November 28, 2006

Call to broaden scope of dam construction bribery probe

A local nongovernmental organisation (NGO) has called for the scope of an ongoing corruption investigation into tenders allocated in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), the world's largest water transfer operation, to be broadened. The call followed as public hearings into the grievances of residents affected by construction of the Katse dam, one of two built under the LHWP, draw to a close in December. "The hearings have revealed corruption at a lower level, where villagers have claimed that they were asked to bribe officials involved in relocating them," said Mabusetsa Lenka, of the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), an NGO fighting for the rights of communities displaced by the multi-dam project. Lenka said at least 37,000 people in about 20 villages had been affected.

Mohale and Katse dams, the first phase of the project, were built on the Senqunyane river in the Thabaputsoa mountain range in southern Lesotho at a cost of US$4 billion, to supply water to neighbouring South Africa's rapidly expanding industrial hub in Gauteng Province.
The TRC pointed out that allegations of corruption have plagued the project, but compensation had yet to be paid to some residents displaced by construction. More than 30,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers, affected by the building work had to opt for either an annual compensation of between $49 and $290 for 50 years or a lump sum payment of up to $13,000.

The NGO's appeal was made as a bribery case against a Lesotho official involved with the construction of the dams continued in the country's High Court. Reatile Mochebelele, Lesotho's former representative to the Highlands Water Commission (LHWC), and his deputy, Letlafuoa Molapo, have been accused of accepting a bribe to the value of about $163,965 from Germany's largest engineering consultancy, Lahmeyer International.
Several companies involved in the project have been investigated after allegations of corruption and bribery. Lahmeyer, the second firm to be convicted, was fined more than a $1 million in 2003 for paying a bribe to an official. Acres International, a Canadian construction firm, was convicted of bribery in 2002. Acres maintained it was not aware that money paid to its local representative, the now-deceased Zalisiwonga Bam, was being passed on to the former head of LHWP, Masupha Sole, who is serving a 15-year prison term.

Earlier this month, the World Bank declared Lahmeyer ineligible to be awarded Bank-financed contracts for a period of seven years because of corrupt activities in connection with the LHWP. The Bank said it could reduce the period of ineligibility by four years if Lahmeyer cooperated in "disclosing past sanctionable misconduct". World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz lauded the Lesotho government for its courage and leadership in prosecuting its own officials and several large foreign companies for corruption. "Institutions like the World Bank, and the governments of rich countries, should support the bold stance of poor countries like Lesotho, which are working to make sure that precious public resources go to help the poor, for whom they are intended." The four phases of the LHWP are expected to be completed in 2015, provided funds are made available in time. (IRIN)

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