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Is Joburg really drinking Lesotho dry?
18 October 2016

Recent articles in the Mail & Guardian warn South Africans that using too much water has a disastrous impact on “people making sacrifices somewhere far away”. But if Johannesburg slashed its water use, would the rural poor of Lesotho really have any more?

The drought affecting most of the country for the last year or two has not escaped the environmental prophets of doom, who like to paint every whim of nature as a punishment brought upon us by our sinful prosperity.

Sipho Kings, the Mail & Guardian’s environmental reporter, has dutifully penned a pair of articles describing the plight of peasants in Lesotho, and absurdly blaming it on everyone in Johannesburg who has a green lawn.

In the article, paid for by Climate Home, a “news” project of the Climate & Development Knowledge Network, an international research and advocacy group funded by major Western governments, Kings offers a sad, emotive snapshot of people living near the Katse Dam in the highlands of Lesotho. They have little running water and suffer the same drought that has struck South Africa.

He calls the current drought, which is entering its third year, “the worst drought in living memory”, but one assumes this applies only to very young people. Droughts in South Africa and Lesotho are a routine effect of the El Niño Southern Oscillation in the Pacific, which influences weather patterns around the world. Three “very strong” El Niños are on record since 1950, which occurred in 1982/3, 1997/8 and 2015/6. As a result, we’re having the worst drought since 1982/3.

Another way to phrase this is that of the three very strong El Niños, this drought is not (yet) the worst one. South Africa’s maize yield is expected to be the worst since the low of 2007, or perhaps slightly lower, but it was even worse in 1995, 1992, 1984 and 1983, all of which were El Niño years. For relief, we’ll have to wait for the next La Niña, which has the opposite effect of El Niño. It broke the seven-year drought of the 1980s, but last occurred in 2011/12.

So it is not the worst drought in living memory, unless you’re too young to remember the 1980s.

This is not to invalidate Kings’s basic premise, that water in major cities like Johannesburg is scarce, in part due to the drought, and that consumers consequently need to use it sparingly. However, guilt-tripping the rich about poor people in Lesotho is pure nonsense.

He refers, of course, to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which was established by treaty between South Africa and the mountain kingdom. It was designed to solve one of South Africa’s biggest problems. The problem was not the country’s supposed water scarcity – although droughts have always been common – but that Johannesburg, the economic hub of the country, is the largest city in the world not to have been built on a major river or coast. Even with the best rainfall in the world, it wouldn’t have enough water to sustain its people and industry.

The project consists, so far, of the Katse Dam and Mohale Dam, which are interconnected, and supply the Muela Dam with its 72MW hydro power station. This has made Lesotho self-sufficient in power generation. From there, two tunnels supply water to South Africa, at a price that Kings reports to be R700-million per year, or 10% of that country’s entire budget.

Under ordinary circumstances, the water emerges into the Ash River north of Clarens in the Free State, which flows into the Liebenbergsvlei River, the Wilge River, and ultimately the Vaal Dam. During drought conditions, however, it can also be diverted to the Little Caledon River to supply parts of the Free State and Lesotho border towns including the capital Maseru, before flowing to the Gariep Dam on the Orange River.

Continued ....


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