Lesotho: a case study in sticking it to the poor

[3/6/08: The editorial staff of Waterblogged.info is perplexed by the unusual amount of interest in this post recently, which is among one of our more obscure. Leave us a comment if you can enlighten us as to why. Heck, leave a comment if you can’t enlighten us. Ed.]

In the locker room at our local Y—after one of Waterblogged.info’s frequent team-building group workouts—we overheard a naked gentleman who appeared to be around 65 explaining to a half-clothed gentleman why he joined the peace corps satellite-image-of-lesotho.jpgand would soon find himself in Lesotho teaching English. “I’m retired and my wife died. What am I gonna do, stay home and feel sorry for myself?”

No, we thought, he should go to Lesotho and feel sorry for its inhabitants. Lesotho is a tiny nation snugly surrounded by South Africa. Truth be told, until we did some research, we thought Lesotho was among the benighted bantustans. It’s not, but it might as well be. Like the now dismantled homelands, the mountain kingdom—as the ruggedly mountainous land is called—is impoverished and completely economically dependent on the beast in whose belly it sits.

This executive summary from Humanitarian Appeal—for all of you executives reading this—and this article will give you a sense of the extraordinary misery visited on the Basotho (inhabitants of Lesotho) by the worst Southwest-African drought in thirty years. The damage includes the fact that the mainly rural population has extremely limited and shrinking access to clean water and is facing a famine. Even the urban poor lack sufficient water. According to a 2004 report from Public Citizen:

In the capital of Maseru, only 50% of the population has access to adequate drinking water. People purchase water from vendors at inflated prices or wait in long queues at public water works.

But here’s the naughty bit: Lesotho is water-rich and its economy is pretty much based on exporting water. WTF?, the astute reader is no doubt asking at this moment, much as we did when we first read that outrageous fact. The problem is that most of the water is in the highlands, inaccessible to most of the inhabitants, but not to South Africa. The Wikipedia entry on Lesotho explains:

Water is Lesotho’s only significant natural resource. It is exploited through the 21-year, multi-billion-dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), which began in 1986. The LHWP is designed to capture, store, and transfer water from the Orange River system to South Africa’s Free State and greater Johannesburg area, which features a large concentration of South African industry, population, and agriculture.

katse-dam-lesotho.jpgThe article goes on to state that the LHWP (its Katse Dam pictured at right) has made Lesotho almost energy-independent, but fails to note that most of the inhabitants are dirt-poor and have no access to that power. The main point of all this is that all of the water from the LHWP is going to South Africa, and not a drop to drought-stricken Lesotho.

The rural Basotho are not just being screwed out of water by South Africa and their little puppets in Lesotho, but like millions of the wretched around the globe, they have lost their land, homes, and livelihood to the massive dam project. From Worldwatch Institute:

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.

According to a wet and naked but reliable informant, our erstwhile locker room buddy has indeed left for Lesotho. We hope that he takes some time off from teaching and feeling sorry for the Basotho, and like the many tourists that visit the country, goes hiking (like in the pretty picture above) or even horseback riding! Given his age, he probably should avoid the snowboarding. Yep, there’s even snow up in them there African highlands.


6 Responses

  1. Nice and informative. Good job. Please notice that we’re Basotho (I’m a Mosotho), we speak Sesotho, and we’re from Lesotho. Typos in your post. But what the heck, the content is pretty accurate.

    Basotho, even those who live in the vicinity of the dam(s), have neither water nor electricity. I guess that’s what you call sticking it to them.

  2. Thanks for response and correction. I thought I’d caught all the misspellings of Lesotho, and who knows where I got the Besotho business. Before I researched for the entry, I would have called you and your language Lesothan, so it’s not as bad as it could have been.
    Congratulations on the poetry prize.

  3. The reason for my looking up (and, thanks to you, finding) meaningful information about Lesotho is that I’m becoming involved with Partners In Health, an organization committed to providing quality medical care to some of the poorest people in the world. I have recently heard two stories (one of a woman whose body was devastated by childbirth & who was flown to a fistula hospital in Ethiopia, and the other of three girls — ages 10 and under — who are destitute and shunned by the community after they lost their mother and younger sister) that pretty much left me grief stricken. I feel compelled to learn more and do something to redress this imbalance.

  4. i was actually searching for info on snowboarding in Lesotho, however an interesting read none the less.


  5. Thanks for the information. I was in South Africa recently and was not even aware of the geographical location of Lesotho(and Swaziland). I wish that somehow things are rectified and the people of Lesotho have access to their own water. They should have access it and not have to pay dishonest vendors for what is rightfully theirs.

  6. Nice thought, Alex, but don’t hold your breath.

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