World Bank Dams Leave Lesotho Villagers in the Dust
By Gus Greenstein / internationalrivers.org

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) was one of the World Bank's biggest African dam schemes, and the Bank took special pains with project resettlement. Despite a relatively large budget and greater-than-usual attention to this aspect of the megaproject, poverty has increased for many in Lesotho's dam-affected areas. Last week the World Bank admitted it has huge gaps in its understanding of the impacts of its resettlement projects. Gus Greenstein, who recently interned with International Rivers' Africa office, reports from Lesotho on the realities on the ground for people affected by the LHWP.

It’s funny how, no matter how hard you search, you sometimes find the most important answers staring you in the face. Literally.

It’s the final afternoon of my visit to Ha Makotoko, a village in the foothills of Maseru District, Lesotho, inhabited mainly by individuals displaced by the Mohale Dam – the second dam of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) – from their original homes in the country’s highlands. After a full day of interviews, Chefa (my translator) and I are relaxing with an older couple on their front porch, chatting about things unrelated to the dam while watching a burnt yellow sun cast soothingly diminishing light over the rows of rondavels below.

I notice a young boy poking his head around the corner of the house. Back again when I look. I think everyone sees but no one makes mention, so I call him over.

He is here at this time, it turns out, because he doesn’t go to school. Here at the house of the older couple, who aren’t his relatives, because his family is gone. Wearing rubber boots and hiding near the cows, because he is a herd boy. Everything fell apart about five years ago.

His father passed away, his addict mother proved unreliable, and his brother and sister went to work in South Africa (he no longer sees them). At 10 years old, he was forced into the job. He was in second grade.

Out at 4am and back by 11, out again at 4pm and home in time for a late dinner, “Lucky” earns one cow per year.

This is it, I think, as I look at him while listening to Chefa’s translation. This is how it all ends.

*  *  *

“We used to be rich!” says Maneu, raising her voice slightly. We’re leaning back on a shaded patch of grass, overlooking a massive, opaque-blue reservoir, somewhere underneath of which rots the village where she spent the first 40 years of her life. A chorus of loud reactions from the six or seven other ladies sitting with us emphasizes the ubiquity of the loss. “We used to slaughter a cow every time a child was born just to welcome to him in.”

That the tradition is gone for good goes without saying. Their animals – not just the cows – have disappeared, for one. Starved when Mohale drowned their grazeland or, according to some villagers, stolen by weapon-wielding dam construction workers. But that is not the real reason. The real reason, rather, is that Mohale flipped these villagers’ lives upside down, and still, a decade later, no one has helped them get back up.

Maneu has been receiving 2,000 South African Rand (about US$175) of compensation annually for her lost agricultural fields from the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), the parastatal entity in charge of the larger scheme of which Mohale is a part, and the payments are constant and timely. They’re just about 90% short.

Whereas it now takes 20,000 Rand per year to feed her family (leaving a gap of 18,000 Rand), she didn’t pay a dime to do so before the dam took her land away. Since then, she’s scrounged together temporary cleaning jobs at the few guesthouses in the area, and her children have left school to contribute – the son as a herd boy like Lucky, the daughter works in Chinese textile factories in the capital city of Maseru. Pay and working conditions, I’m told, aren’t the best. High school, once the norm, is now rare for village youth. University? Unthinkable. (The government provides free primary.)

Not all Mohale displacees have had to abandon agricultural livelihoods as 90% of families who chose to resettle near their old village in the highlands had to in the absence of arable land within a reasonable distance. But that doesn’t mean they’re faring any better. For those who chose to resettle in Lucky’s foothills village, some fields were available for hire (again, LHDA did not provide any). Yet demand has overwhelmed supply, pushing prices far above what compensation makes affordable – and this, in the midst of quickly deteriorating growing conditions. With less time to lay fallow between plantings, soil fertility is plummeting. With rampant drought, it’s now a toss-up whether crops survive until the harvest season, regardless of how well they’re tended. In many communities, maize is the only one of many previously cultivated crops still able to grow.

A typical Lesotho Highlands village. Photo: G. Greenstein 

And it is not only fields that are being sucked dry. Returning to our homestay after meeting the village chief, as the sun beats down on this treeless landscape in a way I’ve felt few times before, Chefa and I encounter one of the few other souls willing to brave a walk at this hour. She is an older woman, and she is struggling to push a wheelbarrow of water up a dusty stretch of road between one of the area’s few natural springs and her home. Her daughter having borrowed the family shoes for her walk to school, the woman's bare feet are no doubt blistering from the scorching gravel. Chefa and I take turns with the barrrow the rest of the way. The deep blue reservoir of the Metolong Dam, a river chokehold erected several years after Mohale displacees resettled there (which meant robbing some villagers of their land a second time) glimmers 200 meters down the hill. Water spigots installed by the LHDA, but which ran dry within months, taunt like some sort of sick practical joke.

“When you have nothing to give…when you can’t support them,” is what another woman – this one younger – says, when I ask her to tell me the hardest thing about being a parent.

“If the rains will come,” responds another, when I ask her the thought to which she falls asleep at night. (It’s her first thought in the morning too.)

I ask another young man: “what is your greatest fear?” He looks down, stares at his feet for two, and then, looking me straight in the eye, responds: “Hunger.”

A dusty, nine-hour oscillation between skyward climbing and free-fall ascents along one of Lesotho’s three (mostly gravel) highways has brought me deep into the country’s highlands. On breaks along the way, I stare at our bus, set against a backdrop of nothing but unblemished, green mountains, the occasional blanket-wrapped herdsman, and his horse, dog, and sheep. It looks unreal. A megadam…here? I think to myself. That’s physically, morally – spiritually – impossible.

I'm on my way to meet Ntate Matalase, the man serving as a sort of spiritual leader for the communities lucky enough to live near the area the LHDA has zoned for the LHWP Phase 2, the Polihali Dam. 5,300 families in total. Matalase is gentle and cordial – a father figure – in our first few minutes together, but the mythical charisma others have told me about does not hide for long.

It is needed.

We walk to a tin-panel shack, where he has kindly assembled two men and two women from the committee who, in theory, will be engaging in compensation talks with the LHDA. Yet after warm greetings and introductions, an undeniable heaviness sets in. Heads hang; eyes wander. Clearly, this is not something these four want to be talking – even thinking – about. Not now, or ever. Matalase stokes them through.

*  *  * 

In some ways, the Polihali communities have no idea what they’re in for. The vast majority are still without an explanation of how they will be affected (only that they will be in some way), when the impacts will come, or what sort of compensation they can expect for these; the LHDA trucks constantly zooming back and forth through their village center are to them like time bombs. With no clocks attached. Hidden.

Yet in other ways, their fate couldn’t be clearer to them. I asked 10 of the Mohale displacees what sort of advice they gave to Polihali villagers at the “sharing-experiences” meeting organized by the villager-run NGO Survivors of Lesotho Dams – SOLD, for short. “Don’t trust the LHDA…don’t rely on them…they never fulfill their promises…” Unanimous.

“So if you can’t rely on the LHDA”, I ask this group of four, “what did they suggest you do instead?” This one draws a blank. They will fight – yes – but maybe only because that is what dignity calls for. There is a sense that all they can really do is take the lead in preparing their communities for the worst.

“Poverty…” says Matalase, when I ask him what it will mean to lose their fields. “It will rush in so quickly.”

And I wish, after meeting with the official overseeing the Polihali compensation/resettlement operation myself, that I could return to Matalse and tell him I think he might be wrong. But I can’t.

At such an early stage, the project is already far out of synch with a responsible approach. Not only was it, in classic form, approved far before its associated environmental and social impacts assessments were completed (not even to mention before subjecting those studies to scrutiny by anyone outside of LHDA). The studies still aren’t complete, and according to the official, no working deadlines for them exist. Construction, meanwhile, is well-planned. Access roads will begin late this year, and the dam wall is scheduled to rise in 2018. The official did not appear to see any of this as contradicting what he, multiple times, told me was LHDA’s intent to address social impacts well before they occur – the need to do so being one of the biggest lessons learned from Phase 1.

Communication between the LHDA and affected people, too, is already looking dismal. Last year, the company refused to engage with committees the villages had on their own constituted for this purpose. According to the official, this was because an NGO played too big a role in the elections. According to villagers, the NGO had no involvement. And interestingly, the same representatives were elected the second time around. How the LHDA will engage them remains to be seen.

There are no plans for the affected people to share in project benefits, no plans for land-based resettlement, and no previous experience to suggest the company is capable of delivering on its shiny, new livelihood-restoration program (which in all likelihood it is only planning because a federal court case recently won by said NGO requires it). When I asked the official which successful compensation programs they’re trying to model off, he stumbled and then changed the subject. Even with so much still hidden, I could go on for pages about the similarities between what is on the LHDA’s plan for Phase 2 and the dozens of failed programs I’ve studied in detail so far.

And yet none of that is even what concerns me most. What hangs over my head more than anything from my three weeks in Lesotho, rather, were the two final words of my interview of the LHDA official.

“Do you believe that those displaced by Mohale have, in an overall sense, benefitted or suffered as a result of the project?

“Benefitted, unequivocally.”

Lucky, Maneu, and every other Mohale resettler I spoke with, and anyone capable of protecting the Polihali communities from disaster, I can assure you, would beg to differ.


More information: 

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World Bank Dams Leave Lesotho Villagers in the Dust