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GCSE Geography | Case Study: Lesotho Highlands Water Project (Resource Management - Water 5)

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 15 May 2024

Lesotho (an LIC) is a landlocked country, which is entirely surrounded by South Africa. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is an example of a large-scale water transfer scheme, taking water from Lesotho to South Africa, and is the largest water transfer scheme in Africa, taking 30 years to complete.

Lesotho is a mountainous country that receives a high level of precipitation and has a low population (2.3 million) - therefore has a water surplus. Whereas, South Africa has a population of 60.4 million and uneven rainfall, so has a water deficit, with the west and south being particularly dry.

200 km of tunnels diverts 40% of the water in the Senqu river basin in Lesotho is diverted to the Vaal river system in South Africa, and then on to where it is needed most in the country. 2000 million m3 of water is transferred every year.

Lesotho is one of the world's poorest countries and relies on money from selling water to South Africa - it actually makes up 75% of Lesotho's income.

The main features of the scheme:

  • Construction started in 1984 with the Katse Dam (pictured below) and Mohale Dam completed in 1998 and 2002, storing and transferring water to the Mohale Reservoir
  • A 32 km tunnel then transfers water to South Africa's Muela plant to generate hydroelectric power (HEP)
  • The second phase of the project involved the construction of the Polihali Dam which can hold 2.2 billion m3 of water and has a 38 km transfer tunnel
  • Later phases of the project included the Tsoelike Dam, built at the confluence of the Tsoelike and Senqu rivers, with a storage capacity of 2223 million m3 and a pumping station, and the Ntoahae Dam with another pumping station 40 km downstream

Benefits for Lesotho

  • Economic impact - the project provides Lesotho with 75% of its income, boosting the economy and improving the quality of life in the country
  • Water supply - income from the scheme has been spent on increasing water security in Lesotho - 90% of the population of Maseru (the capital city) has access to water
  • Sanitation - money has been spent on improving sanitation systems, increasing the proportion of the population with adequate sanitation from 15% to 20% (although this is still low), reducing the risk of waterborne diseases
  • Energy - the dams also generate hydroelectric power (HEP) which increases energy security in the country, which will help economic development
  • Employment - the project has taken 30 years to complete and has provided thousands of jobs during construction, with further jobs created with operation and maintenance
  • Infrastructure improvements - the project has included access roads and communication networks, which benefit local people but also may encourage further investment into the country in the future

Benefits for South Africa

  • Increased water security - addresses the issue of uneven and unreliable rainfall distribution and frequent drought events, and ensures that there is enough water for agricultural and industrial uses (as well as domestic). It also means that the 10% of the population who were without access to safe water now have it
  • Economy - the increased water security means that food production and industrial output increases, which encourages economic growth
  • Ecosystem restoration - the Vaal River Reservoir has been heavily polluted by raw sewage and toxic chemical run-off from manufacturing and gold mining which has had a huge impact on marine ecosystems - however, the influx of freshwater has meant that the acid levels in the water have been reduced, meaning that the balance is being restored

Disadvantages for Lesotho

  • Displacement of local population - the initial phase of construction meant that 30,000 had to be moved to make way for the flooding behind the Katse and Mohale dams, and the Polihali Dam destroyed 17 villages, and reduced the land available for farming for the residents of 71 villages
  • Ecosystem damage - the wetland ecosystem downstream that depended on regular flooding has been destroyed due to less water reaching that part of the river basin
  • Corruption - compensation money was set aside to those communities who have been displaced by the project, to help them set up new lives and buy new land to farm on, however, corruption has meant that a lot of that money has not gone where is was supposed to, and money that has been received has been too little, too late
  • Temporary workers - many workers moved to informal settlements around the construction sites where alcoholism was a huge issue and the spread of HIV/AIDs was rife
  • Over-reliance on one income source - 75% of Lesotho's income comes from transferring water to South Africa which makes Lesotho economically vulnerable
  • Debt - Lesotho has had to borrow large sums of money to finance their part of the project, this will have to be paid back with interest, which reduces the amount of money available to spend on important services such as education and healthcare, which are vital in improving the quality of life for people in LICs

Disadvantages for South Africa

  • Economic cost - the project is estimated to cost around US$4 billion and the South African government is likely to pass that cost onto consumers in the country. The increase water tariffs are much too high for the poorest people in South Africa so they will not be able to access safe water, increasing water inequality
  • Poor infrastructure - 40% of all water transferred is actually lost through leakage (linked to poor maintenance of pipes and tunnels)
  • Lack of water security - although the project has increased access to a safe water supply for most people in the the country, South Africa is entirely reliant on another country for its water supply, meaning it doesn't have water security. This means there is the potential for conflict between the countries in the future, and Lesotho could restrict water access

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