Despite objections raised by particularized interest groups, the World Bank maintains that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) has, for the most part, been a success. Both the Lesotho and South African governments realized the opportunity for mutual gain in the early 1980s, at which point Lesotho, a small African nation surrounded by South Africa, consumed only 6% of its water domestically. In 1986 the two nations signed a Water Treaty with the ultimate goal of transferring 70m3/sec of water from Lesotho to South Africa’s water-thirsty industrial region of Gauteng. The project was divided into four phases, scheduled for completion between 1990 and 2020. So far, just one phase of the project has been completed, with the newly created dams funneling 30m3/sec of water to Gauteng.
The World Bank has contributed two rounds of loans ($68.9 and $45 million respectively), which amount to just 3% of the project’s total cost. In December 2008, the World Bank released a report on the too-date progress of the project. At that time the project had reached its target amounts of 30m3/sec delivered to water-starved Gauteng. On the other hand, in 2007, the first stage of the LHWP alone contributed 4.8% to Lesotho’s GDP. Moreover, phase 1B created 9,000 local jobs, three times the projected 3,000. While the World Bank has not provided overwhelming financial support, its assistance in capacity building of the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority has proven indispensable to rooting out the corruption and unaccountability which plagued early stages of the project.
The battle over the Lesotho Highlands Water Project illustrates the perhaps paradoxical tension between the World Bank and NGOs addressed by Sebastian Mallaby in his Foreign Policy article. At almost every turn, the World Bank, one of the few institutions with the capital to fund the large-scale projects necessary to tackle the world’s greatest challenges, has faced opposition from a multitude of particularized NGOs, each doggedly asserting the critical importance of their cause. In many cases the World Bank is forced to withdraw from the project, which continues nonetheless, with far less regulation and accountability than provided by the bank. Mallaby summarizes the familiar story:
“An army of advocates pounds upon big international institutions like the bank, demanding they bend to particular concerns: no damage to indigenous peoples, no harm to the rain forests, nothing that might threaten human rights…or democratic values. However noble many of the activists’ motives, and however flawed the big institutions’ record, this constant campaigning threatens to disable not just the World Bank, but regional development banks and governmental aid organizations… If this takes place, the world may lose the potential for good that big organizations offer: to rise above the single-issue advocacy that small groups tend to pursue and to square off against humanity’s grandest problems in all their hideous complexity.”