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The Lesotho "Water Coup"

Case Number: 56
Mnemonic: LESWATER
Case Name: Lesotho "Water Coup"


1. Abstract

On January 20, 1986, South Africa gave decisive assistance to a successful military coup that toppled Lesotho's government. South Africa had numerous reasons for ousting Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan, including the fact that Lesotho had offered sanctuary to African National Congress guerrillas. However, one key motivation is often overlooked: South Africa sought greater access to Lesotho's water supply.1 The South African province of Transvaal faced critical water shortages, and, despite 30 years of negotiations, the South African government could not reach an agreement with Lesotho for water rights. Within months of coup, the two governments agreed to the Highlands Water Project, which diverts water from Lesotho's mountanous regions to South African farms and industries. The timing of the agreement suggests a close link between South Africa's involvement in the coup and the dispute over access to water.

2. Description

An impoverished, landlocked state in the shadow of its giant, industrial neighbor, Lesotho could not avoid becoming entangled in South Africa's political intrigues during the last decade of apartheid. As the white South African government sought to stamp out resistance by the African National Congress (ANC), many ANC leaders and guerrillas fled to safety in Lesotho. From the safety of sanctuaries across the border, ANC militants were able stage operations within South Africa and escape reprisals. On December 9, 1982, South Africa launched a commando raid into Lesotho that resulted in the murder of thirty ANC leaders and twelve others. In the face of harsh international criticism, South Africa refrained from repeating such missions for the next three years. However, attacks into South Africa continued, and by late 1985, the government in Pretoria was searching for a permanent solution to the Lesotho problem.

From the perspective of the South African government, the political instability caused by the ANC insurgency constituted only one of the headaches emanating from Lesotho.2 The mid-1980s witnessed a prolonged drought throughout southern Africa which was beginning to seriously threaten the regional economy. The normally arid and now parched South African region of Transvaal was in acute distress. Large volumes of water were necessary both for regional industries (particularly mining) and to support the growing urban center of Johannesburg. Local water resources were running thin. The mountainous watershed across the border in Lesotho appeared to offer an ideal solution, yet thirty years of negotiations over South African access to Lesotho's water supply had made no progress.

The negotiation deadlock resulted from a combination of political and environmental factors. Politically, Lesotho sought to remain at arms length from the apartheid regime and so felt no sense of urgency in concluding an agreement that would inevitably bring closer ties between the two states. In terms of the environment, Lesotho's leaders were skeptical that the benefits of the monumental project would outweigh the costs.3

Known as the Highlands Water Project, the effort to construct a series of dams, tunnels, and hydroelectric stations to channel water into South Africa was intended to transfer 70 cubic meters of water per second from Lesotho to South Africa when the final stage was completed, roughly thirty years after construction began (see the Lesotho case study in the TED database for a full discussion of the trade aspects of the project). If an agreement could be reached, the finished project promised to alleviate South Africa's water shortage and provide an inexpensive and clean power source for Lesotho.

However, channeling the desired amount of water from Lesotho's mountains to South Africa's arid Transvaal would have a tremendous environmental impact. Numerous villages would have to be relocated in order to fill reservoirs. The new level of control over river flows would virtually eliminate annual flooding which supplied nutrients to adjacent farmland. Wetlands in the region would be drastically reduced. From Lesotho's perspective, all these sacrifices would have to made in return for hydroelectric power and a modest annual payment from South Africa (approximately $50 million per year).4 The hydroelectric generation indeed provides cheap energy for industry and urban commercial and residential areas. Yet, these sectors do not represent a majority of Lesotho's inhabitants, who earn their livings as workers across the border in South Africa or through traditional farming. Furthermore, the pollution from coal plants that would be eliminated in Lesotho was deemed minimal, with little impact on the local population or environment. As a result, Lesotho's leaders saw little utility in pursuing the project.

South Africa's demand for water increased, particularly in the industrial region of Witwatersrand, by 10 to 15 percent a year.5 The long drought in the mid-1980s, which drained reserves to a fifty-year low, brought the situation to a crisis. With no resolution to water shortage in sight and cross-border political violence increasing, the stage was set for conflict.

In the first weeks of December 1985, thirteen white South Africans were killed by landmines and bombs allegedly planted by Lesotho-based ANC guerrillas. South Africa demanded Lesotho turn over all ANC activists or face severe reprisals. Lesotho's prime minister, Leabua Jonathan, agreed to establish a joint security committee with South Africa but refused to round-up and extradite ANC leaders. In response, South Africa launched another commando raid on December 15 that killed a dozen ANC supporters. In addition, South Africa began strictly regulating all cross-border activity. Officially, the South Africans imposed the new regulations merely sought to prevent arms transfers and incursions into their territory.6 However, thousands of Lesotho's workers were unable to cross the border to work and cross-border commerce ground to a halt. In effect, South Africa imposed an economic blockade of its tiny, landlocked neighbor.7

South Africa's economic stranglehold quickly caused critical shortages of consumer goods and basic necessities (including food, which Lesotho imports heavily from its neighbor). Economic anxieties contributed to heightening popular dissatisfaction with Jonathan's government and strengthened opposition within the military. After suffering from severe economic hardship for three weeks and with no end to the standoff in sight, Jonathan's government was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by General Justin Lekhanya on January 20, 1986. South Africa immediately recognized the new regime and lifted the economic sanctions.

It is easy with the fast paced political intrigues that led to the coup to lose sight of the role of the environment. Water access provided the underpinning for much of the conflict between Lesotho and South Africa. Before his ouster, Jonathan's government was ready to concede virtually everything to South Africa on the issue of ANC attacks across the border, except for the expulsion of those he deemed legitimate political refugees, in order to end the crisis.8 However, his intransigence on the water issue undoubtedly strengthened South Africa's resolve to remove his government in favor of one more accommodating on this issue.

Lekhanya moved quickly to repair relations with its neighbor -- so quickly in fact that many critics denounced the new regime as South African puppets.9 ANC activists were expelled and border security improved. Equally important, however, negotiations resumed on the Highlands Water Project, with Lesotho conceding to most of the South African demands. Lesotho agreed South Africa should be entitled to a large quantity of Lesotho's water resources, in exchange for modest annual payments and assistance in constructing the vast network of dams and hydroelectric stations. By October 24, 1986, after nearly thirty years of negotiating, an agreement had been reached.

The final terms of the treaty authorizing the Highlands Water Project reflect the fact that Lesotho made the agreement under duress. First, the project displaced some 17,000 peasants to make room for dams and reservoirs, while only 4,400 jobs were created.10 In addition, the new jobs are primarily construction related and will vanish as the various phases of the project are completed. Compounding the temporary nature of the jobs, most of the construction contracts were awarded to South African firms. While these companies hire local workers during construction, the profits accrue to South Africa. When the final phase of construction is completed (scheduled for 2020), Lesotho will have little to show in terms of structural economic improvement.11

Second, the water project reduced the already scarce amount of Lesotho's arable land. Over 4,000 hectares of farmland and 18,000 hectares of grazing land will be flooded to fill reservoirs or denied irrigation by diverting their water source.12 This loss has exacerbated the already acute problems of landlessness and unemployment. Compensation programs for displaced persons, paid primarily by loans from the International Monetary Fund and South African Development Bank have so far managed to keep popular discontent in check but do not provide long-term solutions. Many of the 17,000 people displaced by resevoir construction, for example, are still housed in temporary shelters with few prospects for finding employment. In addition, Lesotho, already heavily dependent on food imports, has become more so.13

Finally, the Highlands Water Project reinforces the unequal relationship between Lesotho and South Africa. The agreement offered Lesotho marginal improvements in infrastructure, a handful of hydroelectric plants, and a modest infusion of foreign capital. South Africa, on the other hand, gained access to water resources sufficient to spur industrial growth (particularly in the mining sector) throughout the Transvaal region. Greater quantities of water will also permit further residential growth and ease restrictions on water usage during periods of extended drought. South African companies also secured the lion's share of prime construction and supply contracts.

In terms of the impact of the "water coup" on the people and habitat of Lesotho, the value of the water siphoned of to South Africa is worth far more than the $50 million Lesotho will receive in annual payments under the water rights treaty. As noted earlier, Lesotho and the neighboring territory in South Africa are extremely arid environments. The mountainous interior of Lesotho serves as one of the few watersheds in the region. Irrigation from the mountain run-off makes traditional and small-scale commercial farming possible. However, diverting high volumes of water to South Africa drastically reduces opportunities for irrigation. Most of the studies commissioned to examine the Highlands Water Project only looked at how many people would be displaced by the construction of resevoirs neglected to consider the broader impact on traditional farming. By some estimates, up to 60,000 people will lose their livelihood to the project.

Fortunately, the dispute over water resources did not lead to overt violence between South Africa and Lesotho. No lives were lost in the coup that toppled Jonathan's government, and the deaths incurred during the commando operations and cross-border attacks are more appropriately attributed to the conflict over apartheid rather than the concurrent environmental crisis. However, South Africa's willingness to impose an economic blockade of its neighbor and facilitate the overthrow of the ruling government gives an indication of the lengths to which it prepared to go to secure the environmental resources it deemed critical to industrial and urban development.

3. Duration:

Roughly 30 years (mid-1950s to 1986)

4. Location

a. Continent: Africa

b. Region: Southern Africa

c. State: Lesotho

5. Actors

Lesotho and South Africa

II. Environment

6. Type of Environmental Problem

a. Source Problems: RESRCE (Resource depletion)

b. Sink Problems: Pollution
The primary problem facing Lesotho is the loss of significant quantities of one of its few natural resources: water. Diverting the mountain run-off forced thousands of peasants to rellocate to make way for dams and reservoirs. Large tracts of arable land were flooded or had their irrigation water diverted. In contrast, South Africa enjoys the benefits and is able to use the new water source for industrial development (particularly mining). In the long-run, this development may lead to greater pollution, but its effects are likely to be marginal.

7. Type of Habitat:


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Site of Act Site of Harm Explanation
Lesotho Lesotho South Africa supports coup in Lesotho to gain access to natural resources (water). Lesotho suffers harm in both the depeletion of one of its few natural resources and the environmental impact of dam and reservoir construction.

III. Conflict

9. Type and Level of Conflict:

While the outcome in this case was not overt violence (war) between South Africa and Lesotho, the South African government did employ economic coercion and provided support for a coup to topple Lesotho's government.

10. Level of Conflict:


11. Fatality Level:


12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

a. Direct: Resource

b. Indirect: Water Scarcity

Six primary variables fueled the conflict over limited water resources that ultimately contributed to South Africa's support for a coup against Lesotho's government. First, industrial growth and growing urban centers in Transvaal pressured the South African government to find a solution or face economic decline. Second, the arid nature of the region, compounded by a long drought, meant that water sources were unavailable within South Africa and access would have to be negotiated with neighboring Lesotho. Third, population growth in both countries placed a premium on water reserves. These three factors combined to increase competition over Lesotho's water.

Other factors contributed to South Africa's ability to gain access on favorable terms. The industrial leader of Africa, South Africa enjoyed a strong military and political structure, despite the instability caused by resistance to the apartheid regime in the mid-1980s. In contrast, landlocked Lesotho was weak, unstable, and vulernable to economic or political coercion compared with its neighbor. Finally, Lesotho lacked a strong industrial base. When combined, these factors demonstrated the imbalance that existed between the two countries in terms of their power and influence.

As a result of the unequal distribution of power in the region, the competition over water resources was a one-sided contest. Faced with Lesotho's intransigence in negotiations over access and bolstered by security issues stemming from ANC guerrillas operation from Lesotho's territory, South Africa chose to support a coup against the Lesotho government. Because the new government was brought to power and sustained by South Africa, it worked closely with its patrons to secure a deal and made major concessions to South African interests.

Finally, although renewed conflict is unlikely in the near future now that construction of the Highlands Water Project is well underway, the coup itself reinforced South Africa's dominant role in its relations with Lesotho. As the chart above illustrates, the new water deal supports South African industrial development, which in turn strengthens its political and military structure. On the other hand, Lesotho gained little from the bargain, and its economic growth continues to lag behind its neighbor.

13. Level of Strategic Interest

In 1986, the mountain water runoff constituted a strategic interest for both Lesotho and South Africa. For Lesotho, it represented one of the few natural resources available for exploitation. It was hoped that eventually terms could be negotiated with South Africa for diverting portions of the water in return for large annual payments and development assistance. Until such favorable terms were reached, however, Lesotho was content to delay the proposed water project and use the water for traditional purposes (primarily farming). For South Africa, access was to water was crucial for industrial and urban development in the arid Transvaal region. Securing access became a high strategic priority.

14. Outcome of Dispute:


IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related Cases and Websites

Nile case
Jordan case
Ganges case
Blue Nile case

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Lesotho Highlands Water Project," http:/

"Lesotho Highlands Water Project: A Monument to Environmental and Social Neglect," http:/

"From Here to Eternity: Promises and Realities on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project," http:/

Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. "Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict." International Security 19 (Summer 1994):5-40.
Laurance, Patrick. "A New Lesotho?" Africa Report (January/February 1987):61-64.
"Lesotho Water Project Gets Under Way." Africa Report (May/June 1988):10-11.
"Pretoria Has Its Way in Lesotho." Africa Report (March/April 1986):50-51.
Scudder, Thayer. "River Basin Projects in Africa." Environment 31 (March 1989):4-32.

17. Notes

1. Thomas Homer-Dixon, "Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict," 19.
2. "Lesotho Water Project Gets Under Way," Africa Report, 10.
3. Ibid.
4. "Pretoria Has Its Way in Lesotho," Africa Report, 50.
5. Patrick Laurance, "A New Lesotho?" Africa Report, 62.
6. Ibid.
7. "Pretoria Has Its Way in Lesotho," 50.
8. Laurance, "A New Lesotho?" 63.
9. Ibid., 61.
10. "Lesotho Highlands Water Project: A Monument to Environmental and Social Neglect," http:/
11. Ibid.
12. Lesotho Highlands Water Project," http:/
13. Ibid.