January 23, 2003

Thousands of Basotho without income after dam completed

Thousands of Lesotho households have been left without a regular income after the completion of the Mohale Dam and with it the first phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

This is now placing pressure not only on the local labour market in Lesotho, but also on surrounding labour markets in South Africa, says George van der Merwe, spokesman for the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), which runs the South African part of the project. Commencement of the project's second phase, which should provide employment opportunities for these workers again, has been postponed indefinitely due to a lower than estimated water demand from South Africa. The second phase is not expected to start for at least another 10 years, Van der Merwe says.

With the completion of the Mohale Dam last year, around 8000 workers lost their jobs in the subsequent downsizing. These included some of the thousands who earlier lost their jobs after completion of the Katse Dam and its supporting infrastructure during phase 1a, but who were absorbed again in the project's labour force for the construction of phase 1b.

The mountain kingdom's unemployment predicament is being intensified by the ongoing downsizing of the mining labour force in South Africa. For decades migrant workers from Lesotho have been making a living on South African mines, providing for their families at home. "Every day you hear of more and more Lesotho workers who were retrenched on the mines and who had to return home," says South African engineer Leon Tromp, who works as an alternate delegate with the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) in Maseru.

Since construction of the Highlands Water Project's first phase started in the early 90s, the LHDA, which manages the Lesotho part of the project, became the largest job supplier in the country. Thousands of Basotho were employed and trained during the building of the Katse and Mohale dams, kilometres of underground tunnels for the transport of the dammed water to South Africa and a large amount of supporting infrastructure, including roads. Only the number of direct jobs for Basotho created during phase one were more than 14000. The Basotho labour cost amounted to R656 million. Basotho consultants earned R185 million. The local economy was boosted by an estimated R2,1 billion.

Now it is hoped that the retrenched workers who do not find new jobs in Lesotho, will spread to the rest of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, using their new skills to find work.

However, the reality is that a number of families right across Lesotho are currently in jeopardy, Van der Merwe says. Some of them may again be able to secure a livelihood through the new Lesotho Lowlands Project, a joint socio-economic development initiative by the Lesotho and South African governments. The key aim of this project is to supply water to Maseru, the surrounding areas in the Lesotho Lowlands and the eastern Free State towns along the border with South Africa. According to Tromp the first construction work of the project -- an extensive water supply network including dams and pipelines -- should start at the earliest in 2006. Preliminary studies are now being done. The construction of an interim dam, the Metolong Dam outside Maseru, may already begin as early as 2005. It is hoped that this project will solve Maseru's water shortage problem, providing enough water for industries such as the city's denim mill. Lesotho, which has a preferential contract to export denim clothes to the United States, is currently the third largest producer of denim clothes in the world.

Parallel to the Lowlands Project, the LHDA is also still committed to job creation in Lesotho, through alternative projects such as an ongoing skills development program. One example is the training of women in dress-making and knitting. These women make, among others, school uniforms -- an important issue in Lesotho with its British schooling tradition. The construction of roads to isolated villages in the Highlands is also continuing. These roads service households that were resettled by the LHDA to make way for the Katse and Mohale dams. The construction is labour intensive and communities are being trained to build and maintain high quality gravel roads by hand. The LHDA is also introducing high-valued alternative crops, such as seed potatoes, giant garlic and paprika, among the resettled subsistence farmers, aiming to boost their agricultural income. (SAPA, Johannesburg)

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