The drain­ing of Le­sotho

How did the Moun­tain King­dom once rich in wa­ter end up parched?

Lesotho Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Devon Haynie

JULI­ETTE Le­to­tokoto, a re­cently wid­owed farmer, stands on her small plot of land on the out­skirts of Le­sotho's cap­i­tal and takes stock of her crops. It's late May, and by now she'd typ­i­cally have a rain­bow of plants to harvest: cab­bage, pep­pers, chilies, beet­root.

But to­day the pre­dom­i­nant color is pale brown, a hue found in the des­ic­cated corn stalks she's piled up like minia­ture te­pees in her yard and the tired rows of oth­ers she's yet to cut back.

Usu­ally, Le­to­tokoto would have three full bags of corn to sell at a mar­ket this time of year. But the rains didn't come in the sum­mer, and now she can't even fill one. “The drought re­ally ru­ined ev­ery­thing,” she says.

Le­sotho, a small moun­tain king­dom sur­rounded by South Africa, was one of the na­tions hard­est hit by the 2015 drought that caused South­ern Africa's dri­est grow­ing sea­son in 35 years.

The El Niño driven-phe­nom­e­non sparked a 47 per­cent drop in maize pro­duc­tion, the coun­try's sta­ple food, dur­ing the spring harvest. At least 709,394 peo­ple — close to 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion — are es­ti­mated to need food as­sis­tance through April 2017, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

“It's a se­ri­ous food cri­sis,” says Paul Sit­nam, di­rec­tor of South­ern Africa El Niño emer­gency re­sponse for World Vi­sion, an in­ter­na­tional Chris­tian aid agency. “In some time it may lead to the start of star­va­tion. I don't think we've reached that level yet, but it's a high pos­si­bil­ity that it will hap­pen in the next few months.”

For the peo­ple of Le­sotho, called the Ba­sotho, a lack of rain doesn't just mean crop fail­ure and less food. It means the taps run dry and the rivers shrink, en­dan­ger­ing live­stock and forc­ing peo­ple to drink from riskier sources, lead­ing to ill­ness.

It also means more at­ten­tion to what some con­sider a cruel irony: Le­sotho ac­tu­ally has plenty of wa­ter — it's just send­ing much of it to South Africa.

About 130 miles from Le­to­tokoto's small stone house sits the Katse Dam, the sec­ond- largest wa­ter bar­rier in Africa.

It's part of a con­tro­ver­sial de­vel­op­ment project called the Le­sotho High­lands Wa­ter Project, the big­gest wa­ter trans­fer scheme on the con­ti­nent and one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Le­sotho, home to the head­wa­ters of the Senqu River, had al­ways been rich in wa­ter. But parts of South Africa are per­pet­u­ally parched.

In the 1980s, the two coun­tries struck a deal to send much of Le­sotho's wa­ter to South Africa's dusty, dry Gaut­eng prov­ince, where it would fuel the mines and other in­dus­try around Jo­han­nes­burg, the coun­try's eco­nomic hub.

The deal, fi­nanced in part by the World Bank, was hardly an agree­ment be­tween two democ­ra­cies: South Africa was an apartheid state at the time and Le­sotho had re­cently un­der­gone a mil­i­tary coup, which was likely or­ches­trated by its larger neigh­bor.

As a re­sult of the bar­gain, the think­ing went, Le­sotho would col­lect mil­lions of dol­lars in fixed pay­ments each year, a boost for a na­tion where more than half of the pop­u­la­tion lives in poverty.

In ad­di­tion, the coun­try would re­ceive a hy­dro­elec­tric sta­tion al­low­ing for af­ford­able elec­tric­ity and de­vel­op­ment perks like paved roads.

“It has put Le­sotho on a path to­ward greater de­vel­op­ment,” says Les­ley Went­worth, pro­gram man­ager at the South African Busi­ness Fo­rum, who wrote a case study about the project dur­ing her time at the South African In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs.

But the path has been any­thing but smooth. A de­vel­op­ment fund set up to ac­com­pany the project failed be­cause of po­lit­i­cal med­dling.

To­day, elec­tric­ity is pro­duced at lower lev­els than ex­pected and is so ex­pen­sive that much of the coun­try still re­lies on can­dles, paraf­fin and fire­wood. High-qual­ity roads climb up and over moun­tain passes, but they are bar­ren in the coun­try­side, where don­keys and goats make up most traf­fic.

At the time of the agree­ment, it was con­sid­ered a given that Le­sotho's rivers would

full with rain and melted snow. It was an era be­fore tense cli­mate sum­mits and 24-hour news cov­er­age of cat­a­clysmic weather events — a time when fewer peo­ple be­lieved the cli­mate was chang­ing. And then, of course, it did. In the last few decades, South­ern Africa has ex­pe­ri­enced higher tem­per­a­tures and lower, in­con­sis­tent rain­fall — a trend pre­dicted to con­tinue, says Di­eter Gerten, chief hy­drol­o­gist at the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search.

Aside from nor­mal global warm­ing, the re­gion must con­tend with the dis­as­trous ef­fects of El Niño. The most re­cent cli­mate pat­tern was among the three strong­est ever recorded, caus­ing ev­ery­thing from floods in Cal­i­for­nia to drought in Pa­pua New Guinea. Some sci­en­tists, like Gerten, sus­pect El Niño will only be­come more se­vere as global warm­ing con­tin­ues.

Le­to­tokoto, who has lived through 76 sum­mers and 76 win­ters in Le­sotho, says er­ratic, se­vere weather pat­terns are the new nor­mal — a trend she blames on cli­mate change.

“This is not how I grew up,” she says. “Some­times in the sum­mer we are ex­tremely cold like it’s win­ter, and the win­ters are very cold. It’s not good.”

Like other Ba­sotho frus­trated by wa­ter short­ages and yel­low­ing high­lands, Le­to­tokoto talks of the High­lands Wa­ter Project with dis­dain.

“Le­sotho made a mis­take to give South Africa wa­ter be­cause we don’t have it,” she says. “The gov­ern­ment should stop, though that will never hap­pen.”

(READ: Guess what coun­tries are the best for green liv­ing.)

It’s im­pos­si­ble to go back in time to see what Le­sotho’s for­tunes would be with­out the Wa­ter High­lands Project. Global warm­ing and drought would still be oc­cur­ring. But Went­worth likes to imag­ine a sce­nario with a dif­fer­ent kind of wa­ter deal.

“If there had been bet­ter plan­ning and pro­vi­sion for ad­just­ment through the agree­ment, there could have been ad­e­quate wa­ter for both com­mu­ni­ties,” she says. In­stead, thanks to the chang­ing cli­mate, she be­lieves South Africa is im­port­ing Le­sotho into wa­ter scarcity.

Le­sotho’s gov­ern­ment has taken some steps to ad­dress the cri­sis. The treaty al­lows for a “pre­de­ter­mined volume of wa­ter that ac­cu­mu­lates an­nu­ally” to be re­leased in drought con­di­tions, and the Le­sotho gov­ern­ment has in­deed re­leased some wa­ter from its dams, ac­cord­ing to the Le­sotho High­lands De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity.

In late 2015, the gov­ern­ment un­veiled the Me­to­long Dam, which is in­tended to pro­vide potable wa­ter to two thirds of the pop­u­la­tion in and around the cap­i­tal. The project is still on­go­ing, how­ever, and in the mean­time those not ben­e­fit­ing from the in­fra­struc­ture have had to walk long dis­tances for clean wa­ter, tam­per with ex­ist­ing pipes or turn to sources like con­tam­i­nated springs.

Le­sotho’s ex­pe­ri­ence with wa­ter may hold les­sons for other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, the ar­eas ex­perts say are des­tined to suf­fer the most from cli­mate change.

“If cur­rent wa­ter man­age­ment poli­cies per­sist, and cli­mate mod­els prove cor­rect, wa­ter scarcity will pro­lif­er­ate to re­gions where it cur­rently does not ex­ist, and will greatly worsen in re­gions where wa­ter is al­ready scarce,” ac­cord­ing to High and Dry, a 2015 World Bank Re­port.

Aside from im­ple­ment­ing for­ward-think­ing, ef­fi­cient do­mes­tic wa­ter poli­cies, de­vel­op­ing coun­tries may want to ap­proach in­ter­na­tional wa­ter deals with cir­cum­spec­tion.

For coun­tries like Le­sotho, flex­i­ble-term deals may be bet­ter than long-term deals, Went­worth says. Na­tions need the on­go­ing abil­ity to as­sess de­mand, di­ver­sify risk and rene­go­ti­ate. Cit­i­zen feed­back is cru­cial.

“I think it comes back to the is­sue around open di­a­logue at early stages in the project,” she says. “When you are ne­go­ti­at­ing a deal you have to bring ev­ery­one to the ta­ble. You have to tell com­mu­ni­ties what the an­tic­i­pated im­pact will be, pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive — it’s their wa­ter.” — Us­news

Katse Dam is part of africa's largest wa­ter trans­fer scheme.

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