The impressive mountains that overwhelm us with their sheer size and power shaped the lives of the people who lived amongst them for millennia, but recently, people have begun to shape the mountains to meet the needs for water, power, land and trade. The engineering exploits which can be seen in the region do not fail to inspire as a symbol of humanity's achievements in the face of great odds, however, they also serve as a sober reminder of humanity's capacity to create and destroy.
The village of Mokhotlong, high in the Eastern Highlands of Lesotho, was once referred to by the British as the “remotest outpost of the colonial service”. It was reached by the British using horses and mules, following the route of the now world-famous Sani Pass. The story of its construction is wonderfully told by David Alexander in his book “Sani Pass – Riding the Dragon”. He recalls the moment when the first vehicle topped the pass – an ordeal that involved many people and “plenty of rope”. While the road has developed since those early days, Sani is still an exhilaratingly rugged pass, sometimes closed during winter due to snowfalls. Going up the pass requires the use of 4-wheel drive vehicles. The road link is an important one, especially for the Basotho, who come into South Africa to repair the road when parts of the pass are washed away by heavy rains .
Water for export
While trade spurred on the development of Sani Pass, there was another commodity that gave rise to massive investment and infrastructure – water!
Southern Africa is on average a dry region, with most of its rain falling over a relatively small land area. The Maloti Drakensberg Mountains are one of just four areas where rainfall significantly exceeds evaporation. For a long time Gauteng, the industrial centre of southern Africa, has been unable to meet its demand for water from its own rivers and has relied on water transfers from rivers and dams in other areas. In 1986 a treaty was signed between the governments of South Africa and Lesotho paving the way for the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. This would allow Lesotho to export its water to South Africa. The Maloti Drakensberg region presently supplies approximately 50 per cent of Gauteng’s water.
What is the LHWP?
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project makes use of the rivers and catchment areas of the Lesotho Highlands to deliver high quality water into two massive reservoirs – Katse Dam, which holds 1950 million cubic metres of water, and Mohale Dam, holding 950 million cubic metres. Water from these dams is delivered into the South African water distribution system. This water earns royalties for Lesotho and generates hydropower at the ‘Muela Power Station.
Before work could begin on the dams it was necessary to build the roads and other facilities that would be required for the construction activities. Lesotho would benefit from these new roads, which could be paid off over time with the revenues derived from selling the water.
The challenge in building the access roads was not only the ruggedness and remoteness of the terrain, but also sensitivities regarding community-owned land through which the roads were planned. On numerous occasions the proposed route was changed to accommodate community wishes.
The Mafika Lisiu Pass is a dramatic section of access road. This road crosses Katse Dam about halfway up its length via the famous Malibamatso Bridge. This bridge, soaring 86 metres above the valley floor when it was built, now passes just above the waters of Katse Dam.
The LHWP comprises 3 major dams and a large weir (the Matsoku Weir). Katse Dam is by far the largest, built in the valley of the Malibamatso River just below its confluence with the Bokong River. The massive dam wall is built of 21⁄4 million cubic metres of reinforced concrete, laid between 1993 and 1997.
Mohale Dam is a rock-fill dam with a concrete lining on the upstream side of the wall. It is connected to Katse Dam by a 31 km tunnel which allows water to flow from Mohale to Katse. The ‘Muela Hydropower Station, fed from Katse Dam, empties into the ‘Muela “tailpond” dam, a reservoir which holds the water before it finally flows into the Ash River in South Africa.
A magnificent feature of high dams is the potential they have to generate electricity. When released in a controlled manner the energy of a large body of water can be used to drive large turbines which turn electricity generators. ‘Muela’s hydro-electric power station has three turbines which together generate 72 MW of power. This is almost enough power to meet Lesotho’s electricity demand year-round – and in summer months more than enough, allowing the extra power to be exported.
In addition to the LHWP, South Africa’s water and electrical power needs are boosted by Sterkfontein Dam and the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme. Water at the top of the escarpment is used to generate power as it flows down to a holding dam at the bottom. When there is spare capacity on the power grid, this is used to pump the water up again. The system can be thought of as a rechargeable battery for storing excess electrical power.
Impact on the people
The LHWP has, as one of its goals, to “promote the general development of the remote and underdeveloped mountain regions of Lesotho”. Improved roads and infrastructure have provided many people with better transport, education and health facilities. In addition, tourism has been given a major boost. The project has undoubtedly been of huge benefit to Lesotho’s economy.
However, many people were removed from their homes and land to make way for the dams. This has left people feeling destitute and hopeless, and some feel that compensation has been inadequate and delayed. The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority is challenged with the ongoing development needed in the affected communities. Local people who worked on the project need training to apply these skills elsewhere. Income-generating development initiatives are being pursued and the LHDA provides training in sustainable agriculture.
The flooding of valleys to create huge dams had obvious environmental impacts. As part of its compensation to Lesotho, the LHWP has funded the development of a number of conservation areas: Katse Botanical Gardens, Bokong Nature Reserve, Ts’ehlanyane National Park and ‘Muela Reserve, as well as the Liphofung Cave and Cultural Historic Site.
The Maloti Drakensberg region forms a key water catchment area, and good vegetation cover is important in trapping and slowly releasing the rainwater. Local communities must be empowered to take responsibility for and maintain the integrity of the catchment area. This involves training people in land care and effective farming methods, and developing awareness of environmental threats such as pollution and soil erosion.