Water in Lesotho: Contradiction, Disjuncture, Death

By Colin Hoag §

There is a language we use to talk about water, and it is filled to overflowing with clichés: fluidity, movement, connection, life-itself. Thinking through water in the mountainous enclave-state of Lesotho gives the lie to our familiar metaphors. It raises the question: What if instead of moving, connecting, and sustaining, water were a source of disjuncture, contradiction, and death?

I research the landscape-making practices that surround a large hydroelectric and water export scheme called the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)—practices that range from livestock keeping, to land rehabilitation works, to the discursive production of Lesotho as a resource frontier for water (Tsing 2005). The LHWP consists of a series of dams that trap water in deep mountain valleys, transporting it by tunnel and canal to South Africa’s arid industrial and commercial heartland, the Gauteng Province. Lesotho exports 780million m3 of water annually through the LHWP, generating 72MW of electricity and receiving royalty payments of US$45 million each year, a significant amount of money in one of the world’s poorest countries. Three large dams that make up Phase I of the Project were completed in 2004; construction on Phase II’s Polihali Dam is set to begin in 2015.

The past few decades since the Project began have witnessed the emergence of a new discourse about water in Lesotho: it is “abundant” (metsi a mangata); it brings development; it is a symbol of national identity, and a driver of “regional economic integration.” This narrative frames Lesotho’s water as consolidating within itself a multiplicity of ideas and functions, drawing on a familiar set of metaphors: it moves, it unites, it brings life.

Yet, water in Lesotho is also contradictory, fractured, and dangerous, qualities that ordinary people are painfully aware of. I consider briefly two cases below that elucidate this counter-narrative: the role of water in shaping political-economic relations between Lesotho and South Africa, and the role of rain in the production of rural livelihoods.

Katse Dam, the centerpiece of the LHWP
Katse Dam, the centerpiece of the LHWP (Photograph by Colin Hoag)

Water and Economic Integration

Elites in Lesotho and other proponents of the LHWP champion water as a source of “economic integration” with South Africa, an example of how productive economic linkages bring the two countries together in mutual exchange. This depiction conjures images of two actors – Lesotho and South Africa – entering into a mutually beneficial exchange: Lesotho has an excess of water supply and South Africa has a demand. Lesotho’s otherwise marginal political and economic position in the subcontinent is allegedly bolstered by exploitation of its water resources.

Of course, there is no such equal footing. The Project instead stands as an example of a long history of South African domination of Lesotho, from the days of Apartheid up to the present. The South African government had been interested in developing a water project in Lesotho since the early-20th century but negotiations between the two countries hit a wall in the 1980s, when then-Prime Minister of Lesotho Leabua Jonathan reversed his previously friendly posture toward the Apartheid regime in an effort to secure increased aid from Western countries that were antagonistic toward South African Apartheid. Jonathan was overthrown in a 1986 coup that many believe was sponsored by South Africa. The Treaty on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project would be signed just 10 months later.

South African aggression did not stop with that country’s transition to democracy in 1994. When violence broke out in Maseru after disputed Parliamentary elections in 1998, South African troops entered Lesotho to restore order and immediately sent a contingent to the Katse Dam, where they killed 13 Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldiers as they scrambled out of their barracks in confusion. Though it was Lesotho’s Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili who requested these troops through the regional bloc SADC (Southern African Development Community), the violence at Katse Dam has been called the world’s first “water war,” on account of South Africa’s heavy-handed effort to secure its water source.

A memorial near Katse Dam for LDF soldiers killed there in 1998
A memorial near Katse Dam for LDF soldiers killed there in 1998 (Photograph by Colin Hoag)

The political and economic imbalance between the two countries is not lost on people in Lesotho, who are quick to point out that even as Lesotho sells its water to South Africa, many thousands of its people go without reliable access to drinking water. Many thousands of hectares of agricultural land lack irrigation infrastructure that could alleviate the regular and devastating effects of drought. Ultimately, the benefits and burdens of this water project are split along class lines: the big winners in Lesotho are urban elites who stand to gain from the lucrative tenders associated with the Project; most ordinary people, by contrast, will only see some road improvements in the mountains and perhaps temporary employment.

Rain and Rural Suffering

As elites in the capital wrangle over which politicians can best exploit the country’s water resources, rural people’s everyday experience with water is much more immediate and material. It is organized around concerns regarding a particular modality of water: rain. Rains in Lesotho are a source of longing and frustration. In the expansive mountain landscapes where my research is based, the rain seems always elsewhere: one sees clouds amassing at the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment that forms Lesotho’s eastern border with South Africa – only to dissipate midday. Snow falls on distant peaks but never those nearby. While small-talking about the drought with an elderly woman who lives up the valley from me, I pointed out that there was a short rain-shower the previous evening. Yes, she said, “but nothing fell here – we only saw the clouds over in the distance!”

People in rural Lesotho depend dearly on rain for agriculture and livestock rearing. Neither of these activities typically provides enough food or income for people to live, but since the steep decline in employment at South Africa’s mines beginning in the late-1980s, they are more important than ever. Sadly, the past two decades have also seen more frequent droughts, punctuated by short, violent storms. These storms fall on landscapes that are thoroughly de-vegetated by livestock desperate for forage, their rains peeling off precious topsoil and depositing it downslope. The storms cut gullies into croplands and digs ruts across roadways. Year after year, reforms to land use management are proposed by foreign donor organizations and the government, yet few people here report that management failures are responsible for soil erosion or poor range condition – it is the rains.

A reinforced river bank collapses in a December 2013 storm, partially washing away a graveyard
A reinforced river bank collapses in a December 2013 storm, partially washing away a graveyard (Photograph by Colin Hoag)

Contradiction, Disjuncture, Death

Water in Lesotho is not merely the productive, connective force that conventional water metaphors would have us believe. It is also a stumbling block, reminding people here of the contradictions and complications of life in Lesotho. It is not an index of the continuity of human being and time, etched into our very language as Gaston Bachelard (1983[1942]:15) describes it, but rather of equivocality, precarity, and fragility. It is not the materialization of purity, but rather of knotty entanglements with soils, vegetation, livestock, and regional political economic forces. In the late October Spring, as I write, even the river in Lesotho—even the river, that figure of movement and continual change, into which no one can ever step twice—is a dry bed of sand and rock.

The mighty Senqu River, during a 2014 drought
The mighty Senqu River, during a 2014 drought (Photograph by Colin Hoag)

These counter-stories of Lesotho’s water do not mean that life-giving connection is not a real quality of water here. Indeed, that both these opposing tropes—life and death, connection and disjuncture—can be held in tension gets at the heart of water’s contradictions. It is these contradictions that beg for more work by artists, scholars, and activists into the nature of water in the Anthropocene. We need a new language, fit to our times and places, with which to tell the many stories of what water is, what it means, and what it does.

Works Cited:
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bachelard, Gaston. 1983 [1942]. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. Dallas, TX: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Colin Hoag is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as a PhD Student in Biological Sciences at Aarhus University, where he is affiliated with the research program, AURA: Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene. His dissertation fieldwork is supported by the Danish National Research Foundation, the Social Sciences Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the UCSC Science and Justice Research Center, and the UCSC Center for Tropical Research in Ecology, Agriculture, and Development.