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Polihali communities demand review of paltry compensation rates

Billy Ntaote and Lerato Matheka

Communities within the Polihali Dam site are up in arms contesting compensation rates they argue to be too low, and demand market-value-based compensation for their land and assets.

This is amid the rigorous process of public consultations which have resulted in the formulation of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Compensation policy, by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) and the approval by Lesotho Highlands Water Commission (LHWC).

The concerns are raised once again by the communities at time the Authority is working tirelessly to document all belongings and assets to be affected by the water project ahead of compensation processes beginning.

Community leaders, in a litany of grievances, indicate land compensation rates are too low in comparison to the benefit they yielded from ploughing, grazing, sourcing firewood and digging medicines from their ancestral land.

Also at the heart of the complaints, the members of Maluba-lube community are crying foul that the Authority has denied them access to their communal compensation funds which accrued to them when the Polihali dam weir was constructed 8 years ago to measure the flow of the Senqu river where the dam is to be constructed.

The compensation rates being contested by the communities were approved by the project’s Commission in September 2016 and gazetted by government of Lesotho in February 2017.

At least 272 households are set to be relocated from their native land by the M25 billion worth Lesotho-South Africa Water project Phase II.

According to the Phase II compensation policy, the implementation of the project would lead to physical and economic displacement as well as potential significant impacts on the livelihoods and socio-economic status of the local population.

And according to the 1986 Treaty Article 7 paragraph 18, the LHWP provided for compensation, resettlement, and development initiatives aimed at ensuring that project—affected people would be “enabled to maintain a standard of living not inferior to that obtaining at the time of first disturbance.”

The compensation, according to the water project’s Treaty is supposed to be done in kind, in the form of grains and pulses, cash and land. The project is expected to be completed in 2025.

Phase II, according to the statement, will ensure a reliable water supply to South Africa by 2025 and progressively increase the current supply rate of 780 million cubic metres per year to more than 1 270 million cubic metre.

But community leaders like Lehlomela Lekobane, a District Coordinator of an advocacy group Survivors of Lesotho Dams (SOLD) and a member of the Maluba-lube community, said his community has been owed compensation for their communal grazing land for over 8 years since the authority constructed the Polihali Weir Dam.

Polihali weir dam

Lekobane lashed out that the 21 cents per square meter for communal grazing pasture land value set in the Authority’s compensation policy is too low a price for their land.

“This community is concerned that the land to be submerged under water dam shall be taken away from its rightful owners forever without adequate and equal compensation,” Lekobane said.

Lekobane was among community leaders who were speaking at a gathering held in St Rose, in Peka, organised by the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) and the Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

He said, “This delay to give us our compensation has affected us adversely and leaving us worse off.”

He added that the Authority has made commitments to compensate farming land at 68 cents per square meter for agricultural land.

“Valuing a square meter of farming land at 68 cents per square meter is an undervaluation of the Mokhotlong people’s land. But what’s surprising is that this piece of land would produce on average a single maize plant whose corn would sell at about M10.00 on the street.

“There is a commitment made by the Authority that they will make compensation payments to affected people before their property is affected by the project, shockingly, when the weir dam was constructed, 69 trees and  Leucosidea sericea  shrubs (Cheche) yard were affected we never received any compensation.

“A promise to compensate us with M79 000 was made but shockingly they refused to give us the money as cash in hand. We have not been paid to date for these affected properties, and it’s been 8 years now,” said Lekobane.

He said the Authority has a policy which states that it will not leave the lives of communities affected by its projects ‘worse off’ but, to date, he argues that communities mostly tell stories of their suffering at the hands of the Authority.

He said Chapter 10 of the Authority’s compensation policy notes that where property is affected by the project, market related prices shall be used to determine compensation prices.

“The rates set by the Authority for our communal land compensation are just too low,” he said.

SOLD president, Bolae Matalasi, made emphasis that the Authority needed to increase the value of a land per square meter.

“We demand M155.00 per square meter for our agricultural land which was affected by the project during the time when roads of the construction of the test weir dam was constructed in the Senqu River area,” he said.

Matalasi added, “The Authority is not planning or even consulting but imposing paltry compensation rates on us.

“One of the clear examples of this, is the 20 cents per square meter set for grazing land that they are imposing on us without considering our arguments for more and better valuation of our land,” said Matalasi.

Matalasi further charged that as affected communities they demanded at least 10 percent from the royalties collected from the project.

“We further demand that royalties of 10 percent from the project annually be remitted to our Mokhotlong community.”

But, Gerald Mokone, Polihali Operations Manager, in defence indicates the Phase II compensation policy highlights livelihood restoration minimally.

“Our expectation as the project is to not have people sustain their livelihood with the compensation money, but our objective is that the project will help people with different livelihood projects and these are our highly communicated expectations.”

“Before one is given their compensation pay out, we hold further individual interactions with the receiver to explore different options to maximise their compensation pay outs so that people are aware what existing options are there out there,” he said, explaining that the livelihood restoration process is yet to begin.

He noted that of the 20 cents rate per square metre set for communal pastoral grazing land according to the compensation policy, not only fodder is covered but many other things.

“There are a number of things incorporated which includes but not limited to indigenous plants, shrubs and medicinal plants. Taking all those plants and calculating rates per square metre added to the 20 cents, there is an additional M2 456.60 per household of the village, and that is the value we use to compensate pasture land; therefore, it is important to note that we are not giving people 20 cents,” Mokone stressed, noting that his revelations of compensation rates were not new to the disgruntled communities.

Mokone emphasised that the communal compensation for the land and community assets affected during the construction the Polihali weir 8 years ago will remain in the hands of the Authority until affected communities working in hand with community councils present a clear development plan, ahead of the release of the funds.

“We will not tell them what to do, but we will wait to get their plan which will be clearly outlined before we disburse the funds,” he said.

Mokone conceded the Authority has not paid the Maluba-lube its communal compensation as per the complaints.

He added that initially the Authority had requested the community to proceed with their project and not compensate immediately because the compensation policy was not yet completed.

“We told them that we will only disburse the money once the policy was completed and when the policy was done, we returned to them to inform them that their money is still in our possession and it keeps increasing annually as per the Consumer Price Index and we informed them to start planning for their developmental plan for their communities,” he said.

Mokone said if the Authority was to implement compensation based on market value, the Mokhotlong people would get far less compensation than what they are currently going to receive.

“Without being disrespectful I will speak of the state your houses. If they were to be compensated according to the market value, people would get compensation as little as M3000 for their houses. But at present, a house per square meter is going to be compensated between M2000 and M3000,” he explained.

He added, “When we look at things like a fruit tree’s market value, I highly doubt that it can give one M1000.00, not even a fire wood tree would fetch that much, it surely doesn’t cost even M500.”

“We trade in these things daily in our private lives and we don’t pay that much, we all know it and their value,” he said noting that the lowest compensation rate set by the Authority for one fruit tree is at least M2 200.

One fire wood tree compensation value at M800 and if we were to look at the market value, that rate is high.

I advise you community leaders to first look into this market value compensation before making demands,” Mokone said.

Lesotho, through the sale of water has to date received much needed royalties estimated to more than M8 billion since 1996, a value set to increase with the completion of Polihali dam and increase of water supply to South Africa.

The Water project benefits both Lesotho and South African government and people and according to the European Investment Bank (EIB) the water generated through the Phase 1A and 1B of the LHWP results in savings to South African water users estimated at M425 million (USD 30 million) per year.

The EIB describes Lesotho as one of the least developed countries in the world with no major natural resources except for water of which it consumes less than 6% domestically.

To maximise the benefit from the sale of the excess water, EIB reported that the LHWP has been split between the two countries, with 56% being allocated to Lesotho in a form of royalties from South Africa.

“These payments are estimated to average at approx imately M500 million (EUR 33 million) per year for both phase 1A and 1B of the LHWP. This corresponds to 4 percent of GDP and 10 percent of total Government Revenues, representing a considerable source of revenue for the funding of development projects in Lesotho,” EIB reports.

Tente Tente, LHDA Phase II Divisional Manager pointed out the issue of market value was farfetched.

“There was an example made that on a square metre of a potato field the owner would make at least M300, a square metre such a small space? To determine that, I had to quickly recall just how much a bag of does potatoes cost and recalled it was less that M50.

“It is very pivotal to advise the public to make wise decisions when demanding justice,” Tente said.

Chief Tšepo Seeiso, on behalf of the principal chief of Mokhotlong Mathealira Seeiso, said the Authority should duly meet the communities halfway with their ‘worrying’ rates.

“In a different platform, you the Authority indicated that your rates were set as per government rates but you later advised yourselves to increase the rates.

If the communities are still crying foul, please look into slightly increasing the rates a little once again. Go back to your drawing board, go back and deliberate amongst yourselves and try to offer these communities life changing compensation rates,” said Chief Seeiso.

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