South African President Thabo Mbeki and King Letsie III of Lesotho on Tuesday inaugurated Phase 1B of the multiphased Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), the world's largest water transfer operation, almost six years after construction began in 1998.
The inauguration marks the end, for the moment, of all LHWP construction, said Willie Croucamp, a senior official.
The four-phased water transfer project involves diverting about half the water flowing down the Senqu river (known as the Orange river in South Africa) into the Vaal river system to meet the demand of South Africa's rapidly expanding Gauteng province.
Gauteng, South Africa's economic powerhouse, is home to 40 percent of the population.
Sections of Phase 1B had already become operational in 1998, with the transfer of water from a network of reservoirs at Mohale’s Hoek, Katse and Mulela in the Lesotho highlands since then.
The project was extended last year to include the construction of another tunnel from the Katse reservoir. Following completion of Phase 1B this year, the supply of water to the Vaal dam from the project has been boosted by 180 million cubic metres to 780 million cubic metres, Croucamp said.
The Vaal dam currently supplies 1,200 million cubic metres of water to Gauteng. "So the additional 780 million cubic metres from the LHWP is a sizeable contribution in supplementing the needs not only of Gauteng but portions of Mpumalanga, the North West, Free State and the Northern Cape [provinces]," Croucamp told IRIN.
In return, Lesotho receives R200 million (almost US $30 million) from South Africa in annual royalties. The mountain kingdom's recurrent budget is about R261 million (about US $39 million). Water, called "white gold" in Lesotho, is the country's largest single source of foreign exchange.
According to the Lesotho government, by the end of the fourth phase of the proposed scheme in 2015, six dams will have been constructed, including a 200 km network of transfer tunnels through the Maluti mountains, delivering 82 cubic metres of water per second.
"The LHWP Phase 1 solves Gauteng's water problem for the immediate future, rejuvenates the Vaal River, and provides Lesotho with valuable income, job opportunities, electricity and infrastructure, on which tourism and industrial development can thrive," said Ronnie Mamoepa, South African foreign affairs spokesperson.
"The project not only sustains the development of both countries in significant ways, but provides a showpiece for the region and the rest of the continent of mutually beneficial cooperation," he added.
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