Covid-19 has shined a harsh spotlight on the hardships faced by Mapholaneng community as a result of the government’s failure to live up to promises of its 2007 policy that entitled “access to a sustainable supply of potable water” to all Basotho.
Many of the country’s citizens living in rural areas draw drinking water from unprotected springs and wells, while those in peri-urban communities where piped water systems do exist, experience frequent water scarcity.
This, despite the fact that the country annually exports an estimated 780 million cubic metres of clean water to neighbouring South Africa under the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) programme – a bi-national project entered into by the two countries in 1986.
MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism findings show how water scarcity hit Mapholaneng, a small town located in Mokhotlong district, 16km away from the LHWP phase II now under construction, Polihali Dam, intended to harvest more volumes of water for neighbouring South Africa.
The community is still struggling to access clean water despite the government’s commitment to make sure that every citizen has access to sufficient and clean water. For the communities’ an estimated 8000 households according to Mapholaneng’s Chief Retselisitsoe Sekonyela have only two community shared water taps from a rural water supply reservoir.
These taps are overseen by community leaders who ration access by opening them only for one to two hours in the wee hours before they run out of water and later in the evening.
Villagers, mostly women and girls, who miss these two chances to draw water are bound to draw water from nearby Mapholaneng river drinking and other domestic purposes.
“When we fail to get water from the tap, we resort to the river where we have to crack the ice and draw water beneath the ice in winter mornings.
“We also do laundry with very cold water and easily contact flu,” ‘Malisemelo Lengoasa, one of the villagers told MNN Centre with a baby strapped on her back.
Mapholaneng community leaders, Chief Sekonyela, Community Councillor Maqebo Tsietsi and legislator Serialong Qoo weighed in to share predicaments faced by residents in separate interviews with MNN Centre.
Chief Sekonyela further said that while people in his area may want to follow hygiene guidelines necessary to stop the spread of corona virus outbreak, their access to water was a stumbling block.
“Most people walk 5 to 10 kilometres to access clean tap water. This poses a serious violation of their human rights as safe and clean water and sanitation are basic human rights,” Sekonyela said.
He also revealed that with the construction of Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase II underway, constructors and people who have migrated from other districts to Mokhotlong for employment have increased the population.
“The more the population, the more need for adequate and clean water,” Sekonyela said.
He said as a community leader, he has worked with the community council in Mapholaneng and approached relevant authorities in government to intervene and assist in resolving water crisis in the area but all in vain.
Tsietsi said in Mapholaneng only, there are two schools; a primary and high school, post bank, police station, offices of community council and a local court but because of shortages of water, service delivery end up being negatively affected.
“Most of the time officers from these respective public offices walk long distances to fetch water from the river or natural springs which do not have sufficient water due to dry winter season,” Tsietsi added.
For Qoo, lack of water does not only expose people to water borne diseases or spread of corona virus, but the criminal activities are prone to increase as well.
“Women and girls as the primary caretakers in households take responsibility of fetching water in faraway places. Imagine having a woman or a girl being raped because of walking late in the dark because she needed to fetch water?” he asked.
Mapholaneng is the nearest town from world’s highest dollar per carat diamond mine, Letšeng Diamond, which through its internal testing facility recorded 80 cases of Covid-19, though they were yet to be confirmed by the Ministry of Health.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) report, improving water, sanitation, and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of all deaths.
Speaking to MNN Centre, Minister of Water, Nkaku Kabi, said he was abreast with the water challenges facing Mapholaneng community and promised to work with relevant stakeholders to address the crisis.
During its two-day visit to the township, MNN Centre learned that it has become even difficult for villagers to comply with World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 guidelines on frequent washing of hands under running water due to limited access to clean water.
Lengoasa went on to say their unbearable water shortages forced them to stray from Covid-19 guidelines.
“I cannot come to the river or public tap at just to keep up with the guidelines. I safe water and that doesn’t mean I haven’t heard anything about the importance of keeping my family safe from the virus,” he said.
Lengoasa said many people have resorted to very strict rations of water, limiting how much water to drink, use for laundry and toilets.
“We hope that one day the government will bring us access to clean water through Water and Sewage Company (WASCO) and let every household to have access to reliable prepaid water taps,” she added.
Lengoasa’s sentiments were corroborated by Sekonyela who said his subjects were ready to pay for WASCO-supplied water.
Another resident, Thabo Tekane, who was walking from the Mapholaneng river pushing a wheelbarrow carrying drums filled with said “although this river seems to have become a relief for us it still poses a threat to our children because it is not a protected water source”.
“It is scary and disturbing because we are afraid that our children will drown in the river while fetching water,” he said.
Mohlolo Tau, another resident said the water situation in Mapholaneng has become terrible so much that people from villages far from the river have to walk 7 to 10 kilometres every-day to get water.
“Going up and down fetching water has become this area’s main activity. Instead of doing productive work to improve lives of people residing in Mapholaneng we waste a lot of time on the road fetching water,” Tau said.
He also emphasised that shortages of water make it rather difficult for the community to adhere to hygienic conditions required by health experts to contain the spread of diseases not only Covid-19.
“For example, we are expected to wash our hands every-time after using the toilet but we end up reusing hand washing water to avoid running out of water making us prone to water borne diseases, not only Covid-19,” Tau further explained.
With many people crowding at Mapholaneng river to draw water, wash clothes or herd-boys taking animals for drinking, implementing social distancing seemed to have become impossible.
Ministry of Health’s District Environmental Health Officer Thabelang Seleke told MNN Centre that the plan to have access to clean water for Mapholaneng residents is long overdue.
He said water crisis in that area has been going on for a long time so much that when schools are open, girls at Mapholaneng High School suffer because their school time get wasted on long queues for water at the two public taps.
Although Minister Kabi did not give out a clear plan on how the government was going to provide Mapholaneng with access to sufficient and clean water, he said government will honour the community’s plea and set up a WASCO water supply system for the residents. “Not only the people of Mapholaneng will benefit from bringing WASCO taps in this area but the government will also generate revenue that will be used to make other developments in the area,” Kabi concluded.