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African Pipe Dreams by Lori Pottinger

On a cold, windy plateau about a quarter mile above the Senqu River in Southern Africa's highest mountains, an incongruous suburban tract of new single-family houses stands in prim isolation, its nearest neighbors a shanty town of galvanized-sheeting shacks and three-story-high heap of gravel. In the steep-sided river canyon below the odd, urb-less suburb, a massive wall of concrete grows daily higher, straining toward its eventual height of 185 meters. This is Katse Dam, and the imported suburb--designed to make the dam's expatriate workforce feel at home in the barren mountains of Lesotho--is Katse Village. Down the road a bit is the pièce de résistance : a strip mall housing a mini-mart stocked with South African favorites, a clothing shop offering souvenir t-shirts of the dam, and a pizzeria, all set against a backdrop of snow-covered 10,000-foot peaks. Its large parking lot is usually empty now that the dam is nearing completion.

Most mornings we park in the lot to wait for Moea, who walks here on the rough dirt road from his village--a place without electricity or running water, where people eat what they can grow. Moea has been guiding us through villages affected by the dam's construction, and translating the villagers' softly spoken grievances. I am here to find out how this dam is changing people's lives, and to see if the project's promise to restore their livelihoods is being met.

Mohale Dam area.
The future site of Mohale Dam, and a church field worker who helps villagers
displaced by this and other dams of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. 
Photo by Lori Pottinger.

Day after day, and from one place to the next, we hear sad stories:

They took my field and didn't pay. My house was badly cracked by the blasting. They did not give me enough for my trees. They dumped stones in my field just as I was about to harvest.

Waiting for Moea, who sets his own unhurried pace, I have a lot of time to contemplate Katse Village. Its neat streets, modern homes, flower gardens and strip mall would not be out of place in the white suburbs of nearby South Africa or, for that matter, my own hometown in California. But it's quite a misfit here in the Lesotho Highlands, where people live in striking stone-and-thatch rondavals, tend windswept fields of maize, and cook over open fires. Here, it is sometimes hard to tell where the little stone houses end and the mountains begin, so married are they to the rocky landscape. But it's the geometry that in the end betrays the little enclave as of foreign origin. Katse Village's angled grid of streets (named for places that will be drowned by the project's five dams) is like a foreign language in this landscape of sinuous river valleys, round houses, fields plowed to mimic the hills' contours, and endemic spiral-growing aloe plants.

I have been traipsing around these mountains for two weeks, and so far have slept on the dirt floors of smoke-filled rondavals, subsisted largely on dried salted cabbage and cornmeal mush, was nearly swept downstream while crossing a thigh-deep icy river, and have generally been in a state of constant tension over my inability to remember if "thank you" is dumela or ho joang in the native Sesotho tongue. Yet in that time I never had an experience quite so unsettling as visiting this "First World" version of a village.

Katse Dam and the four others that comprise the $8 billion Lesotho Highlands Water Project will divert Lesotho's rivers to South Africa's industrial heartland, a dry province that is home to growing cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria.  And also to townships like Soweto, where running water is mostly a distant dream not likely to be advanced by the costly waters of this scheme.

I began my trip to southern Africa with a stop in Johannesburg, staying with friends whose house was something of a water sculpture: not one but two leaky faucets, a pair of old-fashioned big-tank toilets (standard flush toilets can consume 20 percent or more of a nation's water in dry places like South Africa), and terraces of lush green lawn and roses whose annual water ration exceeds that of a typical family of six in the townships. Later, I stayed in a hotel full of slow-dripping sinks and big-tank toilets. And this is the small stuff: the serious leaks are in the pipes leading to places like Soweto, where up to 50 percent of the water disappears through faulty Apartheid-era pipes.

On the road to Lesotho, we drive for hours past well-watered farmland sporting train-sized, rolling irrigation rigs: huge necklaces spewing diamonds across the land. The province also has its share of golf courses and swimming pools, like its aqueous role model, California. Such is the sum of parts that leads to dams in Lesotho.

But in the remote villages where I stay in the Highlands, people keep reminding me that "water is life," and true to their word, they treat it as liquid gold. Rivers nourish most of life's necessities here: trees for burning and building, straw thatching for roofs, medicinal plants, and of course water for drinking.  While staying in the village of Kholontso, we collect water by the bucketful at a local spring, and none is wasted. Wash water is recycled onto plants, baths are in a small bucket, and it takes just a couple of gallons to wash a pile of clothes. There are no roses, no leaky faucets, no swimming pools. Even the dryland crops are grown with just what moisture nature provides.

Lesotho and the site of the Mohale Dam
Lesotho and the site of the Mohale Dam, currently under
construction.  Red dots indicate displaced villages.
Graphics courtesy of Southern African Development
Community and International Rivers Network.

The dams under construction in Lesotho will not just take water from a relatively wet place to a dry one. They will also drown miles of biologically rich river canyon and riverside villages, flood good farmland in a place that has none to spare, and reduce water for the downstream environment--riparian habitat, marshes, forests and eventually the river's estuary in Namibia. The river could be reduced to about half its natural flow.

It's not simply a matter of need, either. Other options, particularly conservation--fixing the leaky delivery pipes, replacing toilets with water-conserving models and instigating cutbacks in the thirstiest industries, such as agriculture--might have made this project unnecessary. Unfortunately, conservation was virtually ignored in the stacks of studies leading up to construction. And no one with any political ambitions in South Africa is entertaining the big-picture notion that a limited water supply should ipso facto limit a region's growth. Johannesburg and Pretoria are the unstoppable engines of the New South Africa and water is the fuel that keeps the engine running.

Yet just as likely a scenario, and one attracting a growing number of respected proponents, is that water will fuel the next generation of resource wars, replacing oil as the fluid to fight over in the 21st century. Katse Dam has itself already been a focal point for a recent military conflict led by South Africa, leaving 17 Lesotho men dead. The dam was suspected of being a target for sabotage in a potential government coup.

Project planners believe they are fortifying modern, productive societies, not adding to political instability. "Look at your own Los Angeles--where would it be without the Colorado River and Mono Lake?" I am asked by a South African dam engineer, angered by my environmentally pointed comments at a conference on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. It's an odd role model by any standard. The Colorado River, I remind him, was once a viable resource in its own right, and supported a rich fishery in the Sea of Cortez. Now it doesn't even reach its outlet, and the communities that have historically depended on it are dried up and blown away. More water is now allocated from the Colorado River than it can supply--a bit of modern Western hubris that is now coming to an end, and at great cost to Los Angeles. Mono Lake, after years of sliding toward a dry death, now has legal rights to a minimum amount of water. Los Angeles is starting to make painful adjustments as it is forced to make do with less. The city is an oasis in a desert, but it's becoming more like a mirage.

Lesotho waterfall.
A waterfall in Lesotho´s mountains. 
Photo courtesy of Southern African Development Community.

But Los Angeles, where I grew up in watery splendor, is a world away on the day I find myself strolling through the high mountain fields of maize stubble listening to my companion--a local preacher and farmer--recite the names of the months favored by the Highlands people. Their calendar includes a month named for the noise a bird makes during its mating season, one for the birth of the lambs, another for the appearance of a butterfly, and the remaining for various subtleties of the maize crop.

As we walk, we come to a stream where women are stooped over rocks, washing the heavy blankets that serve as coats in Lesotho. Drying in the crisp winter sun, they are heaped heavily on nearby rocks, transforming the dull landscape into a bright woolen tapestry of orange lions and turquoise corncobs. We pass others carrying buckets of water on their heads, a balancing act many African females learn almost as soon as they can walk. In the distance, the sounds of stringed instruments favored by the herd boys who tend the flocks in the highest, loneliest meadows of this high and lonely little country roll eerily across the landscape.

It's not likely that most Westerners would come away from a visit to these economically impoverished Highlands communities with a new respect for water.  More likely, they'd come away grateful that their water comes in swimming pools instead of buckets. It's only human nature to strive for a life of ease and comfort, after all. But there will probably never be one large and simple technological "fix" that can replace our indigenous sources of freshwater.  Water is a resource that is finite and, as with most other resources, inequitably distributed at present. Those with the means get water in great abundance, and those who don't drink only what they can carry. A scheme like the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is particularly discomfiting, fashioning immense technological wizardry to transport Lesotho's rivers hundreds of miles away, when in sight of the massive and growing concrete riverwall, people still cart water by the bucketful and conserve every drop.

In another high mountain valley chosen by project planners as the site for Mohale Dam--the second in the string behind Lesotho--we sit on the ground outside a chieftainess' rondaval listening to her people describe what they will lose in the next year when this remote village is resettled.  The school, store, the chieftainess' enclave, animal pens, soccer pitch, and the rich fields and homes of dozens of farm families will be razed to make way for the dam, and another little village relegated to oblivion by engineers, hydrologists, bankers and construction firms hailing from anywhere but here.

Lesotho men who lost their fields to Katse Dam.
These villagers (top) lost fields and grazing land to Katse Dam, and have
been cut off from neighboring villages by the reservoir.  Their traditional
way of life is a far cry from life in Lesotho's cities (bottom), but many
may be forced to move there if they cannot reestablish their tribal communities.
Photo above by Lori Pottinger, photo below courtesy
of Southern African Development Community.

A Lesotho city.

The villagers gathered around us on this cold August day want to know if their elders will really be separated from them when they are moved, as they have been told: shipped off to senior housing in the capital city. What will happen to their school teacher?  Will she be moved with them, or will an unknown government instructor take her place? And why are they not being given replacement land, so they may farm again, restoring their traditional livelihood?

Visiting this rugged place requires hiking in five miles from the nearest town, itself just a slightly larger collection of  houses.  The most notable difference between the two settlements is, in fact, the town's proximity to a road passable in all seasons. I walk with a farmer as he begins to prepare his fields for what is likely his last crop of maize. The thin winter sun has finally cleared the nearby peaks encircling the valley in an icy crown. He has lived here all his life, and knows nothing of the world outside this mountain fastness.  He is frightened of what is to come when his family, means of support, and community are all pushed out.

"When I look at my fields now, they make me sick," he says with the quiet bitterness of an ill-forced future. Like the world's 40 to 60 million other dam refugees, he is not likely to find himself better off when construction is complete. The real beneficiaries, as project authorities candidly revealed at a recent awards ceremony acknowledging the dam for its fine use of poured concrete, is "the construction fraternity."  Rather different from the Family of Man.

A chieftainess in front of her home.
A chieftainess in front of her rondaval home in the Mohale valley.
Photo by Lori Pottinger.

While the industry gets more "fraternal" with every cubic yard of cement poured, the communities in whose midst they do their work continue to become more divided, more impoverished, more hopeless.  A villager from the Mohale valley explained bluntly:  "They've consulted day and night, but problems are still not being taken care of. If they don't respect our decisions or meet our desires, why do they consult us? They promised heaven and earth, but practically all we see is frustration."

And the frustration continues to mount with every displaced village, every gallon of water channeled just out of reach.


Lori Pottinger is the head of the Southern Africa programs at International Rivers Network in Berkeley, California, and the editor of the group's newsletter, World Rivers Review.  IRN works to stop destructive river development schemes around the world, to support local communities whose cultures and ecosystems depend on rivers, and to support the worldwide struggle for environmental integrity and social justice.
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