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Lesotho, located in southern Africa, is a mountainous, landlocked country covering 30 350 km. The country is totally surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. Cultivated land is estimated at 209 293 ha, or 6.9% of the total area.

The total population is almost 2 million (1994), of which 81% lives in the rural areas. Annual population growth rate is 2.5%. Average population density is 66/krn, but in the western lowlands and foothills the population density can reach 140/km.

Basic statistics and population

Area of the country 1994 3 035 000 ha
Cultivable land   - ha
Cultivated land 1994 209 293 ha
Total population 1994 1 996 000 inhab.
Population density 1994 66 inhab./km
Rural population 1990 81 %
Water supply coverage    
Urban population 1991 90 %
Rural population 1991 40 %

The severe droughts in 1991 and 1992 led to a fall in agriculture's contribution to GDP, from 17.5% in 1990 to 10.1% in 1992.

Climate and water resources

The average annual rainfall is 760 mm, varying from less than 300 mm/year in the western lowlands to 1 600 mm/year in the northeastern highlands. Intra-annual precipitation variation is high: 85% of the total is received during the months of October to April, with a peak in December and January. Very intense storms are frequent in this period, particularly in the lowlands, where as much as 15% of the annual rainfall may occur within 24 hours.

As a consequence of the abundant rainfall in the highlands, Lesotho's main natural re-source is water. Surface water resources are estimated at 4.73 km/year, far in excess of the country's requirements, whereas there is a shortage of water in South Africa. Therefore, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) has been initiated, which will eventually transfer 2.1 km/year (66 m/s) to South Africa while enabling Lesotho to generate its own electricity.


Water balance

Water resources:      
Average precipitation   760 mm/yr
    23.1 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources - total   5.2 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources - per caput 1994 2 605 m/yr
Global renewable water resources   5.2 km/yr
Dependency ratio   0 %
Total dam capacity 1994 0.007 km
De-salinated water   - 10 6 m/yr
Water withdrawal:      
- Agricultural 1987 28 10 6 m/yr
- Domestic 1987 11 10 6 m/yr
- Industrial 1987 11 10 6 m/yr
Total   50 10 6 m/yr
per caput 1987 31 m/yr
as % of internal renewable water resources   1.0 %
Other withdrawal   - 10 6 m/yr
Produced 1994 2.2 10 6 m/yr
Treated   - 10 6 m/yr
Re-used treated wastewater   - 10 6 m/yr

Irrigation and drainage

Irrigation potential 1994 12 500 ha
1. Full or partial control Irrigation: equipped area 1994 2 722 ha
- surface irrigation   - ha
- sprinkler irrigation   - ha
micro-irrigation   - ha
% of area irrigated from groundwater   - %
% of area irrigated from surface water   - %
part of equipped area actually irrigated 1994 7.4 %
2. Spate irrigation 1994 0 ha
3. Equipped wetland and inland valley bottoms   - ha
4. Other cultivated wetland and inland valley bottoms   - ha
5. Flood recession cropping area   - ha
Total water managed area (1 +2+3+4+5) 1994 2 722 ha
as % of cultivated area 1994 1.3 %
increase over last 10 years   - %
power irrigated area as % of water managed area   - %
Full or partial control schemes: Criteria      
Large schemes > 100 ha 1994 2 519 ha
Medium schemes   - ha
Small schemes < 100 ha 1994 203 ha
Total number of households in irrigation 1994 1 268  
Irrigated crops:      
Total irrigated grain production 1994 0 t
as % of total grain production 1994 0 %
Harvested crops under irrigation 1994 203 ha
- vegetables 1994 203 ha
Drainage - Environment:      
Drained area   - ha
as a % of cultivated area   - %
Flood-protected area   - ha
Area salinized by irrigation   - ha

The major river systems in Lesotho are:

Groundwater resources are conservatively estimated at 0.5 km/year (calculated from the base flow of the Senqu river). The aquifers yields are low: of a sample of 818 wells, only 12% yielded above 1 l/s; average well depth was 65 m in intrusive, sedimentary or volcanic rock, and 28 m in alluvial rock. About 3 300 wells, equipped with hand-pumps, serve the rural population in the lowlands, while 10% of the urban domestic production originates from groundwater. Except for the area around Maputsoe (aquifer yield 50 l/s) the potential for irrigation with groundwater is low in Lesotho.

The total water withdrawal is estimated at 0.05 km (Figure 1).


The potential for large-scale irrigation in Lesotho was estimated at 12 500 ha in the early 1970s. No other survey has been carried out to assess the total irrigation potential in Lesotho. The Total water managed area is about 2 722 ha, and corresponds to the total equipped area for full or partial control irrigation. This area can be divided as follows (Figure 2):


The donor-funded irrigation projects are operating within the institutional system of the Department of Crop Services, Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry bears the costs of local staff. District Agricultural Officers are providing extension services to the projects.

FIGURE 1: Water withdrawal (total: 0.05 km in 1987)

FIGURE 2: Types of full and partial control irrigation schemes

The Department of Water Affairs, Ministry of Natural Resources, monitors the surface and groundwater resources in the country.


Irrigation development has not been very successful in Lesotho, and many irrigation schemes have been converted into dryland farming systems. Reasons for the poor performance of irrigation in Lesotho include:

The more successful irrigation projects in Lesotho, such as the Small-Scale Irrigated Vegetable Project, are based on an individual approach to communally owned irrigation schemes, where farmers control the on-field crop production activities. The applied irrigation distribution system allows each farmer to irrigate his plot independently of others.

The Government of Lesotho aims to develop and expand irrigated farming to achieve self-sufficiency in vegetables and to export the surplus. However, substantial increase in the irrigated area is not foreseen in the near future, and the irrigated sector remains small.

A study examining the potential for irrigation in connection with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project revealed that the proposed projects would have a negative return due to the high opportunity costs of water. Therefore most of the projects were cancelled, except from a plan to divert 100 l/s for irrigation purposes from a tailpond at Muela.

The severe drought of 1994-95 resulted in a failure of the main rainfed staple crops. The Government of Lesotho appealed for assistance from the international community in February 1995, illustrating the vulnerability of the agricultural sector. Expansion of the irrigated area could lead to improved food security, which should be taken into account in future cost-benefit analyses of irrigation projects.


Bureau of Statistics. 1994. Statistical report No. 6.

Lesotho Highlands Development Authority. 1990. Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Environmental Action Plan.

Ministry of Agriculture. 1991. The history of irrigation in Lesotho.

Ministry of Agriculture. 1993. Small-Scale Irrigated Vegetable Project. Report for October 1992 to March 1993.

Ministry of Natural Resources. 1994. Hydrogeological map of Lesotho.

UNDP. 1994. Lesotho: 1992 report.

Water and Sewage Authority. 1994. Project identification report.

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