Troubled Waters on Africa's Largest Water Scheme

Katse Dam On June 20, the non-profit organization Environmental Defense hosted a lunch meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss the shortcomings of Africa’s largest water diversion scheme, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). An outgrowth of a 1986 treaty between South Africa and Lesotho, the project involves the construction of five large dams in Lesotho’s Orange/Senqu River Basin to supply water to South Africa’s industrial Gauteng Province. The World Bank provided financing for the first phase of the multi-billion dollar initiative on the condition that poor people in the region would not be made poorer as a result. A decade later, however, there is concern that neither the Bank nor the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) has lived up to this commitment.

According to the International Rivers Network (IRN), more than 20,000 farmers have been displaced by the two dams completed so far, and most have not been compensated adequately for their loss of land and livelihood. Many residents now subsist solely on corn, having lost the arable land on which to grow nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. As one participant at the meeting noted, this loss of land endangers the livelihoods of not just current farmers, but also future generations.

In a Los Angeles Times article published in September, Korinna Horta, Senior Economist at Environmental Defense, and Lori Pottinger, head of IRN’s Southern Africa Programs, noted that an estimated 150,000 people downstream suffer from reduced water flow from the LHWP, which affects the drinking water supply, public health, fisheries, and farming. Horta, who attended the Washington lunch meeting, reports that water costs have risen dramatically as well, while the promise of dam-generated electricity remains elusive as the energy is unaffordable to most Lesothans. Horta also expressed concern about the environmental consequences of the project, noting that the region’s fragile mountain environment is under severe stress and that several endangered fish and animal species are at greater risk.

The Transformation Resource Center (TRC), a social justice organization based in Lesotho, has been fighting for the rights of communities displaced by the dams since the project’s inception. According to the TRC staff present at the meeting, the group has arranged visits by World Bank representatives to the relocated villages to witness the hardship the dams have created. Although the presence of LHDA interpreters made it difficult for residents to communicate openly, at least one Bank staffer was able to gain a sufficient impression of the impacts to contribute to TRC’s report on the livelihood consequences of the project.

In the past six decades, large dams have displaced some 40–80 million people worldwide, according to the World Commission on Dams. But the total number affected by such projects is far larger: IRN reports that millions more have lost land and homes to the canals, irrigation schemes, roads, power lines, and industrial developments that accompany dams, while others have lost access to clean water, food sources, and other natural resources in the dammed areas and downstream. In the case of LHWP, the number of affected people is more than eight times the number of the most visible victims of the project.

In recent years, environmentalists, human rights activists, and social activists have partnered in an international movement to voice concern over the social and environmental consequences of large dams. The First International Meeting of People Affected by Dams in Brazil in 1997 and a second meeting in Thailand in 2003 brought together dam-affected people and their allies from all over the globe.

Other Resources:

Worldwatch Paper #170: Liquid Assets: The Critical Need to Safeguard Freshwater Ecosystems

Nam Theun Dam: The Worldbank's Watershed Decision - March 28, 2005

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