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Early, meaningful consultations with communities are a crucial part of designing highlands water projects – LHDA

Business

Last month His Majesty King Letsie III, Prime Minister Ntsokoane Sam Matekane and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa jointly launched Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) in Mokhotlong. Phase II of the LHWP comprises the construction of the Polihali Dam and reservoir, water transfer tunnel and the associated access roads, bridges, accommodation, electrical transmission lines and telecommunications infrastructure. The LHWP Phase II builds on the successful completion of Phase I in 2003. LHWP is a partnership between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa dating back to a treaty agreed upon by the two governments in 1986 to supply water to the Vaal River System, which ensures water security for Gauteng, the Free State, the Northern Cape and the North West and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho.

This week Newsday had a sit-down with Mpho Brown, the Public Relations Manager of the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) – an authority set up to manage that part of the project that falls within Lesotho’s borders – to discuss the project.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

NEWSDAY: The LHDA has adopted a new approach that focuses more on its relationship with the people during the ongoing implementation of the second phase of the LWHP. What has influenced this change?

MPHO BROWN (MB): Whilst Phase I of the project was implemented with a lot of expertise and everything in line with internationally established standards, the realities of implementing a project of this magnitude and complexity for the first time came with a lot of learnings, setbacks, missed opportunities and areas of improvement which could have only been exposed through on-the-ground learning through action and experience.

Before implementing Phase II, LHDA spent an extensive amount of time processing those learnings, mistakes, gaps and areas of improvement from Phase I, intently studying them to ensure that Phase II of the project does not repeat similar mistakes, and is executed much more smoothly, with the benefits of those experiences from Phase I.

The insight that early, deep and meaningful consultations with communities are a crucial part of designing the project is one of the key learnings from Phase I. That is why the focus on community participation, co-creation of solutions and programmes for the benefit of the communities, and engagement structures and forums that allow continuous consultation, are a key part of the way LHDA is implementing Phase II.

As part of Phase II planning, environmental and social impacts assessment (ESIA) processes were conducted and subjected to external independent review before environmental authorizations and records of decision (RoD) were issued by the Department of Environment.

These assessments resulted in a lot of key findings, which informed the LHDA of what some of the most impactful programmes might be to ensure adequate beneficiation and mitigation against any untoward impacts of the project. The LHDA is implementing several social and environmental programmes recommended by the ESIA studies, to protect and restore the environment, respect the Project affected communities’ culture and heritage, as well as restore and improve livelihoods.

NEWSDAY: In line with the people-oriented approach, what are some of the challenges and achievements worth highlighting to date?

MB: The LHWP, like other large scale infrastructure projects in the region, has faced challenges. Some of the issues that plagued the project under Phase I include community protests related to community complaints, delayed compensation payments, employment and business opportunities, and few others. In light of that, LHDA has taken concrete steps to eliminate where possible, and to minimize these under the current implementation: Underpinning the management of challenges is a commitment to engaging with stakeholders.

To tackle community complaints, the LHDA has established Area Liaison Committees (ALC) in all project area communities. These are structures that were established by the LHDA in consultation with the communities, and they include representation from both the project, community leadership, and community representatives elected by the communities themselves.

These structures serve to improve community participation in project activities, ensure an ongoing forum for issue identification and resolution, receiving and managing complaints, and ensuring accountability of the project to the needs of the community and vice versa.

The LHDA has also put in place a robust project complaints management system, which enables all members of the public to lodge complaints. It closely monitors the management process to ensure that consultants and contractors effectively manage specific complaints relating to their work and people are given feedback. Every step of the process is documented and recorded.

Whilst these interventions have been effective, there is continuous need to ensure and expand the robustness and effectiveness of both overtime to improve our partnerships with all communities during the life of the project.

On compensation, one of the most critical things to explain when discussing compensation relating to the LHWP is that a) there is a difference between compensation payments processes and related issues that fall under Phase I of the Project, and those that fall under Phase II of the project. It is also important to clarify recent and common misinformation that the LHDA does not consult affected individuals and households sufficiently on compensation issues. Before any movement on compensation, extensive consultations occur with those affected both at the household level and at the community level. Any insinuation that it does not happen is factually incorrect.

Secondly, it is crucial to explain that households have the freedom to select between cash-based and in-kind compensation for their assets, and for cash compensation they have the option to select up-front lump sum payment for all assets or annual payments for their assets for a period of 50 years. The misconception here has been that LHDA decides what kind of compensation to pay households and for how much, which is not correct.

Under Phase II – consultations with affected households on compensation options have largely been completed.

The LHDA has implemented alternative strategies to address compensation delays, which were a major pain point under Phase I caused by various issues. One of the strategies is a phased handover of the construction sites to contractors, where assets that are required by contractors for preliminary works are acquired first, and only handed over to contractors after they have been paid.

It must be noted that in cases where the Project needs to access people’s properties before payment has been issued, the LHDA consults the specific owners of the affected properties and an agreement is reached with them allowing the LHDA access to the land whilst payment is being expedited. This has been a crucial part of misinformation in recent reports where allegations claim that the project confiscates community assets without payment or regard for the owners, that is factually incorrect. 

LHDA is pleased with the significant progress made in compensation payments for assets affected by the advance infrastructure projects. Payments have also commenced for assets affected by the Senqu, the Polihali Dam and Polihali Transfer Tunnel, preliminary works.

It is important to note that compensation is an ongoing process and does not happen simultaneously for all affected households. And, so we acknowledge the responsibility to ensure that all assets that are due for compensatory payment at any given point, are paid off before they are impacted, and we further commit to ensure sure that adequate consultation and agreement is in place where that condition is not met.

On 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 recruitment of labor for the project to respond to the labor requirements of contractors. The PLRD also meet with the ALCs of the community structures at agreed times to report on the progress made in recruitment of labour and to disclose any pertinent information on 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.

The recruitment guidelines that underpin the work of the PLRD are based on the need for a transparent and auditable recruitment process and a fair distribution of opportunities. An independent consultant manages the Labour Recruitment Desk and works closely with community structures to compile lists of unskilled workers from the villages/electoral divisions around the project area seeking work on the Project. Unskilled labour is drawn from these lists upon requests from the contractors.

The LHDA plays an oversight role in the employment process to ensure compliance with the Phase II Labour Recruitment Guidelines.

Awareness campaigns on these and other messages relating to labour recruitment were done well ahead of the beginning of work and continue to go on today; they play a key role in the decreasing incidents of industrial action and labour-related community complaints. The LHDA continues to work with communities and other stakeholders to increase knowledge of the Phase II labour recruitment guidelines.

National registration of unskilled labour and the randomization process were successfully undertaken in 2022.

The rotation of labour to provide more employment opportunities for a greater segment of the population has successfully been undertaken. In general, unskilled workers are employed for periods of between 12 and 18 months, based on the project duration and location.

The persistent feelings that not enough is being done in this regard are well noted by the LHDA and we continue to strive for improvement in making information available to all Basotho of the opportunities the LHWP holds for them.

Some of the most important Phase II achievements include the resettlement planning programme, labour recruitment process and socio-economic programmes.  Phase I of the project taught the LHDA that sound planning when it comes to resettlement is critical to successful implementation. Our approach to this particular issue now has led to some very useful strategies and we have been able to implement some of them.

•        All assets to be affected by Phase II have been successfully registered and verified and compensation offers approved for a majority of them.

•        Consultations with affected and yet to be affected households on compensation options have largely been completed, households have the freedom to select between cash based and in-kind compensation for their assets, and for cash compensation they have the option to select up front lump sum payment for all assets, or annual payments for their assets for a period of 50 years.

•        Consultations with households to be affected by resettlement on; preferred relocation sites, village lay out, replacement houses design and other parameters have largely been completed.

•        Important to note here is also the extensive consultation that happens with the villages were relocated households are to be moved to, to ensure cordial assimilation and acceptance of the new villagers. LHDA makes great effort to consult with those to be relocated on the pros and cons of relocation too far out of their regions of origin, highlighting issues such as loss of community anchoring, support structures and vast differences in ways of life that can be a disadvantage to those who elect to move too far from their places of origin, or from rural to urban regions. However, the LHDA does not restrict choice of relocation as long as comparable space and arrangements can be agreed to with the host community.

•        Every possible step is taken – in consultation with the community and the multi-disciplinary project team, to limit the impact of the project on the people in the project area.  For example, the Polihali Western Access Road (PWAR) was significantly realigned to minimise the relocation of households.

Phase II Socio-environmental programmes.

The LHDA in collaboration with various stakeholders and the affected communities is implementing programmes to protect the environment and improve people’s livelihoods. The livelihoods restoration programme offers support to affected households through projects of their choice with advice from LHDA and external experts. These also include trainings under programmes such as the financial literacy programme, the skills testing and accreditation programme, enterprise development, farm and off-farm-based trainings and market linkages, all intended to support the restoration of sustainable livelihoods for those impacted by the project.

Other programmes include:

•        Skills testing and accreditation – This flagship socio-economic programme of the project has graduated approximately 900 community members from the Seate, Menoaneng and Mokhotlong urban community councils, whose building skills were tested in 2022 and 2023 received certificates. The programme is intended to ensure that those with the requisite skills, but with no previous accreditation or certificates for their skills, can receive such accreditation and be able to access employment within the LHWP and all across the SADC region where these certificates are recognized. The programme is implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Training through the TVD department.

•        Public health – outreach, capacity building and school health initiatives continue to be implemented as part of the Public Health Action Plan. Just last week the project handed over 20 Laptops, 12 Tablets, 500 freezer Suits, 500 backpacks and 500 umbrellas to Village Health Workers and Health Centres around the Phase II LHWP catchment areas as part of an ongoing MoU with the Ministry of Health to support the implementation and delivery of the Ministry’s interventions in the district of Mokhotlong.

•        Integrated Catchment Management – rangeland rehabilitation in nine Polihali subcatchments (Malingoaneng, MotÅ¡eremeli, Likhameng, Matlakeng, Malubalube)

•        Biodiversity management – monitoring the endangered bird species and the Maluti minnow in the Polihali catchment, to prevent extinction

•        Cultural heritage protection – documenting the tangible and intangible cultural aspects of the project and implementing strategies to protect them.

NEWSDAY: There is still a lingering issue around what is described as LHDA’s paltry compensation rates and the number of years to which communities feel entitled. What is the current situation on the LHDA standoff with the communities?

MB: Individuals/Households are compensated for all assets acquired by the project:  fruit trees, fields, medicinal plants, thickets, business premises, homesteads etc. Compensation rates are determined for each asset class. The rates ascribed to each asset class are a product of a long consultative process between the Government of Lesotho’s relevant authorities in that asset class, the LHDA and the communities. These rates are governed by legal instruments of the Lesotho Government, the most recent of which are the LHWP Regulations updates and gazetted in 2017. The comprehensive consultation process that takes place with affected communities and households to determine the value of assets, register and eventually approve compensation amounts, is thorough and rigorous, and we believe that in many cases, the agreements reached are equitable.

Important to note also is that all asset compensation rates and values are escalated every year by the applicable consumer price index to ensure that agreed-upon compensation amounts and assets do not lose real value over time.

The element of the length of the compensation period is admittedly contentious in public discourse now; however, from consultation with both affected parties and governing authorities in the past, this period was deemed a sufficient period for project-affected households, through the support of the LHWP’s livelihoods restoration and improvement programmes, to have built up, and operationalized successfully, other, alternative methods of livelihoods. There are, admittedly challenging debates to be had on this issue and the LHDA continues to engage and absorb insight and feedback on the matter.

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