Episode 706: Water's Worth : Planet Money If your country's main export is water, what happens when your wells run dry?


Recently, I was near the southern tip of Africa, a tiny country called Lesotho. And I was touring villages in the mountains, talking to people. And I was drawn to one man in particular, Lemphileng Ferese (ph), mostly because he was standing next to this giant bull, which of course is radio bait.


SMITH: But also because he was wearing a hat with a logo for the Chicago Bulls...

LEMPHILENG FERESE: (Foreign language spoken).

SMITH: ...Which he thought was hilarious.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He says he knows Michael Jordan.

SMITH: The rest of his cattle are out in the hills, but Ferese is worried about this particular bull. The bull is too skinny. You can see his ribs. There hasn't been enough grass from him to graze because there hasn't been enough water. Lesotho's going through a drought. And when I ask Ferese how bad is it, he answers in distance. In order to find water and grass for the cattle, they have to go really far.

FERESE: (Foreign language spoken).

SMITH: Sixty miles over the mountains.

FERESE: (Foreign language spoken).

SMITH: And the last time they went, the water there had run out, too. They had to kill two of their cows who were so skinny - so skinny they could only be fed to the dogs. It's frustrating for everyone here 'cause traditionally Lesotho has had more rain than they knew what to do with. Even now, during the drought, there are massive dams close to here filled with water. You can see the water from the road that goes down the mountain, but the water isn't meant for them, for the farmers, for the ranchers or for anyone in Lesotho. The water has already been sold to someone else.


SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. In a world of changing climate, there are places that are rich in water and places that need it desperately. And the obvious solution is to make a deal, right? Sell the water. Export it from wet countries to dry ones, but water isn't like any other export. Today on the show - what happens when you have sold your water and all of a sudden your wells run dry. We're going to follow the pipes to see who took the water from those cows. Here's a hint - it was one of Lesotho's neighbors, and they only have one neighbor.


SMITH: Let's drive down the mountain, down from Ferese's village. We're going to follow the path of the water to the dams. And I know it's a drought and all, but you have to picture this - the dried grass just gleams gold in the sun. It's weirdly beautiful.

The road's getting so bad I think I could walk faster than this car is going.

MAFUPU MOKOENA: That's not true because you'll get tired before you reach where you're going.

SMITH: I'm hitching a lift with Mafupu Mokoeno. She works with WaterAid, a charity trying to provide water to all these villages we're passing along the way. Lesotho's pretty small. There's only about 2 million people here, and it's very poor. And these mountains are the reason. It is tough to get anywhere. It's tough to grow anything.

But the mountains are also why traditionally Lesotho has had so much water. It gets a lot of rain and snow. Mafupu says they have always been mountain people, ever since King Moshoeshoe I fended off armies trying to take over this land by retreating farther and farther up into the hills.

MOKOENA: Our king did not have weapons, so you'd prefer to hide behind the mountains and throw the stones to the people that were fighting.

SMITH: I think you have more stones than any other country in the world, just looking around us.

MOKOENA: (Laughter) Yes.

SMITH: Lesotho might have remained this rocky, overlooked country if not for the rains, if not for the dams. The water project I'm going to see is one of the biggest ever attempted in Africa. Mafupu drops me off in one of the smaller towns, and I hire a car to go see the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.


SMITH: And I have to say, it is not how it looks in the brochure. In all of the pictures, the dam is full. There's this big Niagara Falls pouring out over the side. But now it is low, and it is quiet. All of the action is underground.


SMITH: There is water flowing in all of these tubes around us.

This looks very scary. There's a dark...

PALESA MOHAPI: (Laughter).

SMITH: There's a dark tunnel and a single door at the end.

MOHAPI: I'm not afraid. Water won't come through here, but water can come through the side.

SMITH: My tour guide Palesa Mohapi says we can certainly outrun the water if it comes. Palesa's been with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project for more than a decade. She was there for the construction of the system of three dams. The long tunnels like this one - it is by far the most ambitious and valuable thing ever built in Lesotho.

I wanted to see where the water was heading, so Palesa brought me to the control room. It is all diagrams and little tiny lights. Everyone's staring up at a board with a schematic of the dams and the water tunnels. And it doesn't take an expert to see the problem here. The little lights depicting the level of the Katse Dam do not go up to the top of the gauge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What is the Katse dam level?

SMITH: Looks to be about 60 feet lower than normal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So we don't want to be this low.

SMITH: The lights for the upper dam show it's in even worse shape. Palesa follows the path of the water with her finger on the board down through the mountains, past where we are now, underneath the Mohale Dam, into the final tunnel, a giant straw that goes over the border to South Africa.

MOHAPI: So this is South Africa.

SMITH: Wow, 34.6 cubic meters per second.

MOHAPI: Yeah, cubic meters per second.

SMITH: That's a lot.

A massive amount of water flowing day and night to South Africa. The drought has made all the numbers on the control room board look low except for this last one because the flow to South Africa - the final tunnel - this is the moneymaker.

On a bulletin board outside the control room, there is a chart that tells everyone here how much money South Africa's paying for this water. And it is a pretty steady amount - $4 to $5 million a month. I decided to follow the water - the giant straw - to its final destination across the border, Johannesburg, South Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking foreign language).

SMITH: Johannesburg is the exact opposite of Lesotho. It's this giant area with almost 8 million people. It's flat. It's crowded. It's busy. And the whole thing - the whole thing is made possible by the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

LESLEY WENTWORTH: It's essentially running its economy on the water that is flowing down into the province.

SMITH: Running its economy on Lesotho's water.

WENTWORTH: (Laughter) In part, yes.

SMITH: Lesley Wentworth studies economic diplomacy, which I hadn't heard of until I met her. Apparently, this is the study of why countries make the deals they do. And since she lives in Johannesburg, when she turns on the tap, Lesotho water comes out. She showers in Lesotho water. She does her laundry in Lesotho water. And she says it all made a lot of sense when they first started to dream of it 50 years ago. Johannesburg was growing fast, and here was this poor little country next door with its mountains and its rivers full of rain. And the Johannesburgers thought...

WENTWORTH: Why not capture the water source and make the river run in a different direction?

SMITH: Lesotho could be a giant water tower for South Africa. In fact, South Africa offered to help build the dams and the tunnels themselves. And up in Lesotho, the offer was tempting. They had plenty of water. They needed the money, and it wasn't like they had any other customers for the water.

Lesotho is completely surrounded by the country of South Africa, a geographic quirk. It is a true captive market. But still, the king of Lesotho back in the 1980s was stalling. He wasn't willing to sell this big chunk of his water. And the negotiations dragged on and on. And then, mysteriously, the military of Lesotho decided that the king was not doing his job.

WENTWORTH: What resulted was inevitably a coup (laughter), yes, orchestrated by the South African government. Some people are hedgy about that, but this is - this is essentially what happened.

SMITH: Nine months later, the unelected military government of Lesotho signed a water deal with the undemocratic apartheid government of South Africa. And bulldozers rolled over the border to help Lesotho build the dams. And there was a catch. Because the project was so big and expensive, South Africa made sure that this was a long-term commitment. Lesotho can't just figure about how much spare water it has each year and sell that. No, Lesotho guaranteed that the water would keep flowing no matter what, which would have been fine if it had kept raining.

WENTWORTH: The water, which is the key asset that Lesotho holds, is fast diminishing.

SMITH: And they've locked themselves into a long-term contract here, and climate is changing out from under them.

WENTWORTH: Yeah. Exactly.

SMITH: And here is where water is different than just about any other natural resource. If a country is exporting trees, say - wood - and they cut down too many, they can stop cutting. Or they can raise the price of the wood, or they could just keep the lumber for themselves. But water projects of this scale are basically forever. Lesotho wouldn't be able to blow up the dams and put the rivers back to normal even if they wanted to. And to be clear, the government of Lesotho does not want to. Even with the drought, they make too much money from the dams, from water. And the dams generate electricity and keep the lights on in the capital. It's the farmers and the shepherds in Lesotho who are on their own. Let's finish up back at the top of the mountain in Lesotho.

I feel like water may be the hardest thing to help with because there's a lot of climbing involved.

MOKOENA: Unfortunately, no - no shortcuts. You have to do the climbing, and you have to go there - the steep way down.

MOKOENA: Unfortunately, no -- no shortcuts. You have to do the climbing and you have to go there, this deep something.

SMITH: Mafupu Mokoena is walking up a hill, showing me what the villages are doing about the drought. South Africa's taking the best, easiest source of water, so groups like WaterAid have to go farther and farther to find it - deeper wells, longer pipes. When we get to the top of the hill, Mafupu shows me that they built their own tiny version of a dam. It's a concrete water tank fed by a spring. And the idea is that this will feed clean water to the village below.

SMITH: Hello. Hello in there. Hello.

It doesn't sound full.

MOKOENA: It means that it's not full.

SMITH: The springs in this area are just not producing enough water, and frankly it is super expensive to build these little, tiny water systems village by village. And so the villagers are taking some extreme measures. The man who's been watching his bulls die, Lemphileng Ferese, has given up trying to find fresh grass. He started to make the long drive out of the mountains to buy animal feed at a store instead. It is expensive for him, and it's particularly galling because the store he gets it from is over the border in South Africa. I ask him, has it occurred to you that the animal feed that was grown in South Africa was actually grown with Lesotho's water, with your water?

FERESE: (Foreign language spoken.)

SMITH: Why are you laughing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We are laughing because we were expecting the answer that is given. It's very upsetting.

SMITH: I heard this again and again in Lesotho. It's upsetting, yes, but then they would laugh at the absurdity of it all. No one ever dreamed that Lesotho would run out of water. One farmer I met, Blessing Nkhase (ph), put it in this really profound way.

BLESSING NKHASE: In short, till taught by pain, men know not what water's worth.

SMITH: Till taught by pain, men know not what water is worth, which I assumed was a wise traditional Lesotho saying, but I googled it later. It turns out it's Lord Byron, early 19th century England - just as true here in Lesotho.


SMITH: Let us know what you thought of today's show. You can email us - planetmoney@npr.org. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. We are @planetmoney. Today's episode was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. Thanks also to the International Reporting Project - the IRP. They sponsored a fellowship for journalists to South Africa and Lesotho, and this story came out of that reporting.

If you're looking for another fine NPR podcast, may we recommend the TED Radio Hour, filled with fascinating ideas, unexpected inventions and fresh approaches to old problems? You can find the TED Radio Hour on the NPR One app or at npr.org/podcasts. I'm Robert Smith, and I should say the man with the bull, Lemphileng Ferese, he wanted the end to this podcast.

FERESE: Hello. Bye-bye. Kea leboha very much. (Laughter).

SMITH: Kea leboha means thanks.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.