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Rights groups confront Ramaphosa over Polihali dam

by Lesotho Times
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…demand justice for communities displaced by dam construction

Bongiwe Zihlangu

FOUR human rights groups want President Cyril Ramaphosa to ensure that communities displaced by the construction of Polihali Dam in Mokhotlong get fair compensation.

The rights groups complain that poverty stricken communities displaced by the construction of the dam are getting  a raw deal from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) and its implementing arm, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA).

The impoverished communities have lost their most arable lands and their main source of livelihoods, yet they are not being afforded fair compensation, the four rights groups claim.

The communities were also not properly consulted about the construction of the  dam, their compensation levels and the resultant compensation, the four rights groups claim.  They had not even been paid their compensation as required by the Constitution of Lesotho despite many of them having been long displaced.

The rights groups may thus stage protests to highlight the communities’ grievances when President Cyril Ramaphosa lands in South Africa this week for the sod turning ceremony to mark the construction of the Polihali Dam under Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Development Water Project.

President Ramaphosa is due in Mokhotlong on Tuesday alongside His Majesty King Letsie 111, Prime Minister Sam Matekane, among other delegates.

The phase 11 project is meant to augment the first phase which sees Lesotho pumping water into South Africa in exchange of royalties worth about M1.1 billion annually.

The four rights groups say while the construction of dams under the LHWP  has been a major boon for Lesotho’s economy, communities displaced by the construction of these dams were unfortunately being short changed. They were not being given adequate compensation despite being deprived of their livelihoods. They were also never properly consulted despite losing their most productive arable lands, access to clean water and encountering damage to their individual and communal properties.

The four rights groups, the Seinoli Legal Centre (SLC), Survivors of Lesotho Dams (SOLD), Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) have thus penned  an open letter to Mr Ramaphosa demanding that he addresses their grievances.

In their letter dated 19 May 2023, the rights groups challenge President Ramaphosa to meet with communities affected  by the project to hear their concerns.

The rights groups allege that serious human rights violations have occurred in the course of the implementation of both Phase I and Phase II of the LHWP.

They thus want the South African president, whose government is bankrolling the Polihali project, to ensure that grievances of communities are addressed and their livelihoods are restored.

In fact they want Mr Ramaphosa to assist  in ensuring that the entire framework of the LHWP is overhauled to “…..to ensure fair and adequate compensation for communities” in line with best international standards.

Additionally, they demand that he “undertake, as a matter of urgency, forensic audit of all compensation funds intended for the affected people”, suggesting that the funds were being misused.

“Your visit to Polihali, Mokhotlong, to officially launch full-scale construction work of Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP II) on 23rd of May 2023, is highly welcomed,” the rights groups write.

“Mr. President, when this project was concluded under the 1986 LHWP Treaty, it was celebrated for the immense economic returns that would accrue to both Lesotho and South Africa including sustainable development for local affected communities. South Africa and Lesotho made an undertaking, in the Treaty, “to take all reasonable measures to ensure that the implementation, operation and maintenance of the Project are compatible with the protection of the existing quality of the environment and, in particular, shall pay due regard to the maintenance of the welfare of persons and communities immediately affected by the project.” The reality for communities however, is in stark contrast to this undertaking.

“As you know, Phase I of this project, which involved construction of Katse Dam (under Phase IA) and Mohale Dam (under Phase IB) was inaugurated in 2004. Over 20 000 people were directly affected by this first phase of LHWP. Thousands remain without compensation for the adverse impacts of the project on their lives and no efforts were made to actively ensure that communities get direct economic benefits.

“Communities living in the vicinity of both the Katse and Mohale Dams endure consistent violation of their right to access to clean water, as access to natural springs and other water sources were impacted by the dams. Mr. President, communities are not allowed to access water from the dams to drink their animals or to irrigate their crops. Women within LHWP Phase II affected communities are already marginalised as a result of cultural stereotypes which prevent women from owning land and benefiting from compensation for land rights which get affected by LHWP. Lack of access to water further marginalises them and exacerbates their inability to break free of poverty.

“While there is a responsibility by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority to uphold the agreement, there is a significant perception among communities affected that impacts the image of South Africa negatively. This fundamentally detracts from South Africa’s Africa Agenda and desire to be a partner to Africans. Moreover, affected communities are likely to seek further economic opportunities in South Africa.

“Mr. President you may recall that the LHWP Treaty was signed during the apartheid government in South Africa and a military regime in Lesotho. It was concluded during a period when both governments had no regard for human rights and dictates of democracy and good governance. In fact, no consultations were undertaken at all with the people of Lesotho in general and the affected communities. Any dissent expressed against this project was thwarted with threats and violence. It is therefore not surprising Mr. President that the Treaty has failed to promote, respect and protect human rights of people immediately affected by the project.

“When South Africa decided to implement Phase II following prolonged negotiations and signed the agreement to that effect in 2011, it was in the context of these residual issues which remain outstanding to date. This occasion of your visit to the Polihali Dam project site presents an opportunity to ensure that this phase does not repeat the same mistakes, and guarantee that the communities who have given way for this dam are placed at the centre of this project.

“Mr. President, the further implementation of advanced infrastructure works to pave way for construction of LHWP II, known as the Polihali Dam have already had an adverse impact on the livelihoods of communities affected by this component of the project. Land and other natural resources which are the basis of the communities’ livelihoods have been expropriated by the project without payment and compensation.

“The transition into the next component of LHWP II, marked by the occasion of your visit on the 23rd of May 2023, will lead to renewed physical and economic displacement of families. The LHWP Phase II feasibility studies have estimated that about 16 villages will require to be relocated or resettled due to close proximity to the dam and/or significantly impeded access in the event of floods. And again, thousands will be economically displaced as a result of acquisition and inundation of their agricultural land, grazing land, including natural resources. The result is imminent food insecurity, impoverishment and the breakdown of social networks and culture.

“Climate change and the growing South African population and economy dictate that South Africa will increasingly rely on water from Lesotho. The role and importance of LHWP and the anticipated phases beyond the Polihali Dam, necessitate that great care be taken to secure ownership and buy-in of communities who have hitherto remained dissatisfied with this project. The challenge, Mr. President, for this occasion and for the government of South Africa is to address South Africa’s interests in keeping this bilateral project more significant to both countries without losing sight of the longer-term sustainable development of local communities.”

The rights groups then  ask Mr Ramaphosa in their letter to review the LHWP Treaty to ensure that it aligns  with the international human rights standards for better protection and promotion of the rights of affected communities.

They also ask the South African president to ensure that he meets with civic society organisations during his visit to Lesotho and the communities affected to  hear their concerns regarding implementation of LHWP Phase II first-hand. They want President Ramaphosa to address human rights violations of communities, and ensure their right to development and restore their livelihoods, among other things.

They demand that South Africa assists Lesotho to formulate a  “Livelihoods Restoration Policy“ which is in line with best international standards, to ensure that affected communities’ livelihoods are improved as well as “undertake, as a matter of urgency, forensic audit of all compensation funds intended for the affected people.”

The SLC had also already taken their grievances with the  Polihali project to the current  75th Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).

The SLC  said Lesotho was failing to uphold the rights of communities when implementing large infrastructure projects like the second phase of the LHWP.

It thus urged the ACHPR to ensure that the Lesotho government speedily fast tracked the formation of the National Action Plan on business and human rights “in order to adequately promote and protect the rights of communities affected by large infrastructure development in the country “especially those affected by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)”.

Again, the SLC called for the review of the LHWP  treaty “to align it with international human rights standards as far as compensation and livelihoods of affected communities are concerned”.

The SLC said the LHDA’s compensation policy was inadequate and unfair to communities. It also perpetuated gender inequality by further marginalizing women “who still face socio-economic and cultural barriers and stereotypes which limit their right to access to land”.

The SLC challenged the government of Lesotho to make information pertaining to the Lesotho-Botswana Water Transfer (L-BWT) project accessible to both stakeholders and affected communities through its implementing body ORASECOM and conduct through ORASECOM “meaningful public participation on affected communities together with stakeholders”.


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