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Lesotho is often eclipsed by its larger neighbor, South Africa both literally (South Africa surrounds the country) and economically. However, the small nation is home to a thriving economy that is pivoted on its natural resources. Some of the natural resources found in the country include its water as well as significant mineral deposits. Lesotho has benefited from these natural resources that are not only the lifeline for the country’s residents but also earns the country millions of dollars in the form of foreign exchange every year.
Water is one of the chief natural resources of Lesotho. The mountainous country is home to many rivers which are the nation’s main water sources. The Orange River which is the region’s largest river has many of its tributaries and its primary catchment area is found in the country. These tributaries make up the major rivers of Lesotho and cumulatively are Lesotho’s natural resource. Examples of these rivers include the Caledon, Makhaleng, and Senqunyane rivers. The rivers are not only crucial in the provision of fresh water in Lesotho, but they also play an important role in energy generation in the form of hydroelectric power. Interestingly, water is also an export commodity in the country as Lesotho is the main source of water for neighboring South Africa’s province of Gauteng. The water is exported to South Africa through the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the largest of its kind in the continent.
One of the major rivers found in the country is the Caledon River. Starting from its source in the Drakensberg Mountains, the river flows for a total of 300 miles in length and discharges its water into the Orange River. The river is notable for being the main source of water for the nation’s capital Maseru. Therefore, the government has put in place measures to ensure that the capital does not run out of water during the dry season when the river’s flow is at its lowest. Among the measures employed by the government include the construction of the Meulspruit and Muela dams, both of which have massive reservoirs. The river is also an important source of water for irrigation and the Caledon Valley through which it flows is one of the most agriculturally productive areas of the country.
Another major river in the country is the Makhaleng River. The river starts in the Maluti Mountains and flows through the western part of the country until it reaches the Orange River, covering a total of 120 miles in length. Like all of Lesotho’s rivers, the Makhaleng River is a primary source of water for thousands of residents residing along the river’s course. As a result, the regions along the river are densely populated and are home to major towns such as Ramabanta, Molimo-Nthuse, and Makhaleng. The river is also home to the spectacular Qiloane Falls whose natural beauty makes them a popular destination for tourists. However, unlike the Caledon River, the Makhaleng River has no reservoirs and dams.
The central part of the country is home to the Senqunyane River, a river which flows from the Maluti Mountains to the Orange River, covering a total of 75 miles in length. Despite not being as long as the Makhaleng and Caledon rivers, the river is among the country’s most important natural resources. The reason behind the river’s significance is the Mohale Dam which impounds the river. The dam makes up the Lesotho Highlands Water Project which is one of the largest water projects in Africa. Each year thousands of tourists flock on the Semongkoaneng Waterfall, a scenic water feature found along the river’s course.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project
The small South African country is known for being part of the continent’s largest water transfer project. Dubbed the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the project is a major bilateral project which is supported by the governments of South Africa and Lesotho. In the project, Lesotho provides water from its major rivers which are channeled to South Africa’s Gauteng Province which is home to many heavy industries which consume huge quantities of water. The water is sourced from rivers such as the Senqu, Malibamatso, Senqunyane, and Matsoku, and is diverted using mega dams and huge tunnels. From Lesotho, the water is transferred to South Africa’s Vaal River System which in turn channels the water to the industries in Gauteng Province. Due to its immense scale, the project was undertaken in phases and featured two main phases. The start of the inaugural phase was marked with the impounding of water from the Katse Dam and was completed by the early 21st Century. Besides supplying water to the industries of South Africa, the project also involves the generation of power through hydroelectric sources. Lesotho derives most of its electricity through the hydroelectric plants which featured in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The Katse Dam, one of the hydroelectric power sources, has an estimated production capacity of 110 MW.
Mining of diamonds in Lesotho is relatively recent activity, with the earliest commercial diamond mining in the country being traced back to the mid-20th Century. The industry experienced exponential growth in the first decade of the 21st Century when it went from having its contribution to the GDP being insignificant to a level where it accounted for an estimated 4% of the GDP in 2011. The most important mine for diamonds in the country is the Letseng Mine. Nestled at an elevation of 10,200 feet in the Maluti Mountains, the mine is considered as the highest globally. While its diamond industry is not as large as in neighboring Botswana, Lesotho’s diamonds are among the largest in the world. The country’s mines produced one of the largest diamonds in the world in 2018, a 910-carat diamond. Other exceptionally large specimens sourced from the country include the 550-carat Letseng Star and the 603-carat Lesotho Promise.
Impact of Natural Resources on the Country’s Balance of Trade
The products of Lesotho’s natural resources feature prominently in its economic output and play a role in its balance of trade. As an example, diamonds are one of the country’s chief export commodities and are only surpassed by garments. However, despite having much water resources, the country imports much of its food as its largely mountainous terrain leaves only a small region suitable for agricultural production.
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