Right from the time when Britain intervened in the conflicts between the Basotho and the Boers in 1868, the political separateness of the area that is now Lesotho was sealed.  It had secured British Protectorate status and, apart from moves to include it in the 1910 Union of the former colonies, which failed, it has continued as a country apart, gaining its independence from Britain in 1966.  Its landlocked status, topography and climate have not been conducive to economic gains through commerce or agriculture.  But, in the context of the drought-strapped conditions on the southern African sub-continent, it rather fortuitously turned out to be holding a significant trump card.  Water!

If you leave the Swartland side of Clarens and head over to the other side of town, you will see, down at the bottom of the hill, the face-brick houses of Larola.  These are the purpose built houses that accommodated the engineers and their families who were among those who enabled the biggest water transfer scheme in Africa to be realised.

In the early 1950s Sir Baring requested that a survey be done of the water potential of Basutoland as an external supply to augment South Africa’s domestic water resources.  At the time there were alternative water transfer projects under consideration that entailed the transfer of water from the Orange River system to the Vaal River system, the latter undergoing sustained pressure due to the expanding industrial and mining activities in what is now Gauteng Province.  The recently established Orange Free State goldfields were an added consideration in securing additional water resources.

Cape Town based Ninham Shand, who was considered a pioneer in water conservation engineering, was appointed to the task.  He, together with his Bloemfontein based engineer, Graeme Walker (who was my father), conducted extensive surveys in the Basutoland water catchments during the 1950s and 1960s to establish the feasibility of harnessing water in the upper reaches of the Orange River for transfer to the industrialised Highveld.  During this time the Oxbow Scheme was developed, which included a high altitude dam, a hydroelectric power station and a proposed transfer tunnel.  Shand’s initial proposals were declined, which included an outline of a water transfer that would augment the water requirements of the Orange Free State goldfields.  One of the key differences between this proposed project and other water transfer projects around the country was the international character of the project, which at the time included both Basutoland and Britain, and which proved to be the root cause of numerous problems over the decades that followed.  A necessary outcome of any proposal would be that, while South Africa would benefit by supplementing its water resources, Lesotho would benefit by receiving payment for every cubic meter of water transferred, as well as benefit from the provision of hydroelectric power.  This alone stalled progress as agreement on these matters repeatedly failed to occur.

A less expensive solution was adopted to transfer water to the Orange Free State goldfields, directly from the Vaal Dam.  But during the years 1966/67 a crippling drought severely impacted on the Vaal water supply, which led to the South African government’s decision to revisit the proposal, and a more extensive investigation was ordered.  By this time it had become evident that the Vaal system was not going to cope in the future with the increasing demand on its water, and a general consensus had emerged supporting the idea of a more ambitious transfer of water directly into the Vaal system.

Further investigations, and the appointment of additional engineering firms, resulted in extensive modifications to the original proposal, and agreement was reached that the plans should be adopted.  Sadly, in 1968 Ninham Shand became ill during an inspection tour in Lesotho and died the following year.  His firm, however, had a ongoing role in the project.

Negotiations between the two governments faltered amid the political tensions of the 1970s and for a time it appeared as if the entire project had been abandoned.  The key issue that seemed to undermine agreement between the two governments was South Africa’s unwillingness to trust its water resources to another country’s government that it had volatile political relations with.  However, the increasing pressures on the already inadequate water supply to the Witwatersrand tipped the balance and negotiations were resumed.

In 1978 a Joint Technical Commission was formed to carry out another feasibility study, and by 1983 a new project layout had been formulated.  Finally, in 1986 the South African and Lesotho governments were ready to work together towards mutual benefit, and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project came into being.

Details of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and its phases are well documented and information is easily accessible.  Obviously nowadays much less attention is given to the earlier periods, more than three decades of investigations, achievements, setbacks, frustrations and lessons learnt, leading up to the eventual 1986 starting blocks of the project execution.  But this is the period I remember best, particularly during the 1960s when I was a child and my father spent many days at a time, sometimes weeks at a time, high up in the mountains, always returning with stories of magnificent storms, unruly Basotho ponies, freezing nights under canvas, and moonless nights hung with a million stars.

Those new residents, or visitors, who have walked across town from the Swartland cliffs to peer down the hill at the face-brick houses of Larola, can also look across the valley before them and see, in their mind’s eye, a tunnel under the ground, carrying water to Gauteng.  The Katse Dam in Lesotho is linked by tunnel to the Muela Dam, which in turn is linked to a tunnel that passes out of Lesotho, under the Caledon River, and then under the Little Caledon River, under our Clarens valley, and then up the ridge, to emerge into the Ash River a few kilometres along the road to Bethlehem.  This amazing achievement is the result of years of construction work by a host of engineers from various engineering consortia.  It is not surprising that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was the recipient of a special and most prestigious award, having been unanimously recognised as the southern African engineering project of the 20th Century.

Of course the best way to view the physical evidence of the water transfer scheme in operation is to go to the Ash River Outfall just out of town, where the water emerges from the tunnel directly into the Vaal catchment system.  In my own mind’s eye I see Ninham Shand himself standing there in spirit, decades after his last trip into the Lesotho highlands, admiring the result of what was still only a concept in his mind.

He would be proud.  He would be prouder still of his successors on the project who transformed this into a reality.

The picture insert features in the 2014 calendar produced by and sold in aid of Cluny Animal Trust.  Calendars can be purchased at Clarens Gallery, Clementines Restaurant and the Old Stone Bottle Store, in Clarens.  Alternatively they can be ordered from Katherine on 0827886287, Jan on 0782462553, Helen on 0582230918 or by email to jansander22@gmail.com .

Mary WalkerPhotograph and Article by Mary Walker

Clarens News: September 2013

Further Reading about the Lesotho Highland Water Project

Self Drive – Ash River Outfall Drive  (Clarens News: April 2014) Map and information.

Self drive: Clarens to Katse Dam  (Clarens News: March 2014.) Article by Rod and Rose Smart on their Katse experience – with tips on driving in Lesotho.)

Katse Dam  (General information on Katse Dam, Tours to Katse Dam from Clarens, and the Katse Botanical Gardens.)

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Author: ClarensNews

Editor of Clarens News