Lesotho’s water authorities threaten regional water supply

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…Audit reveals department’s failure to protect wetlands across Lesotho

By Nicole Tau

The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) has dismally failed to protect and sustainably manage Lesotho’s wetlands threatening the sustainability of the water sources of the Orange Senqu River Basin.

An audit on the management of wetlands conducted by the Office of the Auditor-General Monica Besetsa on the consolidated financial statements of the government of Lesotho for the year ended 31st March 2020 unearthed the debilitating state of wetlands management by the Department of Water Affairs in the Ministry of Water that has led to visible degradation and drying out of water sources.

Following a visit to the wetlands during the Audit, Besetsa’s Office reported non-compliance with wetland protection measures as well as failure to adequately monitor and rehabilitate them.

The Auditor General’s report said the Food and Agricultural Organization had reported that in 2017 Lesotho’s 3,055,314 hectares of land is home to wetlands covering just 32,580 hectares that the report, KDNews understands are under threat.

Among some of the discoveries of the audit are:

  • An exercise of identifying wetlands was not done,
  • GPS gadgets were non-existent hence no data regarding the number of wetlands,
  • Lack of data on the condition of wetlands as well as their size to the coverage against the entire country,
  • Department failed to produce timely reports and failed to attend to adverse situations timeously.

Besetsa’s report said an interview with the Chief Technical Officer revealed: “that monitoring activities were not undertaken on a quarterly basis due to lack of transport and that the last monitoring was done in 2013; hence no monitoring reports”.

Lesotho’s highlands that lie between 2000 and 3500 meters above sea level, according to a report on Protecting the Source of Lesotho’s ‘White Gold’, channel water into Orange Senqu River which winds its way from Lesotho through South Africa and Namibia, with tributaries stretching as far as Botswana.

The report says the shared river is “a key source of water for Southern Africa’s most economically active region, supporting large-scale irrigation, industrial activities, hydropower, urban demand, and small-scale rural activities. South Africa’s highly developed economy draws most of the water, with Gauteng deriving over 32% of its water directly from Lesotho”.

The report further adds that “Up in the highlands, a large number of wetlands or ‘sponges’ slow the flow of floodwaters, and receive, purify, and store rainwater, releasing it slowly throughout the year, ensuring the water in the rivers during the dry season”.

Several herdsmen who came forward but chose to remain anonymous told KDNews in an interview that overgrazing on wetlands is caused by a lack of cooperation from the herdsmen in areas where lack of communication negatively impacted the wetlands.

The herdmen stated in the same interview that they have lost faith in the chiefs and village counselors, claiming that the chiefs seem to thwart their every attempt to find new grazing grounds for livestock.

Khubelu Sponges
Khubelu Sponges

At an activity of the Integrated Catchment Management project in October 2020, Makhaleng Catchment Manager, Motlalepula Letsoela told KDNews that in order to protect and preserve the wetlands, they would educate wetland surrounding communities on the importance of protecting the wetlands and the methods for doing so.

Section 4 (b) of Lesotho Water Act, 2008 stipulates that the Commissioner should, in collaboration with relevant water management institutions, take all relevant and necessary steps to rehabilitate damaged wetlands.

However, the Auditor General’s report has revealed that the exercise of even identifying wetlands was not carried out, and GPS devices were previously non-existent at the department until very recently resulting in a lack of data or reporting on the number of wetlands, their conditions, or their coverage across the entire country area.

“Selection of wetlands to be monitored was based on their economic importance, degradation status as well as ease of accessibility,” Besetsa’s report said.

The Department’s Chief Technical Officer said the monitoring activities were not carried out on a quarterly basis due to lack of transportation and that the most recent monitoring was carried out in 2013.

Besetsa’s report unveiled that “It was only with the support of Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) that some monitoring and rehabilitation was done on the wetlands in Mokhotlong at the source of Senqu basin, namely Khubelu, Phapong, Ramotsetsa, Motseremeli, Khalo la Lithunya and Kotisephola”.

Letseng-la-Letsie and Associated vegetation and environment
Letseng-la-Letsie and Associated vegetation and environment

The Auditor-General report revealed that the Department also neglected Lesotho’s only Ramsar site, Letšeng-la-Letšie.

A Ramsar Site is a wetland designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention and the Audit revealed the wetland lacked both protection laws and protection measures such as fencing and security guards.

In June 2021, His Majesty King Letsie III with the support of the European Union, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) with the implementation led by GIZ, launched an intervention-driven project “Renoka” (We are A River), with the goal of promoting sustainable management of land and water resources through the implementation of a climate-resilient Integrated Catchment Management (ICM).

“The conservation and protection of wetlands is a critical exercise as the world experiences an increase in the tragedies of clean and fresh water.

“Therefore it has become an elective passion for this country to embark upon an integrated approach that encompasses different stakeholders in the protection of our wetlands and related ecosystems,” His Majesty said.

The Department’s management told auditors that it was truly unable to protect and sustainably maintain wetlands during the performance audit due to significant financial constraints such as budget, transportation, and manpower.

However, the Management stated that in September 2021 they launched a program under ICM to incorporate education and awareness on wetlands management to communities, including shepherds.

That being said, in order for the department to eliminate their other problems of transportation, resources, and manpower, Besetsa advised the department’s Management to direct resources and collaborate with stakeholders on wetland rehabilitation, reducing degradation, and restoring wetlands drying out.