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.

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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

drought downstream.

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

SADC Protocol:

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.