HUNDREDS of people in the Mokhotlong district recently brought work towards the construction of the multi-billion Polihali Dam to a standstill when they picketed at the construction site for advanced infrastructure to press the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) to address their longstanding demands for compensation.
Villagers from Seshote, Phakoeng and Malingoaneng accused the LHDA of reneging on its promise to compensate them for their land which was acquired by the authority for advance infrastructure projects such as roads leading to the proposed Polihali Dam.
The villagers also accuse the authority and contracted companies of reneging on their promise to give them first preference in the recruitment of unskilled workers.
Last August, the LHDA awarded two separate contracts for the construction of the Polihali Western Access Road (PWAR) West and the Polihali Western Access Road (PWAR) East to the HSPY Joint Venture and the Rumdel/AC JV respectively.
The Polihali Dam is due to be constructed in terms of the bi-national Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP Phase II).
The LHWP is a multi-phased project to provide water to the Gauteng region 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.
Contracted companies are currently constructing advance infrastructure such as roads, accommodation, power lines and telecommunication ahead of the actual construction of the dam. However, the local communities in Mokhotlong, on Thursday picketed at the road construction sites and handed a petition containing their grievances to the contractors.
A community representative, Atang Leluma, said some of the construction managers told them they were not aware that the villagers had not been compensated for the land they had given up for the project.
Mr Leluma said the contractors said they only started work after getting the greenlight from the LHDA who allegedly claimed to have fully compensated the villagers.
“They (contractors) were very cooperative and agreed to stop the road construction. They were shocked to hear that villagers had not been compensated and promised to call a meeting with the LHDA bosses where the villagers would be represented to solve the impasse,” Mr Leluma said.
The restive community members say they have waited for too long and in vain for the LHDA to address their demands for compensation.
They said the LHDA had promised to pay them before the construction began.
One of the villagers’ representatives, ‘Manthone Molefe, said their patience had worn thin as the LHDA continued to dither over their compensation.
“The LHDA is not eager to address our grievances at all. We have been trying for a very long time to get them to honour the agreements we have with them but they have remained unmoved. We gave up our lands in the hope that our livelihoods would improve but that has not happened. Now the people cannot take it anymore and they have decided to force the LHDA to stop all the ongoing operations until their complaints are attended to.
“One of the agreements was that our people would be given priority when hiring but that has not happened. The contractors are coming in with their own people and the LHDA is doing nothing about even though we have reported this practice. We are practically watching outsiders enjoy the benefits of our resources while we are left hungry,” Ms Molefe said.
The community members have since roped the Seinoli Legal Centre to represent them in all discussions with the LHDA.
On its part, the Seinoli Legal Centre drafted a petition on behalf of the villagers, accusing the LHDA of failing to fulfil its obligations to the local communities and carrying on with the construction as if nothing had happened.
“Despite all the residual issues which the LHDA has failed to address pertaining to this community and hundreds of others similarly affected, Phase II of the LHWP has commenced. A 54,3-kilometre road which is intended to provide access to the Katse Dam basin from Polihali Dam is being constructed through Ha Seshote with devastating effects on the lives of vulnerable communities who are yet to have their livelihoods restored following Phase I of the project,” the petition states.
Seinoli further claims that contrary to its policy which stipulates that compensation should be paid before confiscating personal property, the LHDA has appropriated pastures, fields and grazing lands before issuing payment.
In the rare cases where compensation has been issued, the petition said, the community has complained of inadequate compensation, with one of the community members having received a paltry M14 as compensation for his field.
“LHDA refuses to disclose the basis for the compensation rates it uses to compensate communities for land lost to the project. The community also complains that LHDA has failed to improve or at least restore the livelihoods of the community contrary to its promises which entailed, amongst others, employment opportunities with priority to women, the youth and disabled. It has also failed to honour contractual agreements which bind LHDA’s contractors to enhance the quality of life of the residents by leasing community assets such as property and vehicles.
“The LHDA has also failed to heed the community’s plea to have community liaison officers who would work on community issues with the LHDA on a daily basis instead of the current situation where community complaints have to wait for weeks before they can be submitted or even be attended to by relevant LHDA officials.”
On its part, the LHDA has appealed for calm and patience from the community while the authority addresses their grievances.
“The LHDA is currently engaging the LHWP Phase II affected communities on their petition of the 10 December 2019. The first leg of this engagement was a face-to-face meeting between the LHDA delegation and the representatives of the affected communities on the 9th of January 2020 at Malingoaneng, Mokhotlong. At this meeting, the issues raised in the petition letter were deliberated upon by the parties present.
“At this time the LHDA is finalising a written detailed response that takes into account all the issues raised in the petition and those discussed at Malingoaneng, this document will shortly be delivered to the representatives of the affected communities as promised. The LHDA therefore calls for calm and patience while a detailed response is being prepared for clarity, detail and record,” the LHDA said in a recent statement.