It was a windy June morning in Ha Lephalo, a tiny highland village overlooking rugged mountains and arid wasteland. Ha Lephalo is 50 kilometres north of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho—a small country landlocked by South Africa. That morning, I met the village chief, a 50-year-old woman named Itumeleng, who introduced herself to me as a biting wind swept across her wrinkled face. Lesotho’s steep, mountainous landscape—the country’s lowest point is at 1,400 metres above sea level—had earned it the epithet “Kingdom in the sky,” she said.
This geographical position has been both a blessing and a curse. Although its majestic highlands make the country a popular travel destination, reaching water sources is difficult because of its rugged terrain. The only source of water for Ha Lephalo had historically been a spring a two-hour trek away across slippery slopes. In 2015, even this source became tenuous because of a shortage of rainfall caused by El Niño—an irregular cycle of climate changes brought on by rising temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño triggered the worst drought to have hit Lesotho, and southern Africa, in the last 35 years.
In October 2016, as part of a series of drought-assistance measures, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, built a large water tank with a capacity of 20,000 litres in Ha Lephalo. It has since served over 1,600 people—the entire population of the village—and the water is predicted to last for about 30 years if the tank is maintained well. According to the United Nations office in Lesotho, half a million people in the country benefitted from $40.7 million (about Rs 270 crore) in international aid, which ranged from agricultural assistance and water-related interventions to cash grants. But the drought-relief was slotted to end in August 2017, and a second bout of El Niño has been predicted around the end of the year, making it unclear how Lesotho will manage with its scarce water resources.