NEWLY appointed Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) chief executive, Tente Tente, has accused unnamed pressure groups of fuelling tensions between the LHDA and communities affected by the Polihali dam construction.
He said although the LHDA had in some instances proceeded to work on the dam project without compensating affected villagers, this was only done after consultation and the consent of the affected villagers.
Mr Tente, who was appointed LHDA boss with effect from 1 October 2019, said this while addressing the parliamentary portfolio committee on natural resources. The parliamentary session was convened to discuss the grievances of communities affected by the Polihali project.
Tensions have been running high between the LHDA and the communities over the construction of the Polihali Dam in terms of the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWPII).
The multi-billion maloti LHWPII is under threat from villagers in the Mokhotlong district who have vowed to stop the project if their demands for compensation are not met.
The communities are demanding lifetime compensation or alternatively payment for a 99 year period from the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (which is tasked with the implementing the dam project) for the loss of their land.
However, the LHDA has said it will only compensate them for a period of 50 years at market rates in line with statutory requirements.
The LHWP is a multi-phased project aimed at providing water to the Gauteng province of South Africa and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho. It was established by the 1986 Treaty signed by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa.
The project entails harnessing the waters of the Senqu/Orange River in the Lesotho highlands through the construction of a series of dams for the mutual benefit of the two countries.
Phase I of the LHWP, consisting of the Katse and Mohale dams, the ‘Muela hydropower station and associated tunnels was completed in 2003 and inaugurated in 2004. Phase II of the LHWP is currently in progress. It consists of two separate but related components: water transfer and hydropower generation.
The bilateral project which is estimated to cost at least M23 billion, is expected to provide about 3 000 jobs at the peak of its operations.
The water transfer component of Phase II comprises an approximately 165m high concrete faced rock fill Dam at Polihali downstream of the confluence of the Khubelu and Senqu (Orange) Rivers and an approximately 38km long concrete-lined gravity tunnel connecting the Polihali reservoir to the Katse reservoir.
Other Phase II activities include advance infrastructure (roads, accommodation, power lines and telecommunication) and the implementation of environmental and social mitigating measures.
However, the local communities in Mokhotlong, who have coalesced under the banner of the Survivors of Lesotho Dams (SOLD) organisation, are threatening to disrupt the dam construction if their demands for compensation are not met.
SOLD is a civic human rights organisation committed to promoting social justice among communities affected by dams, mines and other large infrastructure developments.
The organisation was established in 2004 after some of the communities affected by the LHWP Phase I were not compensated and others only received compensation 20 years after the completion of the Katse and Mohale dams.
Although he did not provide names, Mr Tente recently accused some pressure groups of fuelling conflict between the LHDA and villagers over compensation issues.
“Relations between LHDA and the Mokhotlong communities are well expect for these NGOs who for some reason are blowing things out of proportion,” Mr Tente said.
“We admit that there were times when the LHDA failed to process compensations as per our agreements that such compensations would be paid up front.
“However, people were consulted and they gave their consent on the understanding that they would be compensate while work on their land (affected by the project) is in progress. We would not start any operations without people’s consent. We are not an arrogant company and would not do as we pleased just because we are a big company,” Mr Tente said.
He also denied allegations of favouritism in the awarding of jobs for preparatory works ahead of the construction of the Polihali Dam.
He also said the recruitment of unskilled workers was done in the most transparent manner to ensure that all people in the communities affected by the project had equal opportunities to be hired.
“Our aim is to give all the people in the area equal opportunities to get hired. At this stage priority is given to the Mokhotlong unskilled labour force. We are collecting data from every electoral division to ensure that every area is afforded an equal chance of getting employed.
“We conduct regular trainings and consultations with community members to communicate any developments with them. We do not do anything without consulting them. The NGOs are just keen on misleading some of the villagers. All this noise is worsened by the dire poverty people are facing and they want to get a share from the operations (LHWPII),” Mr Tente said.
On his part, the Polihali Branch Manager, Gerard Mokone, refuted allegations that some community groups were given preferential treatment in terms of providing services to the LHDA.
“There is no committee that procures equipment on behalf of the LHDA. The LHDA is capable of doing all its businesses. There is no preferential treatment given to any group as has been speculated,” Mr Mokone said.
He said all communities were well represented in the liaison committees with the LHDA and those were elected in transparent elections which were observed by some of the pressure groups.
Mr Mokone said they had however received reports that some community members had either imposed themselves as members of liaison committees or formed their owned unrecognised committees and those were being used by the pressure groups to fuel conflict between the villagers and the LHDA.
“As far as I know the committees which were elected by the community members are working well (with the LHDA). However, there have been problems with individuals who were members of old committees which were dismantled once we started ground work in 2011. They wanted to carry on as the substantive committees but this cannot be as the people elected their own representatives through transparent elections,” Mr Mokone said.