INTERVIEW: Polihali beats the odds

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With the advent of COVID–19 which has brought the world to a complete shutdown, Lesotho’s construction industry has also suffered in more ways than one. The construction of Polihali Dam, which is the centrepiece of Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was not spared the wrath of the global pandemic. 

For example, last month the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) revealed that 71 South African nationals who had entered the country on the pretext of being employed at the Polihali construction site Dam sent back home after it emerged they had entered the country without work permits.

Their repatriation meant that activities would remain suspended as the LHDA and all role players worked together to put the necessary safety measures in place as directed by the Lesotho Public Health Covid-19 Regulations. These included protocols on site access control for those returning back to site, Covid-19 response training for personnel, review of shift work strategies, accommodation and shared facilities to enable social distancing and all measures that need to be taken into consideration to minimise the risk of coronavirus infection at the construction site.

theReporter’s ‘Majirata Latela talks to Lesotho Highlands Water Authority’s Information Officer, Masilo Phakoe, who gives us an insight into the goings on behind the scene.

ML: It has been said that Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project strives to factor in infrastructure development. Would you say it is beneficial to Lesotho the way it is designed? Please explain in detail.

MP: The water transfer component of Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, like Phase I, comprises infrastructural developments such as access roads (construction of Polihali Northern Eastern Access Road, Polihali Western Access Road and rehabilitation of Northern Access Road), major bridges (Senqu River, Mabunyane and Khubelu Rivers), bulk power (construction of 132kv line, 33kv line and construction of Polihali sub-station and upgrading of existing sub-stations) and telecommunications.

The investment in infrastructure has been designed to not only enable construction of the Polihali Dam and Transfer Tunnel but to also benefit the rural communities and Lesotho as a whole, during and beyond the implementation phase of the Project.

ML: Please tell us about the Polihali Western Access Road that stretches 55KM from Ha Seshote through Semenanyane to the Polihali project area which is under construction now. Why should it be celebrated?

MP: The Polihali Western Access Road (PWAR) is a new road that is being constructed under Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. It ties into the Northern Access Road (NAR) at Ha Seshote and stretches through Semenanyane to the Polihali Dam site. These two roads will form the major access corridor for construction equipment, materials and tunnel boring machines and components for the construction of the Polihali Dam and Polihali Transfer Tunnel.

The PWAR will be constructed into an engineered standard, two lane surfaced road with surfaced shoulders and passing lanes. This new road will connect the District of Mokhotlong to that of Thaba-Tseka and Leribe and is set to promote economic growth and improve delivery of health and social services for the rural communities within the Project area. Access to the Project villages along the road before the development brought by Phase I of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was via a track passable only by four-wheel drive vehicles while many people used to walk for hours or ride horses to access services at the Ha Seshote Health centre or access supermarkets. PWAR provides alternative tarred road between Mokhotlong and the lowlands.

ML: We understand the project will increase the quantity of electricity generated at ‘Muela. How many kilowatts are we talking about exactly and does that mean Lesotho will no longer need to import electricity from SA?

MP: The increased water volumes in the Katse reservoir as a result of the additional water flowing from Polihali Dam under Phase II will enable the ‘Muela plant to operate for longer periods at maximum capacity and therefore, increase the quantity of electricity generated at ‘Muela. Currently ‘Muela produces approximately 500 GWh a year. It is expected to produce an additional 314 GWh as a result of increased flows. This means that after the completion of Polihali Dam and Polihali Transfer Tunnel (the water transfer component of Phase II), ‘Muela will produce approximately 814 GWh per year. This is a further step towards securing an independent energy supply for Lesotho.

The Lesotho Electricity Company is in a better position to provide information regarding the current electricity consumption, forecasted demand and other statistics regarding demand and supply of energy in Lesotho.

Over and above, additional energy capacity as a result of more water from the Polihali Dam, it is important to note that the LHDA has undertaken a feasibility study for a hydropower scheme to augment the current electricity generation capacity (see below). The outcome of the study will be presented to the Government of Lesotho for a decision on way forward.

ML: Can we actually expect to see Lesotho generating so much electricity that it can even export some?

MP: Phase II will increase the quantity of electricity generated in Lesotho, even if Lesotho were not to invest in additional hydropower infrastructure, and is a further step in the process of securing an independent electricity source for the country. The exact form of the hydropower component of Phase II is still to be decided by the Lesotho government. The further feasibility studies recommended conventional hydropower as most appropriate for Lesotho’s needs and identified three potential sites for this purpose. The development will, however, not generate surplus for export.

ML: The Polihali project means the amount of water exported to SA will increase. What reason do Basotho have to celebrate this, given that people continue to struggle to access clean water?

MP: Basotho have plenty to celebrate Phase II for. With increased flow of water from the Polihali Dam the water conveyance system will generate more electricity for Lesotho which will further reduce the country’s dependence on imported electricity, saving on import costs and contributing to the growth of the country’s economy (GDP) by stimulating local industry. This, is in addition to the benefits of improved access to services as a result of infrastructural development, job opportunities, skills development and business opportunities for Basotho during and after construction, tourism development and increased revenue in the form of royalties paid to the government of Lesotho on the water transferred to South Africa. 

Furthermore, as part of the Phase II programme, the LHDA in collaboration with the Department of Rural Water Supply, will construct and avail to neighbouring villages access to clean water from the reservoir and sanitation facilities will also be provided. 

It should be noted that there are other government of Lesotho agencies whose mandate is to ensure provision for water for local consumption.

ML: What does this increase mean in terms of royalties?

Revenue collection in terms of royalties will increase as a result of increased volumes of water that will be delivered to South Africa. Additional annual water transfers from Polihali totalling 490MCM will attract M422million in royalties. Currently the water delivery through the Phase I infrastructure (Katse and  Mohale Dams and tunnels) is attracting an average of M950million per annum in royalties for water transfers totalling 780MCM

ML: There have been conflicting reports on the EIA for the project. Some say it was never done, others it was. What exactly is the truth?

MP: An EIA was done in the initial Phase II feasibility studies as would be done in the early planning of any infrastructure project such as the building of a major dam, in line with internationally recognised standards.  Environmental and Social Impacts Assessment (ESIA) studies are also part of the implementation of Phase II. The ESIA process was subjected to external review by the Department of Environment and the Lenders Technical Advisors. The ESIA reports have been approved and Lesotho Department of Environment has given the Record of Decision (RoD) and approved the environmental management plans that are guiding the implementation process.

ML: Communities and CSOs have voiced concerns about the impact of the project on graze lands. Do you acknowledge this concern? If so how do you plan to address it?

MP: LHDA acknowledges all communities’ concerns including the concern of the impact of the Project on gazing land. This is one of the concerns raised at community consultations during the ESIA process. Some of the recommendations of the ESIA studies to address this challenge are now being implemented. These include integrated catchment management which entails rangeland rehabilitation in a form of brush control in the Project areas.

ML: There has been criticism that companies contracted for the project bring in way too many expatriate workers, many of whom do jobs that Basotho are capable of. Is this concern justified?

MP: Employment on the project is managed in accordance with Article 11 of the Phase II Agreement which encourages participation of Lesotho and South Africa nationals in the implementation of the Project. As a general rule, preference is given to Lesotho nationals, SA nationals and then participants from the SADC region and internationally in that order. Unskilled labour is sourced from Lesotho only. Skilled and semi-skilled positions are available to Lesotho nationals from across Lesotho and there are minimum requirements set for employment of South African citizens in the semi-skilled, skilled and professional categories. LHDA closely monitors preference targets per contract to ensure that this objective is achieved. 

The overarching requirement is that in the implementation of Phase II the consultants and contractors registered in Lesotho and in South Africa shall share the value of all infrastructure works on an equal monetary basis

LHDA acknowledges all stakeholder concerns and welcomes opportunities to provide clarification on principles that guide the implementation of Phase II.

ML: Now that COVID 19 is in the picture, what impact has it had on the progress of Phase II? What plans are in place to address the movement of South African nationals who work at Polihali during this time? 

MP: COVID-19 has impacted LHWP timelines, as is expected. Following the lifting of some lockdown restrictions, construction teams have started to remobilise back to sites only after having satisfied the requirements of the COVID-19 safety protocols.  These protocols include on site access control for those returning to site to ensure that they strictly adhere to the WHO, national COVID-19 Regulations and LHWP COVID-19 Mitigation Plan.

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