…communities’ fears over compensation mount as project kicks-off
Mokhotlong communities facing compulsory relocation last week petitioned the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) in a last-ditch effort to demand lifetime compensation as construction of the multi-billion Maloti Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Polihali Dam takes-off.
The disgruntled residents, represented by Survivors of Lesotho Dams (SOLD)– a human rights group promoting social justice– fear the ongoing assets survey and registration herald their imminent removal from their ancestral land amid unfulfilled demands for the overhaul of a 50-year compensation policy they have since condemned as inadequate.
The Mokhotlong villagers are targeting the LHDA in their frustrations since it is the administrative body charged with implementing the LHWP.
The LHWP is a multiphase, bilateral Lesotho-South Africa project initiated by a 1986 Treaty for the construction of bulk water-harvesting dams for transfer to South Africa while also generating hydropower for Lesotho.
Under Phase I, the LHWP constructed Katse and Mohale dams, water-delivery systems into South Africa, ’Muela Hydropower Station and other associated ancillary works.
Phase II of the project involves the construction of an approximate 163 metre-high concrete-faced rock-fill Polihali Dam wall to sit approximately one-kilometre downstream of the confluence of the Khubelu and Senqu rivers.
It will also see a 38-kilometre long concrete-lined gravity tunnel connecting Polihali and Katse reservoirs.
Katse supplies the South African economic hub province of Gauteng with bulk-water, alleviating its acute shortage of the precious liquid.
The project is expected to be completed by the year 2025 and is expected to increase the bulk-water supply rate from 780 million cubic-metres per year to more than 1270 million cubic-metres also annually.
With Polihali Dam, 272 households are set to be relocated from their ancestral land by the M23 billion project.
Currently, the LHDA has contracted companies for the construction of complementary works such as access roads and a diversion tunnel, while the survey and registration of assets of communities facing removal is ongoing.
As advance infrastructure development takes-off with road-construction, the angry petitioners marched from Lilimala alongside the SOLD leadership to the LHDA offices in Tlokoeng Mokhotlong and handed their list of demands to the Polihali Branch Manager, Gerald Mokone who was accompanied by the LHDA Public Relations Manager Masilo Phakoe.
In response, Mokone told the petitioners their grievances would be transmitted to his superiors in the LHWP for deliberation and also promised the group a prompt response.
Currently, the LHDA, according to its Polihali branch, is undertaking Phase II of the surveys and asset-registration programme until the end of May.
The LHDA describes this process as the accurate measuring, recording and registration of all valid fixed assets that will be affected by the project. The process also includes registering the owners’ details for the determination of compensation-entitlements for belongings such as agricultural fields, homestead plots and structures, fruit and fuel trees, thickets, graves, etc.
The process starts with an accurate survey of all assets by registered surveyors, followed by the registration of ownership and correlated details.
Presenting the incensed residents’ petition to Mokone, SOLD president, Bolae Matalasi, said the communities’ grievances against the Polihali Dam mainly start with a demand for the LHWP to review and set aside its 50-year compensation policy.
Matalasi further said the community wanted the LHWP to introduce a policy that would see all affected communities receiving a lifetime compensation for all their assets.
Their demand for lifetime compensation, Matalasi added, was informed by Basotho’s tradition of passing assets from one generation to another.
“A 50-year compensation policy is inadequate to compensate us for our property. These are our valuable assets which we should have been passing on to the coming generations if it was not for the Polihali Dam construction.
“We demand lifetime compensation as opposed to the 50-year compensation that appears in the compensation policy. This is our ancestral land which we could be passing on to our children if it was not for this project.
“We demand access to electricity, water and sanitation facilities as a fundamental basic right.
“All the people of Mokhotlong must get first priority when hiring people into the various construction jobs of the project,” he said.
Matalasi also demanded that the destruction to properties owned by the communities affected by the Polihali Dam should be compensated with immediate effect before any of the assets are affected.
“Malubalube people have still not been compensated for their 69 trees, cheche shrub field and other properties in Ha Ramonakalali lost during the construction the Polihali Dam weir.
“The project should fulfil its promise to compensate all our properties prior to doing its project work as agreed initially” said Matalasi.
Matalasi also told the LHDA officials receiving the petition another burning issue was the communities were dissatisfied with the compensation rates-per-square-metre set in the policy for both grazing pastures and arable land.
“We do not want the 20 cents and 68 cents per-square-metre-rate for our pastures and arable land respectively, but we would rather settle for at least 20 cents for pastures and M30.00 for our arable land,” said Matalasi.
In response, Mokone briefly gave the petitioners some highlights of the core activities of Polihali Dam construction and again also promised them a prompt response to their grievances.
Mokone further assured the petitioners that the construction of the dam would see a lot of Basotho being employed while locally-owned businesses would also benefit immensely.
Touching on the properties, Mokone said houses, properties, fields, kraals, grazing pastures, grasses, flora and fauna, shrubs and trees belonging to the people of Mokhotlong would all be affected by the Polihali Dam construction.
“As a result, the LHWP found it necessary to have a compensation policy that we formulated through consultations with members of the public.
“We recognise your visit to lodge your grievances against this compensation policy. We guarantee that your response shall be delivered within reasonable time after consulting and reporting to the project leadership,” said Mokone.
In an interview with the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism during the march, one of the community members, Buoang Sotane from Tloha-re-buoe village, Malingoaneng area, said he had hoped the ongoing movement of construction equipment into their communities meant locals would be getting jobs during the installation of advance infrastructure for the project, as promised by the LHDA.
But according to Sotane, the LHDA had already reneged on this simple promise.
“During our consultation with the LHWP officials, we were promised that we would be among the first to be hired. We were also promised that before our land or fields could be interfered with, we would receive all due compensation.
“But we are shocked that companies constructing the roads are not hiring our local people but bringing their own workers,” said Sotane in reference to road-construction work underway in Malingoaneng.
On the ongoing assets verification and registration process, Sotane said communities in Malingoaneng were also concerned they were not being given enough information about the exercise.
“All we see are officials recording our property. We need to know what they are recording in their books as this shall determine how much we receive in compensation,” said Sotane.
Another resident of Mokhotlong from the village of Khatleli in Popa area, Ramatamo Nchela, said he believed the Polihali project would negatively impact on the lives of the communities if their concerns were not addressed.
On the ongoing assets verification and registration process, Nchela said the community felt ignored. “We feel like we are being side-lined and denied crucial information about the sizes and value of our own land as the process goes on.
“We want to know what our possible compensation is given the value of our properties,” said Nchela.
Nchela also corroborated sentiments shared by Sotane, saying he was angry that companies had already started advance infrastructure work but not hiring local people as promised.
Nchela said the Mokhotlong people were in desperate need of jobs and did not want to see “strangers” benefiting while they loitered around without jobs.
Another resident, Tebello Materase from the village of Tšilantšo said he feared that promises made by the LHDA that locals’ lives would be improved through the construction of critical facilities such as clinics would not happen.