Polihali Dam — the tears for a soon-to-be lost world


Nthatuoa Koeshe | Pascalinah Kabi

MOKHOTLONG — BOOKS will certainly be written about socio-economic development in the kingdom but it is highly unlikely that the name Tiiso Motabola will ever be etched into those annals for Lesotho, South Africa and the rest of the world to remember.

The story of the 24-year-old’s tears for her soon-to-be- lost world will never be told in the same manner that we have been told about the tears of one Rachel whose voice was heard in Ramah as she hopelessly wailed for her children who had fallen at the sword of King Herod in his futile quest to kill the infant Jesus Christ.

Sometime in 2025, Their Majesties along with the Prime Minister of Lesotho, the President of South Africa and other regional and world leaders will likely grace the official opening of the Polihali Dam just as Britain’s Queen Victoria officiated at the opening of the Kariba Dam which remains the largest man-made lake in the world. The Kariba Dam, which is on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border, was officially opened on 17 May 1960.

As the case of the Kariba Dam has shown, history remembers little, if at all, about the sorrows of the Ba-Toka, Nleya, Tonga and other indigenous peoples whose livelihoods were disrupted by the construction of the dam which not only caters for Zimbabwe and Zambia’s electricity needs but brings the two countries huge revenues through tourist inflows.

A lot more has been written about the ‘Operation Noah’ which rescued so many animals from inevitable death by drowning when the Kariba waters began to rise. In all likelihood, the villagers of Polihali will suffer a similar fate. Just like their home, they will also disappear from the annals of history, never to be remembered by a world which will more likely celebrate the huge achievement that will solve South Africa’s water needs while meeting Lesotho’s power needs.

But on this day, 8 May 2019, Ms Motabola fails to hold back the emotions. The tears flood her face and if ever she makes a sound, it is quickly drowned out by the rumbling excavators and other huge machines which have been brought on site for the road construction works in her village of Polihali.

The road is one of those infrastructure projects taking shape ahead of the construction of the multi-billion dollar Polihali Dam. When complete, the Polihali Dam will be the watery graveyard for the land, the ancestral graves and the fields that used to give Ms Motabola and her forbears a livelihood. In short, the Polihali Dam represents the end of the world and life as Ms Motabola has known it.

To most Basotho, South Africans and the international community, Polihali is a village in Mokhotlong, Lesotho which is synonymous with the multi-billion dollar phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP II).

This is the one mega project that the Lesotho and South African governments have earmarked to solve the Gauteng province’s perennial water problems while ensuring Lesotho’s electricity and revenue needs (through royalties from South Africa) are met.

But for Ms Motabola, a nightmare is only beginning. Within a few years, the land in which she grew up, the bushes she used to roam freely, the pastures for their livestock, the fields that brought forth all many of produce and the graves of her forbears will all be submerged forever in the murky depths watery of the Polihali Dam.

To be sure, Ms Motabola and other villagers will be relocated and compensated but as she asks, “can there ever be a compensation and if so, in what form for the loss of an idyllic world?”

You can take Tiiso Motabola out of Polihali but can you really take Polihali out of Tiiso Motabola?

“Ours is an emotional attachment to the land and everything in it. Relocation will certainly be devastating because this is the place where our forefathers grew up and all that we will be able to point in the future to are the vast waters of the (soon to be constructed Polihali Dam) whenever we reminisce about where we come from,” Ms Motabola says as the tears well up in her eyes.

Along with thousands of fellow villagers from the Mokhotlong district, Ms Motabola will soon be relocated to make way for the construction of the Polihali Dam in terms of the second phase of the bi-national mega project.

The LHWP is a multi-phased project to provide water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho. It was established by the 1986 Treaty signed by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa.

The project entails harnessing the waters of the Senqu/Orange River in the Lesotho highlands through the construction of a series of dams for the mutual benefit of the two countries.

Phase I of the LHWP, consisting of the Katse and Mohale dams, the ‘Muela hydropower station and associated tunnels was completed in 2003 and inaugurated in 2004. Phase II of the LHWP is currently in progress. It consists of two separate but related components: water transfer and hydropower generation.

The bilateral project which is estimated to cost at least M23 billion, is expected to provide about 3 000 jobs at the peak of its operations.

The water transfer component of Phase II comprises an approximately 165m high concrete faced rock fill Dam at Polihali downstream of the confluence of the Khubelu and Senqu (Orange) Rivers and an approximately 38km long concrete-lined gravity tunnel connecting the Polihali reservoir to the Katse reservoir.

Other Phase II activities include advance infrastructure (roads, accommodation, power lines and telecommunication) and the implementation of environmental and social mitigating measures.

The LHWP II is a mega project which has the Lesotho and South African governments dreaming of never-imagined economic developments. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been purring about this mega project which will resurrect and breathe new life into Lesotho’s moribund economy.

They say water is life but the waters of the Polihali Dam will be the burial site for life as Ms Motabola and Mokhotlong villagers have always known it. Just like the waters of the Red Sea became the burial site for Pharaoh’s army when it became foolish enough to challenge divine authority.

The villagers, like Ms Motabola will be compensated by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA). The LHDA is the implementing authority of the massive dam project. But unhappy villagers, among them, Ms Motabola, coalesced under the banner of the Survivors of Lesotho Dams (SOLD) organisation and last Wednesday staged a protest march against the LHDA.

They braved the driving rain and chilly conditions to march for three kilometres from their homes to the LHDA offices in Tlokoeng, Mokhotlong where they handed a petition to the LHDA’s Polihali Branch Manager, Gerald Mokone.

The communities are demanding lifetime compensation or alternatively payment for a 99 year period from the LHDA for the loss of their land.

However, the LHDA has said it will only compensate them for a period of 50 years at market rates in line with statutory requirements.

Speaking to the Lesotho Times on the sidelines of a protest march, Ms Motabola said for the villagers, the issue goes beyond just compensation.

It is also about the loss of livelihoods, history and emotional attachment which cannot be atoned for through any amount of money.

“In our village there are no educated people and the relocation will affect us because most, if not all of us, live on farming and livestock. Without our grazing land and fields life is going to be very hard.

“Even beyond that, I will never be able to show my children the place where I grew up.”

While Ms Motabola and her fellow villagers fight what is clearly a losing emotional battle, the huge wheels of the advanced machines just keep turning as the a joint venture of the Nthane Brothers Company and Sinohydro SA workers proceeds with the construction of the 16-kilometre M235 million road from Mapholaneng to the Khubelu River where the Polihali Dam will be constructed beginning next year.

The LHDA is also undertaking several projects to ameliorate the plight of villagers and ensure they are gainfully employed throughout the second phase of the LHWP. At least 100 Mokhotlong residents are employed on a rangeland rehabilitation project commissioned by the LHDA in response to local grievances that there rangeland had been severely damaged by the LHWP.

This is in line with the LHDA tender rules that “unskilled labour will be 100 percent for Lesotho nationals”.

In addition, the LHDA resolved to “ensure that the risks associated with involuntary resettlement are addressed and that the livelihoods of affected people are restored”.

“The LHDA seeks not only to restore but to improve the livelihoods of the communities living in the LHWP II area through initiatives that will be sustainable beyond the construction period. Communities in the project area should become beneficiaries of the development long after the construction.”

About 15 kilometres away from the rangelands rehabilitation project, the LHDA is also mounting greenhouses. Under this project, locals will be trained in commercial farming and this will enable them to produce and supply vegetables to the different construction companies that will be engaged by the LHDA.

There is no doubt that the LHDA is doing its best to ameliorate and even improve the lives of all those who will be affected by the bi-national dam project. Nevertheless, the project while needed by Lesotho and South Africa, will certainly spell the end of life as Ms Motabola and co-villagers knew it.

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