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Question and Answer article

In September, while the World Bank and International Monetary Fund prepared for meetings in Washington, 500 people marched in Maseru, Lesotho to protest the effect of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) on their livelihoods. One of the World Bank’s biggest projects in Africa, the LHWP pipes scarce water to South Africa and has been touted as a major development boost for the tiny mountain kingdom. But while South Africa benefits from the water, the project has been dogged by controversy, including the displacement of thousands of people. Now there is the possibility that new phases of the dam development could cause further hardship. Pambazuka News interviewed Jacob Lenka of the Lesotho NGO Transformation Resource Centre, which works with affected communities to enable them to express their needs and monitors the resettlement process.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What exactly is the plight of those people who have been displaced by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)? How many people are involved?

JACOB LENKA: The plight of the Lesotho communities affected by LHWP is that they were not sufficiently consulted when the Project began. Of critical importance is that the communities were not compensated with land for land, they only received cash compensation. These communities are used to production from the soil. They were not again told about their rights vis-a-vis the Project; their right to water and development. The phase 1A has affected about 27,000 people while phase1B has displaced about 370 households, excluding those other people who have been affected in different ways than by displacement.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Apparently part of the development treaty was that people displaced by the project should be taken care of and that "the standard of living of all people affected by the implementation of Phase 1B should not be compromised and where possible improved'”. Why hasn't this been met? Who is responsible for the failure?

JACOB LENKA: Yes, the following articles within the Treaty talk about the improved standard of life for the affected: article 7(para.18); article 15 and LHDA order of 1986, section 44(2). Yes, the communities have been compensated for the property lost to the project, but as said above compensation was not sufficient. The have not been compensated with land, and they do not have rights to water and development, at least, these communities have not been made aware of these rights. After resettlement they can no longer send their children to school; they cannot feed and send their children to clinics; they were able to do these things before resettlement. This is real poverty and disempowerment. They also have not been trained and provided with sustainable training that would help them beyond compensation. The compensation that comes to them often comes late.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What is public sentiment in Lesotho about the LHWP? How do people feel about water being sold to South Africa while they suffer from drought and food shortages? And what is the level of awareness about those who have been displaced and their plight?

JACOB LENKA: Many people here are farmers. They will certainly want to have water for food production as well as water for drinking. Studies show that Lesotho will be water stressed in the next 25 years. Communities want water for irrigation. They want phase 2 to include component of development through water on the Lesotho side.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: More dams are going to be built as part of the project. What is the anticipated effect of any new dams on resident communities?

JACOB LENKA: The level of awareness amongst the affected communities is high. They have already formed their own civic organization; it is called Survivors of Lesotho Dams (SOLD). However, this level of consciousness does not translate into stoppage of the building of more them in Lesotho. The advice of the communities already affected to those who would be affected by phase 2 is that the latter should demand all compensation and resettlement packages before work starts, because once the work has started, the many promises are lost; the authorities often renege on these promises.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What lessons does the Lesotho Highlands Water Project hold for the rest of Africa?

JACOB LENKA: TRC is working on a booklet with partners. The booklet will reflect the experiences of TRC field workers as they were monitoring the Project. These experiences will be lessons for affected communities world-wide, the dam financiers and the NGOs. One lesson that Lesotho has stolen the show about is the prosecution of international companies that were involved in corruption in the Lesotho dams. Perhaps this will be a lesson for Africa in terms of what a small state can do to the giants.

* Interview conducted by email. Please send comments to [email protected]