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.
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Additional story information
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.)
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