Transboundary water cooperation on the Orange-Senqu River, the case of Lesotho Highlands Water Project
Kata Molnar
Stockholm International Water Institute
The Orange-Senqu River basin is located in the Southern African region, and extends over four countries: Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and South-Africa. It is the third largest river basin in the region. The Orange-Senqu is the most developed transboundary river basin in the Southern African region, having a diversity of water supply schemes for industry, agriculture and human consumption. The total basin area is approximately 1,000,000 km2. The Senqu river flows from the Lesotho highlands and becomes the Orange river in the border of Lesotho with South Africa. The hydrology of the basin varies from one part to the other, but overall much of the basin experiences some degree of water stress.
This river basin is one of the most far-reaching examples of water-related cooperation in the Southern African region. In terms of the utilization and management of the shared water resource, the ORASECOM (Orange-Senqu River Commission) was established multilaterally by all riparian states in 2000. It was a major step towards cooperation. Prior to this agreement there were mainly bilateral agreements, in which Botswana was not included, while South Africa was always the hydropolitically most powerful actor (‘hydro-hegemon’). ORASECOM is the fourth basin-wide institution established in Southern Africa, recognizing the Helsinki Rules, the United Nations Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, and the SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems. These include important water law principles that guide the riparian states to balance their interests in a cooperative manner, utilize the common water resource in an equitable and reasonable manner without causing significant harm to one another.
  • effective and successful
  • sustainable
  • technically applicable
  • economically efficient
  • replicable and adaptable
The good practice presented from the Orange-Senqu river basin is a collaborative project, an example for benefit sharing over a transboundary watercourse. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is arguably one of the best practices of water-related benefit-sharing cooperation in the SADC region (Turton 2003). In 1986, Lesotho and South-Africa made an agreement that obtained foreign exchange and energy from hydropower for Lesotho, and provided water supply for South Africa. The bilateral treaty stipulated that water would be transferred in five phases to South Africa, who in return pays royalties for the resource. While Lesotho would receive the revenue and the benefits from the generated hydroelectric power (Daoudy 2010:51), it was still responsible for the financial sides of the infrastructural development. The completed first phase consisted of the Katse and Mohale Dams, Mtsoku Weir, connecting tunnels and a hydropower plant. Phase 2 is due for completion in 2017, but the implementation of further phases might not be feasible (Wolf & Newton 2010). There are reduced evaporative losses due to the high-altitude storage and efficient delivery mechanisms that was made possible in Lesotho. In 1999, the Lesotho Fund for Community Development was established to use the royalties for poverty alleviation through community-development projects. It has been questioned, however, if the revenues specifically reached those affected by the project (Ibid). The hydropower dam was constructed so that it releases 10-14 % of the mean annual runoff of the rivers, maintaining the rivers condition (LHDA 2003).
  • legal and institutional aspects
  • monitoring and assessment
One of the enabling factors identified is that the treaty between Lesotho and South Africa has never been renegotiated or altered by the countries. This shows a certain flexibility and possibility for adaptation of the treaty to changes during the project, but also the need for continuous assessment of the environmental impacts (Wolf & Newton 2010). This is needed prior to the design and construction of such large-scale projects. Some feasibility studies were conducted before the negotiations, however, and were possible due to South Africa’s technical and financial resources. Another influential factor to be recognized is the involvement of external parties that balanced asymmetries between the riparians by providing technical and financial support. In case of the LHWP, the World Bank provided aid to Lesotho to support the construction of the hydroelectric dam, and external experts to help in the negotiations.
Earle, A. et al. 2005. A Preliminary Basin Profile of the Orange/Senqu River. Published by: AWIRU, University of Pretoria, South Africa ISBN: 1-86854-618-7 LHDA (Lesotho Highlands Development Authority). 2003. Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Phase 1. Policy for Instream Flow Requirements, LHDA, Maseru, Lesotho Turton, A.R. 2003. An Introduction to the Hydropolitical Dynamics of the Orange River Basin. In Nakayama, M. (Ed.) International Waters in Southern Africa. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. Pp 136 – 163 Wolf, A.T. & Newton, J.T. 2010. Benefit sharing and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. In: Earle, Jagerskog, Öjendal, 2010. Transboundary Water Management, Principles and Practice. 2010 Websites: Orange-Senqu River Awareness Kit Orange-Senqu River Commission website Southern African Development Community website