Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center - Earthshots

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South Africa needed water. Lesotho needed electricity. One huge project aims to solve both problems.

Lesotho is a small mountainous country completely surrounded by South Africa. A little smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland, Lesotho’s most important natural resource is clean water, dubbed “white gold.” Lesotho’s highlands receive about 1,200 millimeters of rainfall annually and are the main headwaters for the Orange (Senqu) River system. Most of that water leaves Lesotho, flowing east to west across South Africa, where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

Measured by per capita gross domestic product (GDP), Lesotho is a relatively poor country, falling in the bottom 20 percent of countries. South Africa is one of the wealthier countries in Africa but has been experiencing water shortages. Its industrial heartland includes the large city of Johannesburg, over 300 kilometers to the north and outside of the Landsat scenes displayed here. Recurring drought and increasing demand for water have put additional pressure on water resources there.

Two dams have been completed on tributaries of the Orange (Senqu) River as part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), which harnesses Lesotho’s water and exports it to South Africa. Before this project, Lesotho was dependent upon South Africa for electricity. Lesotho can now generate electricity from the dams. Additionally, hundreds of kilometers of roads were built or upgraded in Lesotho’s mountainous landscape, cutting down on travel time, in some cases by days.

Not all of the reviews of this project have been positive. Some studies have reported there may not have been enough foresight of the stress on water resources that drought and climate change could be causing. Furthermore, reduced river flows could affect communities that rely on the river for livelihoods, and some say this impact was not well understood before the project began. Besides these possible environmental consequences, many communities claim that they did not receive promised compensation for relocation.


Jan. 28, 1995, Landsat 5 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Feb. 2, 1997, Landsat 5 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Mar. 15, 2003, Landsat 7 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Mar. 20, 2008, Landsat 5 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Mar. 8, 2015, Landsat 8 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Mar. 29, 2017, Landsat 8 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Mar. 5, 2020, Landsat 8 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Mar. 27, 2022, Landsat 8 (path/row 170/80) — Lesotho Highlands Water Project

CIA, 2013, The World Factbook 2013–14—Lesotho: Washington, DC, Central Intelligence Agency, available online at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/lt.html. (Accessed June 8, 2015.)

Lesotho Government, [n.d.], The Lesotho Highlands Water Project: Lesotho Government Web page at http://www.lhwp.org.ls. (Accessed May 13, 2015.)

LHWP, 2013, Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase I: LHWP Web page at http://www.lhda.org.ls/Phase1/. (Accessed May 13, 2015.)

Maryland Geological Survey, 2015, Land Areas, Inland-Water Areas, and Length of Shorelines of Maryland's Counties: Maryland Geological Survey Web page at http://www.mgs.md.gov/geology/areas_and_lengths.html. (Accessed June 8, 2015.)

NASA, 2006, Lesotho Highlands Water Project: NASA Earth Observatory, available at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=6809. (Accessed May 13, 2015.)

Orange-Senqu River Commission, [n.d.], Hydroelectric Power Generation in the Orange-Senqu River Basin: Orange-Senqu River Commission Web page at http://www.orangesenqurak.com/challenge/water+demand/power+generation+hydro.aspx. (Accessed May 13, 2015.)

Republic of South Africa, [n.d.], Katse Dam: Water & Sanitation Department Web page at https://www.dwaf.gov.za/orange/up_orange/katsedam.aspx. (Accessed May 13, 2015.)

Wentworth, L., 2013, Lesotho Highlands—Water Woes or Win-Wins? European Centre for Development Policy Management, available online at http://ecdpm.org/publications/lesotho-highlands-water-woes-win-wins/. (Accessed May 13, 2015.)

World Bank, 2013, GDP Per Capita: The World Bank Web page at http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD. (Accessed May 29, 2015.)