The fluvial imagination: On Lesotho’s water export economy (Hoag, 2022)

David Blanchon


Hoag, C (2022). The fluvial imagination: On Lesotho’s water export economy. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520386341 (paperback US$350)


David Blanchon

University of Paris X-Nanterre

To cite this review: Blanchon, D. (2023). Review of “The fluvial imagination: On Lesotho’s water export economy”, University of California Press 2022, by C. Hoag, Water Alternatives,


The little-known kingdom of Lesotho mutated in less than 20 years from a labor-export to a water-export economy, both directed towards its powerful South African neighbor. Since 1998 and the commissioning of the Katse Dam, a large system of reservoirs and pipelines has transferred water from the Maloti mountains in northeastern Lesotho to the metropolitan region of Gauteng in South Africa (Johannesburg-Pretoria), more than 500 kilometers to the north. Colin Hoag’s ambition is not to describe this massive system of water manipulation but, rather, to explore the contradictions of the political ecology and economy of Lesotho, through the examination of its “fluvial imagination” and its “terrestrial politics of water”. The former requires “a sense of how water flows over the land and why”, the latter encompassed “terrestrial in reference to Lesotho territory, but also terra, the earth: the soil through which it flows, and which carries downslope into the watercourse.” (p. 5). Colin Hoag’s main question is therefore “how to reconcile the terrestrial demands of Lesotho water-export economy and those of its rural population?” (p. 12) or more precisely how “the terrestrial demands of everyday people conflict with the terrestrial demands of national water production” (p. 19).

The following six chapters adopt different approaches and points of view to answer these questions. The first chapter (Water Production) shows how “waters” from the high mountains of Lesotho has been transformed into “modern water”, in reference to Jamie Linton’s work. Like labor in the past, the Kingdom’s “waters” became a uniform, standardized and exportable resource, that must be stored properly “on site” then to be exported according to the needs of the powerful South African economy. Colin Hoag perfectly demonstrates how the perception of “water”, having become “national”, is based on a myth, because firstly its abundance is “located” in space and time, and more importantly the storage capacity of the dams is threatened by the accumulation of sediment. This issue is addressed in the second chapter (The Soil Problem). The author underlines that the question of sediments is often a forgotten dimension because it is not normally visible, if we do not have sentinels, such as a type of dwarf shrub, which makes observable a process that is often slow and difficult to measure. But, even with considerable scientific knowledge gaps, the State of Lesotho and the Lesotho Highland Development Authority are pushed to solve the “soil problem” and must protect the water resource from the harmful effects of soil erosion, which is officially supposed to be the consequence of the bad practices of local pastoralists.

In the next chapters, using a methodology largely based on political ecology, Colin Hoag brilliantly describes the implications of the water/soil/pastoralism issues by taking the conflicting points of view of “conservationist bureaucracy”, NGOs and local sheep and cattle herders. One of the major contributions of this book is the detailed depiction of the society of Lesotho Highlands, the meticulous attention to the terminology used in English and Sesotho by the different actors, and the ability of the author to see the landscape “through their eyes”. In this sense, the reader is invited to see the soil issue and the landscape of Lesotho highlands according to the point of view of “conservation bureaucrats”, who oversee the activities aimed at solving the “sediment problem” (Chapter 3 -The soil solution- and Chapter 4 -Bureaucratic ecology), and that of local communities (Chapter 5 – Livestock production). The reader can better decipher the interactions between NGOs and development organizations and local populations in the context of the “projectification” of environmental management. We also understand, through the dialogue between the author and a pastor, what pushes the latter to smuggle across the border to be able to sell his sheep in South Africa, despite the danger of doing so. The pictures (especially p. 40, 71, 127) usefully help the reader to fully understand the political ecology of Lesotho Highlands. The last chapter (Negative Ecology) clearly demonstrates how Lesotho can be seen as a “negative of Gauteng” and how Lesotho and South Africa “coproduce” each other.

The work of Colin Hoag is an outstanding work of political ecology and environmental humanities. All the chapters demonstrate his capacity to consider both the broader context (analyzing the history of Lesotho and using socio-economic data, particularly those linked to pastoralism) and the local perspective (through ethnographic approach and in-depth analysis of discourses and landscape). One can only regret, but that is out the scope of this book, that Colin Hoag did not examine the “other side” of the water transfer, i.e., the “fluvial imagination and terrestrial politics of water” of South Africa, to describe their contradictions, which are also at the origin of many features of the Lesotho Highlands.



Additional Info

  • Authors: Colin Hoag
  • Year of publication: 2022
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Reviewer: David Blanchon
  • Subject: Political ecology, Water governance, Water management, Transboundary waters, Urban water supply, Water politics, Dams, Environment, Water and community, Water allocation
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English