The additional water has however, provided an important benefit beyond the original aims of the project -- it is reducing the salinity of the Vaal Dam reservoir. The reservoir near Vereeniging -- about sixty kilometres south of Johannesburg -- is the principal water reservoir for Gauteng Province, the largest industrial and mining centre on the African continent. Originating in the eastern part of the country, the Vaal River serves as the main source of water for the Vaal Dam reservoir. While the river is large enough to meet water requirements for the area most of the time, the catchment area is subject to severe and protracted droughts. The LHWP was built to help Gauteng Province cope with perennial water shortages that resulted from these droughts.
The catchment area includes many coal and gold mines that are responsible for a substantial amount of water pollution. Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and nutrient rich outflow from sewage treatment works have caused the salinity of the river flowing into the Vaal Dam reservoir to increase dramatically. Water in the reservoir became so rich in extra nutrients that plant life became unusually plentiful and dense. When plants died and began to decompose, the decomposition process killed the animal life by starving it of oxygen.
Since the far cleaner waters from the LHWP began flowing into the reservoir, scientists from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry have noted how much easier it is to manage salinity levels in the dam. As the project evolves in coming decades -- and more water from Lesotho and the Tugela River flows into the Vaal River system -- this unexpected purifying effect is likely to become more significant. This positive side-effect might help create a somewhat more encouraging image of LHWP project that has had more than its fair share of controversy.
The LHWP was conceived in the late 1970s as a means of addressing the unquenchable thirst for water in an area known then as the Vaal Triangle. Today this area -- covering Johannesburg, Pretoria, Vereeniging, and several satellite cities -- forms the nucleus of the Gauteng Province. The importance of addressing recurrent water shortages became more pressing in the 1980s when a particularly long drought almost caused the Vaal Dam reservoir to run dry. Severe water restrictions were put into effect forcing households and industry to slash their water usage. Heavy fines were imposed on people who watered their gardens during prohibited periods, and the need for a long-term solution became more obvious.
Engineers and hydrologists conceived an elaborate plan to divert water from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho into the Vaal River system. The reasoning was simple. It rains a lot in Lesotho, and all that water flows into Orange River. If the water could be channelled into the Vaal River, the excess water would still flow into the Orange River -- eventually -- but the millions of people living in the Vaal Triangle would have an almost guaranteed water supply.
Construction of the LHWP began in 1984, and it immediately drew controversy. Political criticism centred around the fact that the internationally ostracised 'white' government in Pretoria was going ahead with a project that would use the resources of a neighbouring 'black' country to sustain the industrial engine of the apartheid regime. Engineers said that it was simply too complicated. The multi-phased project required the building of six sizeable dams and hundreds of kilometres of large diameter tunnels. Costs were estimated at between six and eight billion dollars.
Some criticism levelled against the Pretoria government for the construction of the LHWP in the 1980s and 1990s still holds true today -- even though power has shifted from the 'whites only' National Party to the democratically elected African National Congress (ANC). The project is still perceived as being very lopsided -- providing vital water supplies to South Africa while few tangible benefits accrue to the people of Lesotho.
In terms of the original plans, Lesotho was to receive cash payments for the water diverted into the Vaal system. While funds have been forthcoming, the money has not benefited all those affected by the new dams.
The local population has been unhappy about the number of professional and manual workers that were brought into Lesotho during the construction phases. Villagers say that they were bypassed even for relatively unskilled jobs.
One of the fringe benefits of the construction of the Katse dam for example, was to be the creation of a recreational area. Local entrepreneurs were told to prepare for a massive influx of tourists wishing to enjoy water sports on the dam. While Katse has attracted some recreational visitors, the numbers have fallen far short of expectations. So far only phases one-a and one-b of the project have been completed. In Feb. 2004 the governments of Lesotho and South Africa agreed to commission a feasibility study of Phase two of the LHWP. The study was set to be completed in Dec. 2007 so that it could be presented to the Parliaments of the two countries concerned, this has been delayed.