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Water exports vs. Water inequalities: The paradox of Lesotho’s water wealth


Kabelo Tjeketsi

Lesotho is blessed with abundant water resources, so much so that it’s able to export water to neighboring South Africa. But despite this wealth, many of Lesotho’s own citizens struggle with water access and quality, leading to questions about the fairness of water distribution and pricing.

While the water exports have brought revenue to the country, they’ve also exacerbated water inequalities within Lesotho itself. In rural areas, some households still rely on unsafe drinking water sources, and many struggle to access water for agriculture and other livelihood activities.

Meanwhile, in urban areas, water bills can be prohibitively expensive, especially for low-income households. This raises the question of whether Lesotho’s water wealth is truly benefiting its citizens or if it’s being unfairly exploited for the benefit of foreign countries.

The water inequalities in Lesotho have significant impacts on the health, livelihoods, and overall quality of life of its citizens. Children are particularly vulnerable to waterborne illnesses caused by contaminated water sources, leading to high rates of diarrhea and other diseases.

Women and girls often bear the brunt of the burden of fetching water from long distances, leaving less time for education and other productive activities. Agricultural production is also hampered by unreliable water supply, which undermines food security and rural livelihoods.

As a concerned citizen of Lesotho, I am deeply worried about the unequal distribution of water in our country. It’s unacceptable that our water wealth is being exported to other countries while many of our own people are denied access to clean, safe water.

This unequal distribution of water not only harms the health and livelihoods of our citizens but also threatens to undermine the very fabric of our society.

I believe that our government must prioritize the water needs of its people over profit from water exports. The government must also prioritise the development of water infrastructure, including water treatment plants and piped water networks, to ensure that all citizens have access to safe water.

This will require significant investments in infrastructure, but it will also lead to long-term benefits in terms of improved health and economic development.

Additionally, we as citizens must also take responsibility for conserving water and using it responsibly. This means using water wisely and reporting water leaks and other problems to the authorities as soon as possible.

By working together, we can ensure that our water wealth is used for the benefit of all, not just a few.

Indeed, the fairness of water distribution and pricing remains a critical issue for Lesotho. We must ask ourselves, why are our citizens paying for water while our water wealth is being exported to other countries? Is it fair for the people of Lesotho to bear the costs of water while others profit from it?

Furthermore, we must question the distribution of water pricing within the country itself. Why are urban households paying more for water than rural households? Is this a fair system, given that rural households often have less access to clean water?

With a population of around 2 million people, earning 80 million rands from water exports to South Africa would indeed suggest that Lesotho is not reaping the full benefits of its water wealth.

When this amount is divided among the population, it amounts to about 40 rands per person—a mere fraction of what many households spend on water each month.

Given the high cost of living in Lesotho and the lack of economic opportunities for many people, it’s clear that the country needs to find ways to better leverage its water resources to improve the lives of its citizens.

One possible solution could be for Lesotho to renegotiate its water deals with South Africa. Instead of simply selling its water at a fixed price, the government could explore ways to link the value of water exports to the economic well-being of the country as a whole.

For example, Lesotho could demand a larger share of the profits generated from water exports or invest in infrastructure projects that would create jobs and improve the quality of life for its citizens.

On the other hand, Lesotho’s water exports to South Africa through the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) represent a missed opportunity for the kingdom. Despite generating some three percent of Lesotho’s GDP and producing hydroelectric power, the project has failed to deliver significant benefits to the country’s citizens.

While the second phase of the project, the Polihali Dam, is expected to further expand water exports to South Africa, this will do little to address the water inequality and high water bills faced by Lesotho’s own people.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project serves as a stark reminder of the imbalanced nature of water trade in southern Africa.

While the region may be rich in water resources, these resources are often exploited for the benefit of wealthier, more developed countries like South Africa, leaving the citizens of countries like Lesotho to shoulder the burden of water scarcity and high prices.

The question remains: what can be done to ensure that Lesotho’s water wealth is harnessed in a way that benefits its own citizens, rather than simply serving as a resource for its neighbors?

It is essential to recognise that water is a finite resource, and Lesotho’s water wealth is a vital component of its national security and economic stability. The government must take steps to protect this valuable resource and ensure that its benefits are distributed equitably among its citizens.

One possible solution is for Lesotho to take a page from countries like Norway, which have established sovereign wealth funds to manage and invest the proceeds of their natural resource exports.

By establishing a sovereign wealth fund, Lesotho could use the revenue from its water exports to invest in infrastructure projects, support economic development, and provide social services to its citizens.

This could include investments in water treatment plants, irrigation systems, and rural development programs that improve access to clean water and enhance agricultural productivity.

Such a fund could also act as a buffer against economic shocks and ensure that Lesotho’s water wealth is managed in a sustainable and equitable way, benefiting both current and future generations of citizens.

Despite the potential benefits of a sovereign wealth fund, it’s important to acknowledge that establishing and managing such a fund will require significant political will and financial expertise.

While Lesotho’s elites may have initially viewed water exports as a means to reassert the country’s sovereignty and bolster its economy, the reality has been quite different.

The increased costs of electricity and limited access to clean water and electricity in many parts of Lesotho suggest that the country has not reaped the full benefits of its water wealth.

Nevertheless, the urgency of addressing Lesotho’s water inequality cannot be overstated. As climate change brings increasing challenges to water resources in the region, Lesotho’s leadership must act quickly and decisively to ensure that its citizens have access to clean water and that the proceeds of its water exports are used to improve the quality of life for all.

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