NEWSDAY: The ongoing construction of Polihali Dam has been blamed for the spiking teenage pregnancy in the project implementation areas like Mapholaneng in Mokhotlong. What is LHDA’s view on this?
MB: It is imperative to note that the well-being of communities that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is present in is the top priority of the project. Secondly, when it comes to issues of Public Health, Community Health, and especially those of Adolescent Girls and Young Women, we are especially sensitive to how we approach them, and what mitigations we facilitate to address them. Unfortunately, some of the allegations that have been levelled against the LHWP on this issue have not been entirely substantiated by direct evidence.
Perhaps before we delve deeper into that it is important to state that the LHWP Phase II planning process entailed extensive environmental and social impact assessment studies. These included a Public Health Baseline Study (PHBS) that determined the baseline health status of the would-be-affected communities and the level of existing health services in the project area.
Furthermore, a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), which provided data on the prevailing health outcomes of the population before the commencement of the project was conducted between 2018 and 2019. The HIA revealed that the district of Mokhotlong was already experiencing a high rate of school dropout rate, early/child marriage, and teenage pregnancy as high as the national average (24 percent) and an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate that is three percent higher than the national average. These worrisome public health and social outcomes are a chronic ailment of Lesotho as a whole, and I only highlight them here to show that, even before there was the presence of LHWP construction workers in the district to any substantive degree, concerning trends were already present in the district.
More important to this however, is for all of us to acknowledge that population movements and migration patterns, and numbers can have an impact on the socio-economic outcomes of any region, and that is precisely why the HIA was conducted and it birthed the Public Health Action Plan (PHAP), which is an integral part of the Phase II implementation of the project.
The plan entails extensive programs that the project is supporting and will support, through the guidance and help of the Ministry of Health, to amplify the Ministry’s existing interventions in the district. Some of the already implemented activities under this were highlighted above.
NEWSDAY: Is there anything that the Authority is doing to tackle such negative social challenges blamed on the project?
MB: Yes, the LHDA is implementing various activities across the breadth of the project to mitigate against any negative impacts of the project. The project prioritizes concrete action that produces a positive socio-economic impact in communities more than anything when it comes to our social development approach.
On the public health front, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between LHDA and the Ministry of Health, clearly states the mandate and the extent of involvement of each organisation in the project area. Based on the MoU, LHDA inputs will support and strengthen the existing health services provision in the project catchment areas in partnership with the MOH. The purpose of the collaboration is for the ultimate sustainability of the LHDA inputs under Phase II of the LHWP. The LHDA, through the MoU, takes part in MoH National Steering Committee as District Steering Committee.
So far, the LHDA is already taking part in the Ministry of Health’s activities, which are also the core areas of priority under the MoU, these include the Monthly Outreach Programme, School Health Programme, Water and Sanitation Programme, Livelihood Restoration Measures, Support for Capacity Building activities for Village Health Workers, Surveillance and Monitoring, Health Education, Infrastructure Development for the Ministry; and with focus on Sexually Transmitted Infections including HIV/AIDS; Trauma and Injuries; Maternal and Child Health, Adolescent Health, Health of the elderly and the infirm, Non-communicable diseases, Human trafficking, Health Management Information System as well as others.
Under Sustainable Livelihoods Improvement, the Skills Testing and Accreditation Programme mentioned earlier is one of the most impactful ways the project contributes to meaningfully and directly to the needs in project areas. The financial literacy programme LHDA implements in partnership with many financial services providers from banking, insurance, mobile money and others, ensures that beneficiaries of project compensation funds have the requisite knowledge and skills they need to invest in the right financial vehicles and develop sound business enterprises that can sustain them for a long time to come. These are just a few of the many ways in which we ensure that action on the ground, speaks volumes in addressing and mitigating any challenges that may result from the project’s impact.
NEWSDAY: Many communities living around the project reservoirs wish to have access to the LHWP water to change their uninspiring socio-economic status. Is it possible for communities to have access to the collected and reserved water?
MB: Yes, it is possible for communities to have access to the collected water. Article 4 of the Treaty signed by Lesotho and South Africa allows each party to undertake ancillary developments in its territory, including:
• Provision of water for irrigation, potable water supply and other uses
• Development of other electricity projects
• Development of tourism, fisheries and other economic and social development projects
What is crucial to highlight however is that there are mandated government authorities and branches in Lesotho that oversee and implement projects such as rural water supply, electricity connectivity and distribution and other utilities. Whilst the project supports and facilitates these developments as far as its mandate, authority and resources allow, there are governing processes and bodies that it must be enabled by. Thankfully, we have close relationships with these stakeholders, and where the relevant resources are made available by them, the project plays its role in ensuring equitable access to communities. Some communities that are project-affected elect to use the communal compensation facility to invest in these developments and in such cases as well the LHDA facilitates those to happen.
NEWSDAY: Contractors engaged in LHWP construction works often run into labour-related conflicts with their workers. These conflicts usually manifest into industrial actions and court cases, which can cause production delays and also taint the image of the project. What role does the LHDA play to help in the resolution of such disputes?
MB: In this matter is important to note that, whilst the LHDA is the overarching project overseer, industrial action between the employer (contractor) and their employees, remains largely the responsibility of those parties to resolve. However, the LHDA as the implementing authority responsible for the implementation of the LHWP, we are concerned about any factors that may affect the Project’s progress and always play the role of mediator in urging the parties to resolve the matter expeditiously. Principally, however, the contractor, the employees, and the Ministry of Labour through its various departments are the first line of consultation for those types of matters.
Under Labour and Recruitment Issues, learnings from Phase I of the project inspired the LHDA to double down on contractor compliance, and equity clauses within our contracts with contractors, which would ensure that all workers within the project are treated fairly, compensated adequately, and all those with interest to participate in the project given sufficient opportunity to do so.
The first line of defence in governing the labour and recruitment processes of the LHWP is the laws of the Kingdom of Lesotho. Any breach of the Constitution of Lesotho, the Labour Code of Lesotho, and any other related acts within the law is an intolerable offence to the project.
In addition to the laws of the country, the LHDA has established Labour Recruitment Guidelines which clearly stipulate procedures to be followed in the employment of unskilled labour, (a category that is now entirely reserved for Basotho) and other labour categories, in line with Article 7(17) of the Treaty and Article 11 of the Agreement on Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project between the Government of the Kingdom of Lesotho and the Government of the Republic of South Africa.
In addition, the project has established what is known as the Project Labour Recruitment Desk (PLRD), whose sole purpose in the project is to ensure transparent, fair and equitable employment of Basotho within the project, both within project areas and nationwide. The PLRD is an independent 3rd part organization that liaises with the Area Liaison Committees (ALCs), Chiefs, Community Councils and all relevant parties to facilitate the recruitment of labour for the project to respond to the labour requirements of contractors. The PLRD also meet with the ALCs of the community structures at agreed times to report on the progress made in the recruitment of labour and to disclose any pertinent information on the recruitment of labour; convening employment and industrial relations forums to address any issues related to recruitment within the project. This has been an extremely effective mechanism for the project to ensure equitable and transparent recruitment opportunities for Basotho within the project.
NEWSDAY: Given the well-documented problems of Lesotho’s justice system, is it possible for the LHDA to influence the setting up of a dedicated legal body to expedite the resolution of all its law-related challenges?
MB: While that is a noble sentiment, the LHDA is mandated to implement the Lesotho Highlands Water Project in accordance with the laws of Lesotho and where there are legal disputes, it will continue to use the country’s justice system. LHDA’s existing internal legal function is there for the purpose of ensuring that the authority has the requisite insight, guidance and legal consultation to implement and oversee implementation according to the governing laws and legal instruments of the country.
NEWSDAY: The implementation of LWHP II will displace the endangered southern bald ibis and the bearded vulture from their natural habitat as the Polihali dam water is expected to inundate their habitat. Due to the project, the bald ibis, whose Sesotho name is Mokhotlong, could be forced to relocate out of Mokhotlong, the district named after it. What is the LHDA doing to conserve these two endangered birds such that their survival will be guaranteed and their numbers in the wild increased?
MB: The LHDA is implementing a Biodiversity Management Plan to create a healthy balance between social and economic needs and ensure the protection of biodiversity and the environment at large. The plan entails interventions to protect the bird population in the LHWP catchment areas with a focus on the Bearded Vulture and the Southern Bald Ibis, both identified as critically endangered species.
Key to the conservation plan is sensitising communities to the factors that contribute to the demise of the species. Another major, ongoing intervention includes the establishment of captive breeding populations for the Bearded Vulture. This entails collecting its eggs from nesting territories in Lesotho and South Africa. The eggs are delivered to a captive breeding facility in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa where they are hatched in incubators and the chicks are raised in a protected environment. These birds are then released into the wild at the appropriate time.
Other interventions to save the bearded vulture and the southern bald ibis and other bird species include realigning the routes of power lines constructed as part of Phase II, to minimise collisions.
A species monitoring programme is one of the conservation measures implemented under the biodiversity management plan. It includes the use of satellite tracking devices to provide data on the location of the birds, their forage preferences and movement patterns.
This will be very useful when the project gets to a stage of dam impoundment where the habitats of the species may be impacted, and insights will already be in place in terms of what to expect for their movements and migration.
The LHDA is implementing the conservation programmes with partners such as Birdlife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and relevant government departments from both Lesotho and South Africa.
NEWSDAY: There is a growing feeling among the public that LHDA must avail its tourism facilities to private operators for maximised economic impact. What is the LHDA’s view on this?
MB: As the implementing agency for a project owned by both the government of Lesotho and the Republic of South Africa, the LHDA’s governing processes and instruments required that some of the assets developed under Phase I of the project be handed over to the relevant government authorities and ministries at the end of Phase I, which they have been. So in essence, this would be a consideration made rather by the government of Lesotho as the owner of the LHWP, as opposed to the LHDA directly. This has been an ongoing conversation with regard to Phase II considerations, and we are continually open to receiving insights on the means of improving outcomes under Phase II based on Phase I learnings, as has been indicated by many of the responses above.