Lesotho : One Dollar Per Square Kilometre: Now Get Off Your Land

By Thabo Mohale

Twelve households will have to relocate when the dam reservoir floods this valley.

The construction of a two billion dollar dam in Metolong, some 35 kilometres outside of Lesotho's capital Maseru, is being welcomed by people in and around the city who will gain access to clean and safe drinking water when construction is completed in 2013.

But for 250 rural families who will lose access to land and natural resources - some will be forced to relocate to make way for roads, power lines and other infrastructural development during construction - the dam is bad news.

The Metolong Dam and Water Supply Programme (MDWSP) is aimed at improving domestic water supply in Maseru and the towns of Mazenod, Morija, Roma, and Teyateyaneng, which suffer severe water shortages, especially in winter. The dam will also boost industrial water supply for manufacturing and textile businesses.

Although the villagers say they are generally not opposed to the dam project, they demand fair compensation for their loss of land and access to natural resources. Especially hard done by are twelve households, who will have to relocate several kilometres upstream because of their proximity to the dam's reservoir. To defend their land rights and livelihoods, they have formed the Metolong Dam Committee.

The Metolong authority is currently offering an absurdly low compensation of $1 per square kilometre of arable land. In addition, it promises to invest in income-generating projects for community members. The $1 rate was set by the Lesotho government many years ago, but, according to the authority's promises, the amount might be reviewed by an external consultant.

"The $1 per square kilometre compensation means nothing to us. Most of the people here survive on land. In any case, we do not even know when we will get it," complains Metolong Dam Committee chairperson, Tefo Lefuna.

He said a few consultative meetings had been held between the committee and the Metolong Authority but "we always disagree on the issue of compensation".

It will be difficult for the villagers to claim their rights, as the dam project has a number of influential financial backers, including the Lesotho government, World Bank, Millennium Challenge Corporation, South African government, Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, Arab Bank of Development in Africa, Saudi Fund for Economic Development and Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Fund.

Maseru-based non-governmental organisation Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) says the crux of the problem is that there is no coherent national compensation policy to ensure villagers fair entitlement

Fair compensation

Metolong Authority community relations manager, Maile Maile, admits the compensation policy is still in draft form. "It is a difficult situation. We are hoping there will be a compromise between what government will eventually offer and what the villagers can accept," he said.

According to Maile, a provisional $2.8 million has been set aside to compensate villagers for communal natural resources during construction, which is expected to begin in early 2010.

Lenka Thamae, who heads the TRC's Water for Justice and Environment project, insists a compensation policy needs to be put into place first, whereas government - to avoid delays in the project - wants to start paying out compensation based on provisions of the Land Act of 1979, which sets the $1 per square kilometre standard.

Thamae mainly blames a poor consultation process for the row between the Metolong Authority and the villagers: "Although consultations are still going on, initial contact was not sufficiently done, hence villagers are still seeking clarification on some aspects of the project."

Although the core dam construction has not yet begun, a number of projects, including laying water pipelines to nine out of the 24 villages in the catchment area, construction of pit latrines and a road from Maseru to the dam site have already been undertaken, while a power line will be erected this month.

Loss of land

Apart from insisting on fair compensation, the village committee complains about unfulfilled promises of jobs, loss of farming land, grazing areas, medicinal herbs and plants as well as ancestral gravesites.

Chief Seeiso Mathealira of Metolong said the villagers had been told the project would create up to 400 jobs during construction, but now they had to find out that most labour will be hired from outside the community. "There is a lot of unemployment in this area, and many expect the project to employ them," he said.

The village committee also demands the authority to draw electricity lines right to their new homes, while Maile says they will "only make these services accessible to them and they pay for taking drawing them".

Maile, however, believes the villagers are worried without reason and promises the Metolong Authority will compensate for loss of communal land and goods: "We have held meetings with the villagers to explain that communal compensation will be paid for natural resources, such as grazing grass, bushes, fire wood, forests and inhibited access to rivers for crossing or for religious purposes."

According to Maile, the dispute revolves mainly around the fact that villagers want compensation for community resources to be paid out to them in cash, while the Metolong Authority plans to invest the money into income-generating projects for the villagers.

Dismissing the villagers' claims, Maile insists the project will ultimately leave them better off. "We are advising them to pool their resources together and start income-generating schemes, such as catering for workers at the dam, developing a botanical garden or establishing an archeological site to promote local tourism."