HLOTSE-Frail, thirsty and walking slowly and with great difficulty, 80-year-old ‘Malemea Makepe looks at the clear sky and shakes her head in resignation.
It is only 8am, but Hlotse is already under intense heat, and Ms Makepe trudges along —her destination an unprotected well five kilometres away from her residence.
Sweat streams down the elderly woman’s haggard face as if mocking her predicament, but Ms Makepe shuffles on, her empty five-litre container a grim reminder of why she has to make this particular 10-kilometre journey each and every day.
In fact, Ms Makepe has been making this journey since Hlotse taps ran dry three months ago due to Lesotho’s worst drought in 43 years.
Unwell and with no choice but to undertake the arduous voyage since the granddaughter she lives with is too young for the chore, Ms Makepe says she cannot remember the last time her town, situated 96-kiolemtres from Maseru, was this desperate for water.
“It is so painful to watch her make this long journey to and from Motse-Mocha well, as she constantly falls along the way because even this five-litre container is too heavy for her once she fills it with water,” a fellow villager, ‘MaAlice Matla, told a Lesotho Times crew on a visit to the town last Saturday.
“I am not feeling well, and it was particularly bad today. I couldn’t wake-up at 3am as usual so I could be at the well when the water is still clean, and the queue is not that long,” Ms Makepe said.
The group of women at the well greet Ms Makepe as she arrives and allows her to access the water without joining the long queue. According to the women, this is the second time Hlotse has run out of clean water, with the first being in 1994. During that first drought, Mapheaneng and Lisemeng residents would fight over water from Mapheaneng well—the only available source of the precious liquid at the time.
“These women, my fellow villagers, felt pity for me. That’s why they allow me to draw water before them although they have been here before me. If it was not for their mercy, I was going to leave this place late in the afternoon due to the long queue, and also because the water sometimes runs out and we have to wait until it comes out of the ground again,” Ms Makepe said.
Ms Makepe says she has an eyesight problem, and has also generally not been feeling well over recent months.
However, despite her poor health, she has no choice but to wake up early in the morning for the trip to Motse-Mocha, risking attacks by criminals.
“We can only pray and hope that God protects us while we walk in the dark for this water,” she said dejectedly.
Another villager, Ms ‘MaAlice Matla, was still queuing for water when the Lesotho Times crew returned to Motse-Mocha at 11am after arriving at the well at around 2am.
“I have only filled two 20-litre containers because even though I desperately need the water, I have to let other villagers collect some before I can fill my other containers,” Ms Matla said.
According to Ms Matla, a 20-litre container of water is nothing for her five-member family.
“This container doesn’t last because we are five in our family,” Ms Matla said. “And because of the water shortage, this is our third week without doing any laundry because we just can’t afford to spare the water for that kind of luxury. All we care about right now is cooking and drinking water.”
Ms Matla further said she was aware the Motse-Mocha water could be contaminated as the residents share the unprotected well with livestock.
“It is obvious that this is not the cleanest of water, but these are desperate times and one can’t be too choosy,” she said.
Just one kilometre from Motse-Mocha, 23 villagers are drawing water from a muddy puddle, which is a health time-bomb just by the looks of it.
“I am originally from Motete in Butha-Buthe, and it has been very difficult for me to concentrate in class due to this water problem,” K’heola told the Lesotho Times.
“After collecting this water, we boil it to kill whatever germs it might contain. Because of the long distance I have to travel to this dam, and the labour of boiling the water and removing the soil in the container, I am left tired and by the time I go to school, I can’t concentrate on my studies.”
K’heola said because the water is inadequate, she uses “just one cup” for bathing, which she said compromised her hygiene and made her “uncomfortable” in class.
Another villager, Tšepo Mosooang, said the water from the dam was not suitable for plants and animals, let alone human consumption.
“Because some people are washing their cars here, this water has oil particles in it, which makes it dangerous to livestock, plants and human beings,” Mr Mosooang said.
A fulltime farmer, Mr Mosooang said lack of water had also negatively affected his livestock and crop production, making it difficult for him to feed his family and keep his employees.
“It has not only negatively affected us in terms of farming or business, but socially as well. I am a married man. Waking up every single day at around 2pm to fetch water doesn’t sit well with my wife and our relationship is suffering in the process,” he said.
Mr Mosooang also warned the dam could dry up “within two weeks” if it does not rain “as a matter of urgency”.
He further warned of a “water war” in the district.
“Things might be quiet for now but there will soon be fights over this water, dirty as it is. Some people are using this water to wash their cars while others so desperately need it for household use. The villagers are soon going to order the car-washes to stop and the motorists are surely not going to accept it because as you see, this is a public dam,” Mr Mosooang added.
On his part, Leribe District Administrator (DA), Mokhabelane Morahanye said the water shortage was to be expected because of the drought which has affected most parts of the country. The DA however, also pointed out the situation would not have been so desperate had the country been prepared for it.
“We have literally run dry and it has been two to three months since we last saw a drop of clean water in this town,” Mr Morahanye said.
“Because of the drought, which is largely due to climate change, Hlotse River,which is the district’s main water supply, has dried up.”
Mr Morahanye suggested Leribe district desperately and urgently needs “robust climate change adaptations and mitigation education” to ensure the residents’ survival.
“This simply means we have to come up with strategies to help us save water for desperate times like the one we are in now,” the Leribe DA said.
“We cannot run away from climate change; it’s time we face it and we cannot do that unless we are armed with the relevant knowledge on how best we can mitigate and adapt.
“Some of the measure we can take to save ourselves from this scourge is to build tanks, and during the rainy season, harvest water in as many dams as we can build.
“Had we been made aware of these measures by the relevant authorities, we could have prepared ourselves for this crisis but we have learnt our lesson the hard way, and hopefully, we won’t be caught napping again.”
“I was at Motebang Hospital a few days ago and its operations have been compromised due to irregular supply of water. Because of this dirty water the residents have been forced to use, it is only a matter of time before another disaster strikes in the form of diseases such as diarrhea”.
Mr Morahanye also said students are being forced to share water, which could have serious consequences.
“We have not received any reports of disease outbreaks but we are really afraid. There are also security concerns as women and girls travel at midnight to fetch water, and criminals might take advantage of the situation,” Mr Morahanye said, adding the police, officials from the Rural Water Supply (RWS), Water and Sewerage Company (WASCO) and his office had since met to see how best the water situation could be addressed.
“As a result of that meeting, WASCO is supplying Motebang Hospital and Leribe Correctional Service with clean water after every 3-4 days,” Mr Morahanye added.
During the Lesotho Times’ visit to Hlotse last Saturday, some villagers could be seen ambushing a WASCO truck that had come from Maseru to supply Motebang Hospital with water.
Mr Morahanye said the situation could not continue “as desperate as it is now” and reiterated the need to have mechanisms in place to ensure the residents always have clean water no-matter the weather.
Another Hlotse villager, ‘Masenate Mosoeunyana, pleaded with the government to open Katse Dam gates for the water to flow into rivers around the district.
“Once the water has been allowed to flow into these rivers, WASCO can pump it into their purification plants and then supply us with clean water because we are in a very desperate situation,” Ms Mosoeunyana said.
Under the multi-million maloti Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) treaty signed between Lesotho and South Africa in 1986, Lesotho supplies South Africa’s Gauteng Province with water from Katse and Mohale dams.
Only last month, the Ministry of Water Affairs Principal Secretary, Khomoatsana Tau, said government had transferred water from LWHP dams into Mohokare River at the request of the South African government. Just like Lesotho, South Africa is in the grip of its worst drought in almost half a century and has since turned to the Mountain Kingdom for salvation.
“Lesotho is not the only country hit by severe drought; South Africa is worse than us and we have transferred water from LWHP dams into Mohokare for the South Africans,” Mr Tau said.
Mr Tau was speaking at a press briefing in Maseru during which he said due to the effects of El Niño, the country was experiencing its worst drought in 43 years.
El Niño is a periodic climatic phenomenon characterised by inadequate rain in some parts of the world and floods in others.
Under El Niño, parts of South America experience heavy rainfall, while dry conditions prevail in Australia, south-east Asia and southern Africa.
El Niño used to occur in varying degrees of severity after every five years, but since the 1990s, has become more frequent due to global warming.
This time around, weather experts forecast the phenomenon to peak between October and March, warning it could turn into one of the most severe on record.
Speaking with the Lesotho Times this week, WASCO public relations officer, Lineo Moqasa, said the whole country had been hit by water-shortage, and not just Hlotse district.
“It is not Hlotse’s problem alone, but the country as a whole. This is due to the current weather conditions,” Ms Moqasa said.
“However, Hlotse is one of the worst-hit by the current dry conditions, but each of the country’s 10 districts has its own unique problems.
“We prioritised places like the hospital and correctional service as they are not supposed to run out of water under any circumstances.”
Ms Moqasa said beginning last Sunday, WASCO had started supplying villagers with clean water.
“We are working closely with the District Water Committee to identify strategic places where we can place our tankers for the villagers to have access to clean water,” she said.
Ms Moqasa noted areas supplied by Metolong Dam (Mazenod, Morija, Roma and Teyateyaneng) still had access to clean water.
Asked if there were other measures in place to address the water problem, Ms Moqasa said there were ongoing executive discussions on how best the country could address the situation.