Katt Lissard

About Location

Water in the high mountains near Mohale. Photograph by Eric Feinblatt

Lesotho, also known as The Mountain Kingdom or The Kingdom in the Sky, is a small, stunningly beautiful country of high rocky peaks, open meadows, amazing sunsets and powerful weather. The country was formed in the early 1800s, when both the difaqaneand Boer incursions into the southern African hinterlands were at their height. Under the leadership of the legendary king, Moshoeshoe the Great, the Basotho people sought sanctuary in the harsh Drakensbergand Maluti mountains – an early history of self-sufficiency and rugged survival.


Although it’s completely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho was never “of” South Africa, so was never under the apartheid regime. A British protectorate, it gained its independence in 1966. The country is a Constitutional Monarchy, with a King (currently Letsie III) as head of state with no executive power, and an elected Prime Minister (the real head of the government) and Parliament.


The natural beauty of Lesotho, its high literacy rate and its history of self-reliance belie the intense poverty of the country. Of the resident population, 86% of the people survive through subsistence agriculture, with 35% of active male wage earners working in South Africa. Half the people live below the poverty line and 25% are chronically undernourished. Still, one of the central challenges Lesotho faces today is its high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, which at 23.6% is the second highest in the world. Lesotho’s “human development index indicators” (as designated by the United Nations) worsened rapidly over the last decade because of increased mortality and reduced incomes associated with AIDS-related deaths; and its human development ranking has been fallen steadily – it is now ranked 159thout of the 182 countries included the UN’s index. (as designated by the United Nations) worsened rapidly over the last decade because of increased mortality and reduced incomes associated with AIDS-related deaths; and its human development ranking has been fallen steadily out of the 182 countries included the UN’2Life expectancy continues to fall, and the number of AIDS orphans exceeds the infrastructure to care for them.


Bubbling just beneath these discouraging “statistics” is the fact that Lesotho is an agricultural country suffering through a chronic decades-long drought, while its single most precious and abundant resource, water, is diverted from the Orange River to South Africa’s urban and industrial center.  Through a series of dams and tunnels blasted through its beautiful mountains, the massive Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is piping what the Basotho call their “white gold” over the border, leaving Lesotho dry as a bone.


The first phase of the LHWP, construction of the Katse and Mohale dams, is complete, but critical social and environmental problems resulting from the devastation and upheaval of the construction remain unresolved. Mountain watersheds have been turned into reservoirs, submerging burial grounds, grazing plateaus, ancestral kraals and networks of paths connecting one village to another. The devastation upset the ecological balance, disrupted rural webs of communication, destroyed livelihoods, and cut social ties between communities. Basotho families were removed from their farms and fields in the harsh but stunning mountains and relocated to unacceptable, meaningless alternative locations. Despite a long-term compensation program, huge amounts of resources devoted to “rural development,” and many good intentions, the welfare of affected people has been compromised – perhaps irrevocably. While the LHWP has increased the fortunes of Lesotho’s elite, the dams’ diaspora of roughly 27,000 Basotho has been spread throughout Lesotho.


The LHWP has also been plagued by corruption, which resulted in convictions in a Lesotho court of some of the world’s largest dam construction and engineering firms. Still, an agreement to build Phase II, which includes the project's largest dam, the Polihali, was signed by South Africa and Lesotho in mid-2011. The Polihali Dam, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2019, will displace 17 villages, reduce agricultural lands for an additional 71 villages, and reduce water quality and quantity for many more living downstream. Most of the water will be used for industrial purposes. Demand-management (water conservation) and re-use of water for industrial purposes could reduce the need for the dam, but South Africa's industrial center of Gauteng (which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria) is already behind in trying to meet water-reduction targets, which aren't very aggressive to start with.3


Is there a way, at this crucial point before construction of the massive Polihali Dam has actually begun, to make a difference? Lesotho’s mountains are home to the threatened spiral aloe and scores of wildflower species. The endangered bearded vulture and a variety of other bird species roost in the steep gorges. Overhanging rock faces and caves shelter centuries-old San rock paintings. Herds of cattle, sheep, and goats graze high up on the slopes under the gaze of young herd boys wrapped in wool blankets.  Who should control Lesotho’s water? Who does it belong to? What’s worth preserving, protecting, shepherding, respecting? And who decides?