- as M700 million is urgently required to address damage caused by heavy rains nationwide
- yet cabinet can only afford M125 million now
- says M2 billion required annually for seven years to effectively address the problem
- vows to ensure LTE does not proceed with airport project
Climate change is wracking havoc in poor developing countries including Lesotho. The country's infrastructure has been severely damaged. Roads and bridges have been washed away in harsh thunderstorms. The Kingdom requires M700 million for urgent repairs but the government has only availed M125 million at this stage.
Topping the list of urgent priorities is the collapse over the weekend, of the Tsoaing bridge in Mafeteng. This marked its second collapse in about a year.
Against this background, the Lesotho Times's Features and Climate reporter Mathatisi Sebusi, sat with Minister of Public Works and Transport, Matjato Moteane, for a chat about all these infrastructural challenges and how he hopes to overcome them amid the devastations of climate change.
LT: Please tell us about the Tsoaing bridge and what actually is the problem resulting in its continuous collapse.
Moteane: The responsibility of providing temporary access while we are busy building the new bridge is priced under preliminary and general items. These are things that are supposed to be done by the contractor, in addition to all others that are needed for the actual construction.
So, the contractor has an obligation to provide temporary access across the Tsoaing river. We usually do not have a too detailed description of how a bridge should be, just that it should be able to allow movement of vehicles on a temporary basis.
In the case of Tsoaing bridge, we had a contract of nine months. The project was launched around March last year. So, in that period of nine months, the contractor is required to provide temporary access across the river, so the first thing he does, is build a temporary structure.
If the structure collapses or is somewhat damaged, he will replace it with another one. But we don't pay him every time for the new bridge. He is provided with finances for it just once.
This is because the idea is that he will provide something that is fit for purpose, but if that fails then he has to provide the next one.
Sometime in November last year (2023), when we went to the construction site, the water was already running over the temporary bridge, we even laughed about it and said if it rains again, the bridge will give in. That very same day in the afternoon, the bridge collapsed.
The contractor then replaced it with another one, and it was fairly basic. They just bought some pipes and covered them with cement on top. The bridge which was replaced in December gave in again last week. So, he has a week to replace it and restore the connectivity at his own expense.
It's a horrible thing to say, but we kind of designed the bridge as a temporary measure and to be removed once the main bridge is complete. Even if it had not collapsed, it was going to be removed upon completion of the main bridge.
What we are interested in is the new bridge. The new bridge, which I have seen, I am told that it is strong enough and climate resilient. I know it will be difficult to believe considering the state of the temporary structure which has collapsed twice, an indication of apparent incompetence you might say. You are probably asking, if we are failing with the temporary bridge, what more with the main structure?
If it had not rained, we would not have had the problem. When we build other bridges going forward, we will specifically state that the temporary bridge must be strong enough to resist storms. With the temporary Tsoaing bridge, we did not detail explicitly the quality we desired.
We believe that the main bridge will be completed by the end of March this year, and hopefully, we will not talk about Tsoaing bridge ever again.
LT: Apart from the Tsoaing bridge, is there any damage caused by severe rains and storms to other bridges and roads?
Moteane: Because of severe weather events which the country has been experiencing in the past four years, damage to roads and bridges is everywhere across the country. Included among them is the Koro-Koro bridge and the situation has gotten worse than it was before. In Mokhotlong we have seven footbridges which collapsed during the 2021 storm. They were never repaired. Another footbridge which collapsed is in Mantsónyane.
Damaged roads include a road from Seaka to Phamong in Mohale's Hoek, roads in the Quthing district's region of Siqondo, and another road which connects Thaba-Tseka and Mokhotlong (Makunyapane-Malimong), where access is cut off when you reach a place called Menoaneng.
Another road connecting Sehlabathebe and Thaba Tseka is no longer accessible and needs a total revamp. Another road which is not accessible is the one between Katse and Thaba Tseka. We need to find money, at least for the road network, even if it is a gravel road.
It is a lot of bridges and roads that need to be repaired. When we add it all up together, the damage is to the tune of M700 million. Money which we know that government does not have.
LT: Now that we are approaching the new financial year, do you think the budget allocated to your ministry will enable you to address the damage to infrastructure? How much did you manage to achieve with the allocation this financial year?
Moteane: Today, I am coming from the cabinet meeting. We have been given M125 million of the M700 million we need to repair bridges and roads. This, the cabinet said, should attend to and address cases which are severe. We are yet to meet and decide on which areas to cover. The balance from the M700 million (M575 million) will be availed in our budget for the next financial year.
This says with the money we will be only repairing damage caused by rains for the past four years. We still must do other things on the road network, to repair it. As per our calculations we need about M2 billion per year for the next five to seven years. Last year we were given M1.3billion, hopefully this year we will get M1.5 billion.
We used all the money we were given last year; we were even given an additional M400 million but still we have not achieved our target.
LT: Where will you get this money? You mentioned just a few minutes ago that the government is broke, literally.
Moteane: The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning will have to borrow for us. They have already negotiated with the World Bank to finance a road network between Katse and Thaba-Tseka, Thaba-Tseka to Mokhotlong, Hamakunyapane to Sehlaba-Thebe.
If we manage to borrow, the ambition in National Strategic Development Plan II of linking all towns together with all tarred roads will be achieved.
LT: Moving on, in previous interviews with the Lesotho Times, you talked about the ministry's intension to terminate its M33 million tender contract with LTE Consulting Engineers regarding construction of the new Moshoeshoe I International Airport. How far are you with that process? While at it, please remind us of the reason behind the termination.
Moteane: We have told them of our intention to terminate. We stopped them from doing any work, and they have as a result, threatened us with a lawsuit but so far we have not received any summons. They have been requesting that we meet for negotiations but there is actually nothing we can talk to them about.
What we did is change the project scope. Initially we wanted construction of the airport and related infrastructure. But there are studies which the ministry of finance is conducting, and preliminary advice says we should transform the Moshoeshoe I International Airport into a special economic zone. Also, the airport was not worth building if we were going to spend all that money to service one airplane which commutes between South Africa and Lesotho. We need to increase traffic. The LTE's study did not look into possibilities of making the airport an economic zone. Even if we continued with them, they would still need to repeat the study because theirs was based on the wrong premise.
We are going to make provision in this years' budget for funds to conduct a proper study with all parameters in, as well as use the grant we have been promised by a financing house in one of the Middle Eastern countries.
LT: Suppose LTE takes the ministry to court, do you think they have a case, and if so, are you confident that you will win the case?
Moteane: That you can ask the Attorney General. I can't say anything on that. I cannot answer that one. It will be prejudicial to the case.