Survivors of Lesotho's Dams
A classic example of World Bank corruption and human and environmental destruction. This is the story of the survivors of a project just hours from the upcoming "World Summit" on "Sustainable Development."
Survivors of Lesotho Dams
'Me Mamosalefene Tsatsi had lived in the valley at Mamokuluoa all her life and knows that at least her father and grandfather had also. The younger grandma, 'Me Matoloane Tsapane was a newcomer, having arrived with her bridegroom in 1950. The village of Mamokuluoa was located in a deep valley, far into the mountains of southern Africa's Lesotho. The rich soils and moderate temperatures of the valley bottom provided them with an abundance of potatoes, pumpkins, peas and beans. Their fields produced healthy stores of maize and wheat. They had peach trees on the hillside and gathered wild greens from the riverbanks. Round stone homes were thatched with grass and heated with the wood from willows they cultivated. Neighboring villagers came to trade with fish and butter. "We were fat," brags 'Me Tsatsi.
In a story probably as old as the written contract, one day a man came with a piece of paper and a promise that a better life still was possible. A promise and a threat: the man said the river water was needed in apartheid South Africa, construction crews were on their way to stop the river and their village would be submerged hundreds of feet. Each head of household was given a blue folder that few in the village could read and no one could actually understand.
The folders detailed the government's inventory of each household's assets, standardized values, annuity multipliers and a disturbance allowance schedule. Anyone who writes contracts like this for a living would have headed straight to their lawyer; the villagers were pressured to sign as the dam began to rise.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project was the brainchild of water-hungry South Africa and financed with the World Bank in the lead. For many years, the Lesotho Prime Minister refused to sign an unbalanced treaty written by the enforcers of State-racism. In 1986, South Africa sponsored a coup in Lesotho and installed a friendly colonel as head of government, who quickly did the deal. The first dam was well on its way to completion when Nelson Mandela's African National Congress took control of the South African government. Renegotiating an unfair deal with a nearly powerless neighboring country didn't climb high enough on the new government's extensive to-do list. Construction proceeded with the provision of compensation left to another day.
Another day has come and gone for these two women in their dirt yard this winter morning. The year's checks, promised to replace the grain, fruit and wood and due in
May have still not arrived in August. The checks are timed to coincide with the harvest they used to reap in the autumn of the southern hemisphere, before their fields were taken.
It wasn't a great harvest for anyone in Lesotho this year. The United Nations World Food Program and the current Prime Minister have jointly declared a famine. The roads are interspersed with boys not yet ten, driving donkeys bearing bags of ground maize up to the former farmers. One of the grandchildren next door at 'Me Tsapane's house, in her care after the death of a parent, recently fainted from hunger. "They are killing us," she repeats of those behind the near-completed dam at Mohale, "They are killing us."
Her friend of 52 years, now in her mid-seventies alternately lies and sits on a scrap of plastic high on the ridge at her new house. She wears a blanket over a sweater over a blue print dress of silver and white snowflakes. She uses a scarf to cover her face from the bursts of windy dust and takes shelter by a shed stacked together with broken pieces of concrete block and sod. 'Me Tsatsi says the concrete block and tin roof construction of the new rectangular houses makes them cold for starters and difficult to heat. Besides, she points out, she no longer has willow wood. She is lying in the sun to warm herself, trying to heal from an illness she blames on the stress of her new lifestyle. Down in the valley she could walk to the spring with a cup for a drink of water, now she points more than a hundred yards down hill to the nearest, but unreliable, water source. "How can old people get water from there," she asks. Nearby a 400 gallon green translucent tank stands empty in the dry season. "They think they gave us water but it is only a decoration. We can't eat the tanks."
This "Affected Person," as she is called by the World Bank and the Lesotho and South African governments, looks down on one corner of the immense body of stored water that stretches many miles. She is desperate to understand just what kind of deal she was pressured to sign. Outsiders are implored to explain the complicated documents of the blue folders: a mature fruit tree fetches $5 paid for each of ten years. A fuel wood willow is worth a total of $20 paid at $2 per year. The allowance for resettlement is $600 paid over three years. Households average around six people so that in nearly every case, annual payments work out to less than $1 per person per day and get much smaller as time goes on. The "underclass" standard of living was bearable when folks grew nearly all their own food, fuel and building materials. "But you can't compare land to money," she has learned too late. "They have just destroyed us."
Miles away, above Mohale dam sits a collection of dozens of neatly aligned red and green buildings that are the offices of Lesotho Highlands Dam Authority (LHDA). New, white SUVs scurry about the area on dam business. Inside the shop on site, the shelves are filled with fruits and vegetables, cookies and candy and GQ and Cosmopolitan with the latest brazen covers. Jobs here were promised first to affected people. But it turns out that most of the jobs available were skilled positions and no training program was available. As construction is nearly complete, soon most of the temporary jobs and the informal economy they created will be gone too. 'Me Tsapane has been surviving by renting a room to a construction worker who will soon go. The compensation problems are becoming the compensation crisis.
High on a hillside in the middle of the resettled peoples' scattering of new villages one can look for miles at fertile, terraced fields and grazing land to be submerged in October. A group of nine men and four women from each of the villages have called an emergency meeting to try and figure out how to pressure the LHDA to compensate them as they were promised. Along with a poorly understood and unfair deal to start with, the late annual checks have come without any explanation of the items compensated.
There is an extensive list of additional complaints. Some say they never received any compensation for lost gardens or woodlots. One man complains that his three round stone and thatch buildings have been replaced with two of the newer concrete and metal, rectangular ones. Yes, the newer ones are bigger but different rooms had different purposes. Tradition says it is improper to live and sleep in the same room with your in-laws, he explains. There is no school up on the ridge and the old school is under water. People who thought they were to receive checks for fifty years received only one. A garden was compensated with $100 but "it was producing much more than that," someone explains.
"Resettled" is the term when one remains in the mountains near the previous home; if you choose to move to the lowlands, one is "relocated." Unfortunately one can only be relocated into an area already crowded with people and governed in part by an existing chief. Relocated people were told that communal funds of unknown amounts were available to start a new life now that they had no fields, gardens or grazing land, but only if they wrote an acceptable business plan. They were not told what acceptable was but one villager's attempt over four years to receive money to build a small house to rent has been found unacceptable thus far. Despite going from sufficiency to a ward of the State at the State's demand, some here have had no checks for five years.
In some places, houses are already cracked. Lightening rods were not installed. During high winds, ceilings have fallen in and the cheap wood stoves fill the houses with smoke.
Community problems exist too. In one relocated village, people say the neighbors they were forced upon sometimes guard the pump and refuse water. No one tells them of village meetings until the last minute. The carpentry training to make caskets that was offered as "development assistance" went to villagers longer known to the chief.
Casket making has been big business up in the Lesotho mountains these last few years, as the graves of all known ancestors to be inundated were dug up and buried higher. The biggest digging though resulted in Africa's tallest dam north of Mohale at Katse. At nearly 600 feet high, it was completed first and is now filled. Driving around the reservoir takes most of the day. It separates villagers that have always been just across the river and the boats that were promised never arrived. A makeshift attempt recently resulted in two drowned whose burial is at the bottom of the reservoir.
While the water has split families, the roads have brought the city and city folk closer to the mountains. That has meant unwanted and unneeded police presence. And in 1998, it meant a firefight that left 18 Lesotho soldiers dead at the hands of South African forces in the midst of another outside coup. They claimed the Basotho soldiers were threatening the dam. Today struggling with hunger that may turn deadly, these survivors of the Lesotho dams are themselves generally no closer to a trip to the city than before construction.
A handful of affected villagers, however, will soon become familiar with the commercial capital of the sub-continent. Johannesburg, South Africa will be the site of the largest meeting ever in modern Africa and perhaps the largest meeting of the United Nations in its history. The organizers call it the "World Summit on Sustainable Development." It is the kind of meeting that some think is devoted to the development of resources for industrial, corporate capitalism. Others will try to steer the meeting toward addressing the poverty of hunger, disease and disempowerment. Large, non-governmental organizations will satisfy their donors that they have struggled well to address issues around destruction of the Earth and people.
Twenty Basotho will travel from the mountains of Lesotho to say in Sesotho that this big dam project is a failure. There is outside evidence of failure also. The largest World Bank corruption trial just found the dam project manager took 46 illegal bribes and sentenced him to 18 years in prison in Lesotho. The presumed bribers from European and North American construction firms are under investigation. The second phase dam at Mashai, which would make the first batch of four look small is currently on hold.
On a hillside above Katse, you might have a hard time imagining what could make this dam look small. The grey cemented curve running with drip stains stretches far from any vantage. Tiny trucks crawl across the arched pavement atop the mass of concrete. What is left of the river below flows unseen in deep canyons.
High-tension power lines are strung beyond a mountain horizon, passing countless homes that have no electricity; that have no plans for electricity; that will probably never have electricity. Billions of gallons of some of the world's cleanest water are in view of thousands of people who cannot turn on a tap, for whom there are only broken promises of a tap.
The visionaries are gone. The designers, cartographers and architects are gone. Construction crews have driven the equipment back. The financiers were never here.
So much land is invisible under water and so many people feel they are invisible under mountains of broken promises.
They are organizing to change that, no easy task in a world without phones, email or functioning post offices. On August 22nd a lowlands Masotho man will arise long before dawn and travel by pickup to six mountain villages, each delivering one representative to speak to whoever in the world will listen during two weeks at the summit. Others will travel by small buses to join them in the lowlands for the five more hours it takes to a province called Gauteng, "Land of Gold."
"For us, land is equal to life," 'Me Tsatsi explains. "As we look to the valley we are shedding tears because we know that that is where life was. We were having everything in abundance. Please hurry," she tells the man who will fetch people for the summit, "I'm ready to go to the big event and talk to those people."
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