Urban water provision in Maseru (Lesotho): A Geographical analysis

Water is the most indispensable of all basic human needs. It is needed for drinking, cooking, washing, bathing and cleaning. It is also important for hygiene and public sanitation. Indeed, water-borne diseases contribute to the deaths of at least four million children in developing countries every year (United Nations, 1996). Untreated household sewage, industrial effluent, agricultural runoffs, and inappropriate land use patterns are some of the major threats to safe water sources. Despite these facts, the provision of water services in urban areas of developing countries remains one of the major challenges currently facing governments (Linn, 1983). This is particularly so because there is a delay in the provision of urban services, including water, while urban populations are growing at alarming rates (Rakodi, 1993).
Lesotho is no exception in this regard. There are major changes occurring in the country that will have great impact on water resources, and these changes are of great importance in setting policy and determining management strategies (TAMS, 1996a). One of the major challenges that face the government of Lesotho is sustainably meeting the water demands of the ever-increasing population, particularly in the urban areas. In fact, the government of Lesotho has, as one of its Millennium Development Goals, decreasing the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation (Government of Lesotho, 2003; Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, 2000). It is therefore important to examine what the government has undertaken in order to achieve this enormous task and to assess the successes and problems encountered. The critical elements in explaining access here are mainly adequate, safe and convenient or reasonable distance to the major source of water (African Development Bank, 2000; United Nations Development Programme, 1997).

According to the Bureau of Statistics of Lesotho (2002), about 60% of the urban population in Lesotho had access to piped water on their premises in 2001, while about 24% accessed water through communal standpipes. Adding these two figures means that about 84% of the 2 urban population in Lesotho had access to piped water, whether through a communal or a private connection. These figures may look impressive, but considering the current rates of population growth and urbanisation that the country has been experiencing lately, this may not be enough. Lesotho’s population is currently growing at the rate of 2.6% per year, while the urbanisation rate ranges between 7 to 11% (Bureau of Statistics Lesotho, 2003). The report further notes that most of the growth is happening in Maseru, the capital city, which currently accommodates around 36% of the urban population in Lesotho. It must be noted that urban growth, particularly in Maseru, continues to increase, mainly as result of internal migration in which people move from the highland areas, which are mainly rural, to the lowland areas where major towns are located. Unemployment has been a major repellent that encourages this type of migration (Bureau of Statistics Lesotho, 2002). The consequential urban growth in Maseru has resulted in rapid urbanisation of areas that were traditionally rural, thereby further increasing the need for expansion in the provision of urban amenities in these areas.

The above problem is made even more complex by the fact that the Water and Sewage Authority (WASA), which is the body responsible for supply and delivery of water to all urban areas in Lesotho, has been faced with a multitude of problems that has rendered it inefficient (TAMS, 1996a). The authority is currently serving only 50% of the population within its area of designation. Along with this, the authority has not been able to introduce a significant change in tariffs to enable financial viability since its formation in 1992. This has not only led to failure in maintaining assets, but also failure and inability in expanding services (TAMS, 1996b).

On the other hand, an argument is often put forward by those who advocate free water, that water is abundant in Lesotho. Indeed, surface water resources are substantial in Lesotho and far exceed the present and future needs of the nation (Eales, Forster and Mhungo, 2000). One would therefore wonder why the Government of Lesotho has put water provision high on its priority list. In order to understand the nature of the resource, it is necessary to bear in mind some of the characteristics of water supply. Firstly, the seemingly abundant availability of water can be misleading as only a fraction of it is used. This is mainly due to high runoff and inaccessible mountain terrain. Major capital-intensive engineering that Lesotho cannot afford would be required to harness this water for use by people. Secondly, water is always unevenly distributed over space and time. This results in water being available in abundance where it is not needed and lacking in areas that need it most. It is therefore government’s responsibility to ensure even distribution of water, hence the need for expansion of water provision services in newly urbanising areas.

It is also worth noting that problems of payment for water provision do not only rest with governments, but also involve the very people that governments are trying to serve. As has been demonstrated, payment for water services is necessary, because it determines the sustainability of the service, and the mere fact that Lesotho has plenty of surface water does not imply that payment for the resource should not apply. What is important is formulation of a payment strategy that takes into account the ability of the poor to pay. This strategy must enable provision of water at a cost that will enable recovery of the initial cost of providing it, thereby enabling sustainability, while at the same time making the resource accessible to the poor. It is often assumed that the poor cannot pay for urban services, particularly water. It must be accepted that, to some extent, the desperate poverty of the urban poor makes it difficult for them to display much willingness to pay for services (Giles, Brown and Davies, 1997). However, there is increasing evidence that, because of the same desperation, the poor are in fact willing to pay surprisingly large sums for water. This is also the case in Lesotho, and because of this often false assumption, the Government of Lesotho has been caught in the trap of trying to meet the water needs of the poor while at the same time aiming to achieve cost recovery, in the formulation of policies. However, neither of these aims has been achieved through these contradictory subsidisation policies (TAMS, 1996a). Instead it is because of these policies that WASA has experienced shortfalls in revenue, which has resulted in deterioration in the quality of service and in delays or failure to expand into other areas.

Overall there is a lack of an appropriate water policy and management system to manage the growing demand for urban water supply in Maseru (TAMS, 1996a). If such a policy and management system is not introduced soon, it might become impossible to provide water on a sustainable basis to Lesotho’s urban population

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