Dam Brings Water - and Myths - to a Tiny, Parched Kingdom

Lesotho locals, long unused to water, tell tales of a serpent in reservoir that will send water to S. Africa

THE carving of a huge dam and tunnels into the mountains of Lesotho, thousands of feet above sea level, is an awesome engineering feat that will bring electricity to this tiny country and water to parched South Africa.

But remote highland villagers are terrified by the sudden appearance of the large Katse Dam, whose waters have drowned their valued cattle and ancestral trees and spawned stories of a mammoth serpent with a horse's head living in the water.

The abrupt change from hillside to lakeside dwelling has meant a massive adjustment for what were once isolated cattle posts accessible only by horseback.

New roads have brought thousands of white foreigners who bewilder the hooded and cloaked villagers still ruled by feudal chiefs. The flooding of the valleys to create the dam means herders can't move their livestock from mountain to mountain along centuries-old routes. And suddenly there is water - lots and lots of it.

Many Basotho, the predominant ethnic group in Lesotho, have a profound fear of deep water - even officials involved in the project.

''Local people don't like the water. They fear there is a big water snake with a horse's head nesting in the lake,'' says Sibolla Boiketlo, principal rural development officer for the project.

''This is no joke. Being an inland and mountain people, we Basotho have misgivings about water if it gets above knee-high. I personally would not stray too close to the dam,'' Mr. Boiketlo says.

The joint project, agreed to in 1986, is an example of the type of regional cooperation South Africa would like to promote with formerly hostile neighbors.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project has distinct benefits for South Africa. When completed next year, the $337 million dam will stand about 600 feet high, the highest in Africa.

While South Africa seems to be the main beneficiary of the project, it will also generate enough power to make Lesotho self-sufficient in electricity.

Precious water

Water is a precious commodity for South Africa, particularly the industrial heartland around Johannesburg, which suffers from regular droughts and whose population is growing rapidly. Tunnels being cut through 50 miles of solid rock will help resolve water shortages around Johannesburg.

Indeed, says Larry Mills, a South African engineer working on the project, it is possible that Johannesburg's population could grow at such a fast rate that the water provided by the Katse Dam will not be sufficient by 2005.

Despite some of the worst floods of this century during the recent rainy season, which have filled dams across much of South Africa, authorities are maintaining extremely high taxes on water usage.

Locals at the Katse Dam, meanwhile, complain that too much water is going to South Africa and not being used for irrigation on their own arid soil.

''Sure there are benefits for us. But there have to be more benefits for them. Otherwise, they would not undertake such a huge project,'' says villager Paul Leeta Naledi.

Opposition is not just by local villagers. A legal battle has been under way since 1991 between the Lesotho government and a small diamond company, the Swissburgh Diamond Mines (registered in Lesotho), on disputed mining lease areas expropriated by the government in favor of the water project.

Highland Water Project authorities dismiss the company's case as opportunistic, noting that it obtained the leases with full knowledge that the land would probably be appropriated.

Entering the 20th century

The new paved highway winding along the peaks - named Nelson Mandela Road after South Africa's leader - has helped the formerly cut-off hamlets enter the 20th century. Goods are easier to come by and can be more easily transported to towns.

Electricity and the tourism expected to ensue will make life easier for subsistence herders and farmers struggling to make a living from the unforgiving rocky earth.

But a poor job of educating tens of thousands of illiterate locals before dam authorities began filling the reservoir with water in November has left them awash with superstition, rumors, and confusion.

Locals do not know how to swim, and there has been a disastrous series of water-related injuries and drownings.

Among the casualties have been cattle, donkeys, ponies, and sheep - prized animals that are the main source of wealth for shepherds.

Ancestral trees, too, sit under water.

Several locals, including Mr. Naledi, cited beliefs that the country's diamonds will be washed through the tunnel across the border to South Africa, something engineers strongly deny.

An alarming development

A big source of terror is a large crack in the earth - more than half-a-mile long and several inches wide - which appeared recently around the hamlet of Mapaleng. Engineers say it may have been caused by seismic activity from the force of water filling the dam.

Villagers fear the mythical horse-headed lake serpent will crawl out of the crevice and attack them. Some have already fled the area.

To add insult to injury, there have been long delays in paying compensation to some of the estimated 5,000 villagers who have lost houses or fields and have moved higher up on the mountains.

''We are not satisfied,'' says local judge Peter Sefahi, who supports two wives and 14 children. He is still awaiting some sacks of grain promised to him for four plots of land next to the dam site.

Rural development officer Boiketlo says the compensation is coming and that projects are under way to train people in various new skills. He says locals will be trained as fishermen and tourist guides once the lake is stocked with trout later this year.

But what about swimming and boating classes to aid survival? ''That's a good idea,'' he says pensively.

The dam should be completed by January 1997, and the water will begin flowing to South Africa the following year.

Engineer Mills says he hopes the locals will adjust by then. The drawbacks are unfortunate, but it's all for the greater good, he says.

''We've got to regionalize resources like water and power. It's a very sensible, pragmatic thing to do,'' he says.

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