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World Cup takes more water from Lesotho

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MASERU — It takes Mmateboho Mokebesa 30 minutes to reach the stream where she gets her water, a trickle at the bottom of the jagged red canyon that cuts through the mountains around her village.

On the way back, carrying buckets of water or wet clothes uphill, the trip takes the slight 69-year-old three times as long.

Mokebesa, a feisty grandmother with a strong self-reliant streak, is a life-long resident of Maqhaka, a tiny village scattered across the mountains north of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru.

She has been fetching water from this stream all her life, even as Lesotho exports much of its water to South Africa, a trend that has accelerated ahead of the World Cup.

“When I come down, I can take about half an hour. But when I go up, it’s about an hour and a half because now it’s heavy and I have to go all the way up the hill,” she says.

Mokebesa’s village has taps, but they run dry for two to three weeks each month.

Like most of Lesotho’s population, Maqhaka suffers chronic water shortages despite the abundance of water in the country’s sparsely populated interior.

Each month Lesotho, a landlocked kingdom surrounded entirely by South Africa, sells some 65 million cubic metres of water to its giant neighbour, generating some US$4 million in badly needed revenue for the impoverished country.

The water helps slake the thirst of South Africa’s industrial and mining sectors, and feeds a hydroelectric project that powers Lesotho and provides supplemental electricity to energy-hungry South Africa.

This mass export is possible thanks to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a system of dams, pipes and tunnels launched in 1998 that is one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Africa.

Lesotho stepped up the programme ahead of the World Cup in an effort to give South Africa enough electricity to power the June 11 to July 11 tournament.

Last month local media reported an extra 60 000 litres of water per second would be diverted to help South African state utility Eskom generate enough electricity during the World Cup to avoid the recurring blackouts that hit the country in 2008.

Since it began operating, the programme has brought US$380 million in revenue to Lesotho, a country that has little else to export apart from textiles.

But the project’s massive infrastructure bypasses the country’s western lowlands, where most of the population lives and where getting water is a daily struggle.

In the township of Khubetsoana, a village outside Maseru, residents without water pay steep fees for the right to use their neighbours’ taps.

Joseph Lethoko pays M30 a month (about US$4) to get drinking water from people who have taps, a large sum in a country where 62 percent of the population lives on less than US$2 a day.

“It’s a lot of money, because we struggle to find work. It’s difficult because there are no jobs here,” said the 42-year-old subsistence gardener, who lives in a two-room shack with his wife and two children.

Lethoko’s neighbour, Matlali Mpholo, said the neighborhood used to have communal taps, but the government shut them down in the early 1990s.

“When they took out those taps, it was very sour for our families. Now the guys who own the taps, they understand that our lives depend on them. So they choose how many people can go and get water from them, when they close, when they open. It’s difficult when you don’t have a tap inside your yard,” said the 36-year-old mother of four.

She said water has become a precious commodity in the area, available only to the wealthy.

“Those who have money, they have water, they have electricity. Us, we don’t have anything,” she said. — AFP.

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