Storm brews in Mokhotlong

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Pascalinah Kabi

MOKHOTLONG–A storm is brewing in Mokhotlong with residents demanding their concerns to be addressed first before they could be displaced by phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

Public gatherings held last week in Ha Lebopo and Thabang villages by two non-governmental organisations— Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) and Seinoli Legal Centre (SLC)—revealed simmering anger among community members who are not happy with the lack of information regarding the compensation they are supposed to receive for leaving their ancestral land to pave way for the multibillion-maloti project.

SLC is a non-governmental organisation which provides independent, long-term community legal empowerment especially for communities affected by the LHWP, while TRC is a human rights organisation.

In addition to the construction of Polihali dam at the confluence of Khubelu and Senqu rivers in Malingoaneng, the Muela hydropower station would also be upgraded under phase two of the LHWP.  A 38.2-kilometre water-transfer tunnel connecting Polihali with Muela, roads, camps, power-transmission lines and administration centres would also be constructed under the M15 billion-project, which is being jointly undertaken by Lesotho and South Africa under a treaty the two governments signed in 1986.

In Lesotho, the multiphase LHWP is being managed by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA).

Ha Lebopo villagers listen attentively during last week's public gathering
Ha Lebopo villagers listen attentively during last week’s public gathering

Ha Lebopo and Thabang are two of the 24 villages set to lose land to the project, with compensation expected to cover a maximum of 50 years as per the LHWP Phase II Compensation Draft Policy.

However, the villagers are not happy with this proposal and want the compensation to cover at least 99 years.

Phase One of the project involved the construction of Katse and Mohale dams, Muela hydropower-station and associated tunnels and was inaugurated in 2004.

Phase Two processes began in 2010 and the project is earmarked for completion in 2023.

South Africa seeks to augment its water supply through the project, while Lesotho expects to benefit from infrastructure such as roads, as well as royalties and electricity, from the initiative.

To pave way for Phase One of the project, government, through the LHDA, embarked on a  resettlement exercise through which affected households were compensated and relocated to areas such as Ha ‘Nelese and Ha Thetsane in Maseru.

In addition, villagers whose fields were affected by the dams were also compensated for loss of pasture, medicinal plants and heritage, among others. Compensation for those affected under this phase was for a maximum of 15 years, but the villagers complained bitterly about this duration which they considered too short. The residents also complained they lacked financial management skills which the authority should have provided, hence they squandered their money without investing it in income-generating projects.

One of villagers affected by Phase One is Anna Moepi, who addressed Ha Lebopo villagers on Tuesday last week during the TRC and SLC gathering. Ms Moepi warned the villagers against making rash decisions regarding the compensation, while also alleging it took “years” before the compensation was disbursed “and even when it finally came, we didn’t know how to use it because we had not been taught how to manage large sums of money”.

Ms Moepi also advised the residents against accepting 50-year compensation, which she claimed was “too short”.

“We were given a lot of money but now we are broke. We don’t even have money to buy electricity and water yet if we were still staying in our original rural homes, we would be farming and living off our land. In 50 years, you would have finished that money and then what? And what about your children, your grandchildren and your great, great grandchildren?” she said.

Ms Moepi’s advice, together with addresses by TRC and SLC officials, reinforced the residents’ belief that the LHWP Phase II Compensation Policy Draft 5 completed in December 2014 should be reviewed.

The overall goal of the draft policy is to ensure the project complies with all legal obligations through the design and implementation of a resettlement programme that gives the affected people an opportunity to at least restore their livelihoods and standards of living.

This draft further promotes the participatory design of compensation, resettlement and livelihood restoration measures for both affected and host communities.

The draft policy reads in part: “Implementation of Phase II will lead to physical and economic displacement and have potentially significant impacts on the livelihoods and socio-economic status of the local population. The Phase II Feasibility Study estimates that Polihali Reservoir will necessitate the relocation of 272 households from five completely inundated villages and a further five partially inundated villages, while a further six villages will be threatened due to close proximity to the water body and/or significantly impeded access.

“In addition, many households will be economically displaced due to the inundation or acquisition of their arable and grazing land and other natural resources, and impeded access to resources, facilities and other villages. The town of Mokhotlong, located at the headwaters of the Polihali Reservoir, will be marginally affected by impoundment of the Reservoir. The Phase II Agreement stipulates the preparation of a compensation policy to address these involuntary resettlement impacts. This Compensation Policy has subsequently been prepared for Phase II, taking account of the existing Phase I Compensation Policy and the recommendations of the Phase II Feasibility Study. The Policy covers compensation, resettlement and livelihood restoration.”

The draft was said to have been prepared after consultations with affected communities, their authorities and other key stakeholders.

Speaking to the Lesotho Times at last week’s gathering, Chief Naha Lebopo of Ha Lebopo said being compensated for 50 years was not fair since most of the villagers entirely depend on agriculture.

Until now, Chief Lebopo (61) had let his wife, ‘Malineo, hold fort as Ha Lebopo chief while he worked in the South African mines.

“Households in my village depend entirely on agriculture. For those who don’t have farmland, they do farming piece-jobs and are either paid cash or given food depending on the employer,” Chief Lebopo said.

“But we are about to lose all that as I understand the Polihali Dam project is going to take our fields, pasture, trees, firewood and medicinal plants. This is the sad reality for every affected household.

“However, we still believe this project can change our lives for the better but that can only happen if we get lifetime compensation. Our grandchildren must continue to reap the rewards of this project years after we have died because we are benefitting from land left to us by our forefathers.”

The chief further said he was expecting Combined Area Liaison Committee (CALC) members responsible for the project to take the villagers’ concerns to the relevant authorities. CALC links the affected communities with the LHDA and government.

Chief Lebopo added: “To show that something is not right about this compensation, we don’t even know officially how much each person is going to receive as compensation money. What we only have is verbal information and we demand that every single detail related to this compensation policy must be communicated in writing. We are working very hard to ensure the LHDA accounts for every single promise it has made and must stop sending different officials to us because when they come, they say they are not aware of what was discussed in the previous meeting.”

On her part, Ms ‘Malineo thanked TRC and Seinoli Legal Centre for “opening our eyes”

She added: “These people have not come here to tell us what they are going to do without first seeking our opinions although they are going to help us get what we deserve from the Polihali project.

“They have opened our eyes; we know what we want and they must give us what we need, not what they think we need. We demand lifetime compensation or at least 99 years, not these 50 years reached without public consultation.”

Another villager, Bolae Matalasi, said the community was not happy the project had “already started imposing decisions on us”.

He added: “Our donkeys are transporting things like cement for the dam’s demarcations. For every hired donkey, the owner was paid M50 per day while people got M92. We never liked this and when we protested, the contractor tried to engage other villagers. The situation deteriorated to the extent that we were threatened by acting Mokhotlong Principal Chief Tšepo Seeiso.”

“This practice of imposing decisions on us is still continuing but we will fight until the LHDA listens to us and effects the changes we demand.”

Another villager, 44-year-old Paul Badela, accused the government of “hiding behind LHDA” instead of engaging affected communities.

“The government never holds meetings to address us and wants to hide behind LHDA in this issue. The government does not want to take responsibility for their actions, hence this hiding behind LHDA,” Mr Badela said.

‘Mampolokeng Puputloane, another villager, also said locals should be prioritized when the project is recruiting general labour.

“The project must give our children priority when employing people. We have been told they are going to do that but based on past LHWP experiences, we need this to be communicated in writing,” Ms Puputloane said.

Meanwhile, Ha Lebopo CALC member, Seisa Mahemu, said their attempts to take villagers’ concerns to the authorities were not bearing fruit.

“However, what makes me happy is that Ha Lebopo is known for being vocal and the LHDA knows our position, which is that we need lifetime compensation, electricity and also that proceeds from our resources should be shared among the local community. This is our money and we want it to be shared among the villagers. However, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears but we will not stop fighting. We will shout until the whole world hears our appeals,” Mr Mahemu said.

He continued: “We love this project. We have nothing against it. This is big development for our country. However, we shouldn’t be deprived of our rightful assets. If the project takes land from us, it’s only fair that they give us lifetime compensation and negotiate without us instead of dictating to us.

“We are sitting on wetlands here and we need to have access to this same water from the Polihali Dam. They must stop threatening us day and night through the principal chief and they must start answering our questions.”

Meanwhile, the two NGOs held another public gathering in Thabang on Wednesday last week.

During the meeting, LHDA Community Participation Officer, Koali Hlasoa, told the gathering he was aware of their grievances and had asked management to come and address them.

However, the villagers angrily told Mr Hlasoa that they needed the response “now”.

But Mr Hlasoa said he was not the right person to give a response and further said LHDA authorities might call a press conference this week and address the issue.

On his part, Acting Principal Chief Tšepo Seeiso denied threatening Ha Lebopo villagers.

“The problem is you talked to those people in my absence. However, I didn’t go to Ha Lebopo to discuss the project but rather issues surrounding the villagers’ donkeys. The villagers were refusing to release the donkeys to the contractor as they couldn’t agree on the payment but at the same time, they were preventing those who had agreed on the charge from working with the contractor.

“That’s why I went there—to tell them the contractor was free to outsource donkeys from other villages,” he said.

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