ever there is, that electricity will form part of the project. Elsewhere in the Agreement, it is stated that a study will be conducted to see whether electricity will be viable for Lesotho in the project. The possibility is that we might end up not having electricity at all in the Polihali project while South Africa enjoys access to our water. At some point, a long time ago around 2003, I prophesized that the Highlands Water Project will be a determining factor as to who will rule this country and who will not. I said the project will install and remove governments. That was my prophecy. Those willing to give away our water to other countries through the cheapest means or freely will remain in power. But those caring much about Basotho and are strict on its natural resources being eroded to other countries will not be successful in power. I fear mentioning specific names of people and political parties which are already benefitting through this prophecy lest I disturb governments.

LT: Could you elaborate on this?

Thamae: We are living in the modern world where we have become but one community. It is called globalisation. We are now talking about the interconnectedness of countries. What happens in one country also happens in another. Governments have huge influence over others. There are circumstances in which governments determine who should be in power in countries which are not their own. A typical example is whereby such a country is poor and depends on others, which means those that are able to feed the poor country can easily influence its government.

LT: Are you saying South Africa has direct interest in who forms government in Lesotho because of its interests in our natural resources as a country?

Thamae: Yes. South Africa, like any other country in the international sphere, has its foreign policy that includes that Lesotho should be part of it. This is because Lesotho is rich in minerals which they want. South Africa does not only want water from Lesotho; it wants the commodity free of charge. South Africa can do anything to get the water free; the country can go to the extent of supporting a politician it believes can allow it easy access to our natural resources. In addition to the LHWP, South Africa has interests in other minerals in Lesotho, including uranium. Lesotho also has crude oil in places like Mahobong, Masianokeng, Mazenod, Liqhobong and other areas. So South Africa wants to get all these through a government which cannot resist.

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