The Orange-Senqu drainage basin
Sharing SADC’s White Gold
Taking care of the region’s water resources requires an integrated approach to water management. It’s a lesson shared by ORASECOM’s four members – Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa – who are restoring the Lesotho Wetlands to keep the Orange-Senqu River alive.
When rain falls over the Lesotho highlands, 3,500 metres above sea level, it flows into the
OrangeSenqu River – one of the largest rivers in Africa. Over a distance of 2,200km it winds its
way through South Africa and Namibia, with tributaries stretching into Botswana.
Throughout its course the river plays a vital economic role for local people. In the highlands of
Lesotho where dams have been erected to create hydropower, the sale of the headwaters of the
Orange-Senqu generates 33% of Lesotho’s Gross Domestic Product. And as it flows through
Gauteng, it contributes to 26% of South Africa’s economy.
Because of its immense value to their country, the local Basotho refer to their water resources as
“White Gold”. The riparian system of the Orange-Senqu is maintained by the wetlands of the
Lesotho highlands. The wetlands absorb water during rainy season and release it into the river
system periodically, supporting a steady flow and mitigating the effects of both flooding and
However, in recent years, degradation of the wetlands has reduced their capacity to retain and
release water. This has risked the flow of water throughout the entire riparian system.
“We are aware that our grasslands are deteriorating and that there is a shortage of water,” says Mpiti
Letse, Chief of the Ha Tlhaku village in the Khubelu Wetland of Lesotho. “There is a plant called
Diphophotho which used to grow in our fields but has stopped growing due to the unwanted weeds.
We are trying to make sure that there is drinking water for both us and our livestock, and that the
water in the Qoadi River flows because it feeds the Senqu River, which is the river of the nation.”
In 2000, SADC Member States signed the Revised Protocol on Shared Watercourses in the interest
of better managing the region’s shared water resources. The protocol saw the creation of a number
of bodies, among them the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM), which exists to
manage the Orange-Senqu river system among the four countries that are part of it: Botswana,
Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa.
“There are 15 shared watercourses in SADC, each with their own issues,” says Phera Ramoeli,
SADC’s Senior Programme Officer for Water.
“ORASECOM has a number of successful initiatives. They now have a fully-fledged water resource
management strategy, which takes into account all of their initiatives to ensure that water resources
of the Orange-Senqu are managed to avoid potential conflict between nations.”
One potential source of conflict is the overgrazing in the Lesotho wetlands, which is beginning to
have negative effects on the resources downstream. The Protection of the Orange-Senqu Water
Sources (Sponge) project works with Lesotho’s Department of Range Resources Management and
the Department of Water Affairs to address the wetland’s degradation through a technique known as
holistic grazing management.
“According to the 2006 census, we had 70,000 animal units in Lesotho,” says Dr Rats’ele Rats’ele,
Director of the Department of Range Resources Management. An animal unit refers to the rough
mass of one cattle or the equivalent weight of smaller livestock.
“Each animal unit requires eight hectares of land to graze each year (in order) to prevent
degradation of the land,” he says. “However, we have only two million hectares of grazing land, so
if you do the math you see we need an area almost three times the size of Lesotho for our cattle.”
The Sponge project works with the residents of the wetlands to establish grazing associations
composed of stakeholders within the wetlands.
One technique implemented by the grazing associations is called high density grazing. In the past,
cattle herders allowed cattle to range freely during the day, leaving them to eat only the more
palatable plants of their choosing. This accelerated the decimation of these plants and created a void
in the environment, leading to the degradation of the rangelands. By implementing high density
grazing, herders restrict the cattle’s grazing to limited areas, giving depleted plants in other areas
time to regrow.
“We are practising rotational grazing/farming with the hopes of keeping all the grasslands in a good
condition,” says Chief Letse. “The benefits of rotational grazing will be evident during the winter
season because there will still be sufficient food for our livestock. Another benefit is that it prevents
soil erosion during heavy rains or windy days.”
By keeping the wetlands functional, all four Orange-Senqu countries benefit from improved grazing
management by herders in the Lesotho mountains.
The Sponge project is also seeing an impact on the lives of those in the grazing associations. Before
the project, farmers expected gestation rates of 30 to 40% in cattle, but now farmers involved in the
grazing associations report 100% gestation rates. Others report substantially higher yields of wool
and mohair from flocks of sheep and goats.
“When the project first started only a few grazing associations wanted to take part,” says the Head
of the Water Resources Division of the Lesotho Department of Water Affairs, Dr Makomereng
“Now just about all the grazing associations want to take part. Even communities from as far away
as Maseru (300 km away) are approaching our offices for training,” he says. The number of grazing
associations wanting to get involved has already exceeded all expectations.
“This shows the success that is coming from Khubelu,” says Dr Fanana. “We look forward to
upscaling [the project] to the rest of the country. We have a realistic shot at saving the wetlands; we
have a winning formula.”
And this winning formula shows that complex problems affecting people across national boundaries
can be solved by people on the ground working together – to create a solution with regional
There are 15 shared water courses in SADC
Improved trade is fundamental to regional integration. To this end, the Protocol on Trade was signed in 1996 in order to liberalise trade within SADC, reduce barriers between nations, and stimulate production and economic development. Over the years this led to the elimination of tariff barriers, and export and import duties, culminating in the establishment of the SADC Free Trade Area.