Where’s the Water?
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Amos 5:24
The linking of justice and righteousness with the image of flowing water is ironic for Lesotho.
One of the few natural resources found in Lesotho is water. Unfortunately, most of it is locked up in the mountains where very few people live. Back in the 1980’s planning began on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), a multi-billion dollar project that has so far built two huge dams (one of which is 600 feet high, the tallest in Africa) in the remote interior of the country, as well as underground tunnels beneath the mountains to channel the water to South Africa where it is used in the Johannesburg area. Lesotho receives royalties of over $50 million a year for this water.
Earlier this year Lesotho and South Africa signed agreements to conduct feasibility studies concerning the development of the next phase of the project. This would involve the construction of two or three more dams, as well as additional underground tunnels, to transfer even more water to South Africa.
The irony is that in the lowlands of Lesotho, where most people live, there are chronic shortages of water. Streams, wells and springs dry up and people are often forced to walk long distances to find water. To live by a “never-failing stream” would be a godsend for people here. We are fortunate to have clean piped water in the staff houses here at Masitise. Most, if not all, of my students are not so lucky when they are at home. Collecting water every morning and evening is a task that the girls and boys do, as well as women. Rarely do you see a man carrying water. The girls and women balance 5-gallon buckets on their heads while the boys usually use a wheelbarrow to haul 20-gallon containers or larger. Often when they get to the pump or tap there will be a long line of containers already in place waiting to be filled.
With people facing water shortages in their own country, yet knowing there is a “never-failing stream” flowing from Lesotho to South Africa via the LHWP, it’s not surprising that people wonder where is the justice in such a project. Thankfully, the government of Lesotho is now making plans for a dam to provide water for the lowlands area. However, it will probably be at least a couple years before the water starts flowing. Besides providing water for household purposes there are plans to develop irrigation projects to help Lesotho grow more of the food it needs.
Depending on your point of view, the LHWP has been either a blessing or a curse. On the plus side one can say that Lesotho is now self-sufficient in electricity production. Many new roads have been built which have helped to open the interior of the country. New schools and clinics were also built and many jobs were created. On the negative side thousands of people were displaced by the dams and subsequent inundation of land. Although compensation packages were provided, there are still many claims about promises and compensation not being fulfilled. This is an ongoing matter and just a few weeks ago there was a big protest march in Maseru to raise awareness about the problems faced by the displaced people. Justice and righteousness are still being sought by the people.
I recently purchased a couple of small books which tell the stories of people who have been affected by the water project. One contains stories written by primary school students in the area of one of the dams, which relate how they and their families have been directly affected. Some of the kids praise the project for providing them with new homes and schools. Others have a decidedly opposite view telling how they no longer have their fields to grow food and life is not as good as it was in the past. The introduction in one of the books, Since the Water Came… sums up the situation by stating that the dam “…brought enormous and rapid changes to the people who live on its shores. It built roads, clinics, and schools. It provided temporary construction jobs for thousands of local people. Unfortunately, it also deprived over 20,000 people of their fields, homes, grazing land, or other property. It also facilitated the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS which was previously unknown in those areas); increased crime rates; and, generally, tore at the social fabric within the affected mountain villages.”
Shortly after reading this I read some appropriate words in Psalm 103, verse 6:
“The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.”
May we take these words and those of Amos to heart. And be thankful to God for the easy access you enjoy to safe, clean water.
Yours in Christ,
Mark Behle is a missionary with the Lesotho Evangelical Church. He is a Mathematics teacher at Masitise High School, Lesotho.