A confidential report that flags harmful levels of toxic mining effluent in Lesotho’s key rivers feeding the Lesotho Water Highlands Project (LWHP) has raised uncomfortable questions in the government and set the cat among the pigeons in cabinet, as ministries shift the blame and justify not doing their job due to a lack of funds. While South Africa, which relies on the water it buys from Lesotho, has also raised the alarm, the situation now poses a detrimental threat to Lesotho’s economy.

Lesotho depends heavily on over M1.1 billion in royalties that South Africa pays for the water it received annually from the LWHP. This is equivalent to about 5% of Lesotho’s annual national budget. This income far outweighs the income that mining generates for the country.

Toxic rivers

The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), an agency monitoring and managing the LHWP, says mining operations of Letšeng Diamond Mine, Storm Mountain Diamonds (Kao) and Liqhobong Diamond Mine continue to pollute water sources critical in the project catchment areas in Mokhotlong and Botha-Bothe.

The agency says mine pollution of critical water sources continues unabated despite the mines’ repeated promises to mitigate contamination during joint meetings chaired by the department of environment. South Africa has also repeatedly complained about this mining-based pollution. 

Former South African high commissioner to Lesotho, Sello Moloto, warned that failure to address this would eventually lead to a situation where “these big dams will remain empty”.

In an exclusive interview with MNN, Lesotho water commissioner Mokake Mojakisane said Lesotho has “committed to keep the quality of that water within acceptable standards to ensure that when transferred to South Africa, it is safe for drinking”. 

Mojakisane argues that Lesotho’s commitment to transfer clean water to South Africa “does not mean that our economic activities must be halted simply because the water is being transferred to South Africa. The issue of mining in general — I am not justifying that mines must pollute — has pollution challenges, even South Africa has similar challenges. Theirs are even worse rising from acid mine drainage and that is a known fact”.

A highly placed government source who requested anonymity for fear of victimisation, said: “This is a dangerously misguided assessment that is not backed up by data and also fails to consider how lack of protection of water sources from mine pollution will decrease availability of clean water ”for domestic use as well as for transfer to South Africa and Botswana under the pipelined Makhaleng project.

Lesotho’s King Letsie III bemoaned the “ever-deteriorating state of water sources in Africa” at the World Water Week on August 30 in Stockholm, Sweden. Many rural communities in Lesotho already do not have access to clean water.

LHDA confidential report

In May, the LHDA produced a confidential report fingering Letšeng, Kao and Liqhobong as nitrate polluters in the LHWP catchment areas in Mokhotlong and Botha-Bothe. 

The three mines, along with Mothae Kimberlite Mine, are strategically located upstream from lifeline rivers feeding the multi-billion highlands water project that was built to address water shortages in Gauteng, South Africa’s economic hub.  

MNN has seen the LHDA report titled Mining Impact in the LHWP Catchments . It states: “Following complaints from LHDA, [the] department of environment established a mining environment forum to address issues of pollution in the catchments.”

It adds: “Although mines have promised to address these issues, the level of nitrate pollution remains the same”. 

Letšeng pollution

The chart below is from the LHDA’s confidential report. It shows that laboratory-tested samples taken from Khubelu River (downstream of Letšeng Diamonds Mine) contain nitrate levels over 120 milligrams per litre (mg/l).

South African National Standards (SANS) 241:2015 for drinking water puts the maximum contaminant level for nitrate in public drinking water at 11mg/l. According to South Africa’s Aquatic Laboratories, drinking water with elevated nitrate levels “has the potential to cause tiredness and the failure to thrive” in humans. 

“This is the common effect and is chronic in nature. In extreme cases, cyanosis and difficulty in breathing in bottle-fed infants under the age of 1 year may occur”. 

The chart also shows that nitrate contamination in Senqu and Mokhotlong rivers was just below 20mg/l. These rivers, which are not within the Letšeng catchment area or near any mine in the district, reflect slightly elevated levels of nitrates because of fertilizers used in farming.

Also in May, Letšeng Diamond Mine released a public statement saying that the mine’s ongoing water analysis over the years indicated an “increase in nitrates in our water due mainly to mining explosives’ residue”. 

The mine released the statement in response to an MNN’s exposé on how the mine secretly admitted that its operations were polluting water sources the Patising and Maloraneng communities depend on

The statement said: “The most recent independent water quality assessment conducted through an accredited laboratory, confirmed that nitrate levels in the Khubelu surface water sources at the downstream communities of Patising and Maloraneng have consistently been within the drinking water standards including over the October 2021-April 2022 period mentioned in media reports.”

Contrary to Letšeng’s argument that the MNN report relied on research by the Maluti community development research into the mine’s impact on water sources was carried out by an unaccredited National University of Lesotho laboratory, the LHDA testing was carried out by an accredited laboratory in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The LHDA did not want to make the name of the laboratory public.

MNN is also engaging with Gem Diamonds, which is the company that owns the Lestšeng Diamond Mine, on the question of water pollution Once obtained, this response will be included in a follow up story MNN is investigating.

Kao pollution

As shown in the chart, nitrate levels in the Malibamatšo River above the Kao mine were below 0. But below the mine the (effluent 1 and 2) tests conducted between May 2017 and February 2022 recorded nitrate levels between 20.0mg/l to 110mg/I. The report further shows that nitrate pollution of Kao mine above Malibamatso River was significantly high while the pollution was not picked up in Malibamatšo River below the mine.

In 2018, a parliament-sanctioned task team exposed shocking details of how Kao mine spilled 25000 litres of waste into Kao River and down to Malibamatšo River, contaminating Lesotho’s lucrative “white gold” downstream into Katse Dam.

Kao Mine chief executive officer, Mohale Ralikariki, argues that it is incorrect to state that the mine is polluting the river with nitrate. 

“The nitrate levels measured at the sampling sites are largely under the required threshold. SMD [Kao mine] uses ammonium nitrate-based explosives in the pit for blasting. The nitrates therefore build up over time and are in excess in the vicinity of the mine,” Ralikariki told MNN in an exclusive interview. 

He saidthe mine only releases polluted water into the natural resources in“exceptional situations” and that this release is regulated and done in aresponsible manner. 

“This is usually done during the rainy season when there is an excess of water. Due to the heavy rains that we have been experiencing, that then causes severe pressure on our water-holding facilities on the mine and threatening their integrity.” 

Ralikariki says Kao has never made any mitigation promises to the LHDA.

Liqhobong pollution

Laboratory testing between January 2017 and January 2022 of the Motete River, which is below the Liqhobong mine, also confirmed nitrate pollution.  

Several attempts to obtain a comment from Liqhobong were unsuccessful. However, its website acknowledges that the mine “operates in an environmentally sensitive area”. It also concedes that because the water from Motete and Malibamatšo rivers flow into the Katse Dam, “there is a risk that the mining operations could impact the immediate environment or cause contamination to the down stream aquatic system”.

“Regular tests are conducted on water, air and noise pollution to ensure that all disturbances are within acceptable limits. Any deviations are identified and corrective action is taken immediately,” reads Liqhobong’s latest financials posted on its website. But, none of these water results are published on the website.

Meanwhile, the LHDA report concluded by indicating: “LHDA continues to undertake water-quality monitoring and catchment surveillance in these catchments and is building long-term data to determine the level of influence of these operations [mines] on the quality of water and to engage with the operators on mitigation measures.”

The report further states that the authority shared its intention to undertake cumulative environmental and social assessment studies, and that the purpose of the cumulative study is to “better understand the impacts of all developments in the catchments on the environment and on the project”.

LHDA boss on mine pollution

Responding to media questions in June this year, LHDA chief executive officer Tente Tente said the cumulative study is “much wider than just the mining activities” and that the authority “continuously engages the mines on water pollution and mitigation”.  

The LHDA Act does not give the body authority to sue persons or companies polluting water sources critical in the project. However, Mojakisane says it is the responsibility of the departments of water affairs and environment to act against polluters.  

“We have an ongoing water-quality management programme where we are sampling on a monthly basis the inflows into our areas. We are monitoring the nitrate and other heavy metals in the system. We have a threshold in terms of what can be tolerable, where there is exceedance, we raise those issues with our other colleagues. 

“In terms of our engagement with the department of environment and the mining industry, yes there is a committee that was set up where there is a representation from us, the mining community, and it’s chaired by the department of environment,” said Tente who added that there is a willingness to collaborate and ensure that stakeholders don’t step on each other’s toes.

“I cannot say that what we are seeing [nitrate pollution] currently is consistent. You have spikes here and there; maybe exceeding the thresholds more during the dry months because there is less water to dilute whatever is coming in, but as the rains come through, there is more dilution and they tend to fall back to acceptable levels,” Tente said.

Devil in the detail

Contrary to the belief that the revenue generated by the mining industry far supersedes the cost of its pollution, the MNN did some digging. 

The Ministry of Water is the second-leading source of revenue for the Lesotho government with M1,1 billion after the Finance Ministry in 2021/22, according to the government's budget revenue estimates. 

The biggest resource of this revenue under this ministry is water royalties, which generated M1.1 billion for the 20211/22 financial year. Lesotho further generated an income of M58 million through the Muela Hydropower Station, a component of the LHWP in the 2021/22 fiscal year. Income for water royalties for the 22/23 financial year will be an estimated M1.2 billion and M1.3 billion for the 23/24 financial year.

The same budget estimates indicate that the Ministry of Mining appears fourth in the top five revenue generating ministries. Mining generated its highest revenue in 2021-2022,amounting to M207 million. The Ministry of Mining is expected to earn the country M217,794,326 in 2022-2023 and M228,684,043 in 2023-2024.

This means that mining generated a 7.9% of the revenue generated by the Minister of Water in the 2021/22 financial year.  An anonymous government sources said that this should insentivise Lesotho to change its attitude to the protection and preservation of its water sources.

Too broke to monitor water quality?

Section 8 of the Lesotho Water Act of 2008 states that the “Commissioner [of water] shall produce a state of water resources report once every year”. However, the ministry’s water affairs hydrologist Nthati Toae says the department is unable to perform its lawful duties due to a lack of funds.

She confirms that the LHDA has repeatedly complained about the mining pollution in its catchment area and that her department has requested the LHDA to provide evidence that the mines were polluting water to “form a basis on the extent of water pollution by the mine”. 

This is because her department does not have enough funds for water-monitoring exercises and relies on institutions such as the LHDA for data. 

“We are unable to periodically monitor water quality and take polluters to task because we operate on a shoestring budget. Because of a lack of resources, we had to abandon monitoring rivers and only do water quality reports in three rivers —Mohokare, Senqu and Makhaleng,” Toae said.

She says the department last carried out water-quality monitoring exercises in these three rivers in 2020. In response to MNN’s question why the government does not act on the LHDA water tests and results, Tooe said the government needs to conduct its own, independent tests.

MNN elevated the matter to former minister of water, Kemiso Mosenene, who referred all questions back to Mojakisane. 

“Budget availability is based on the economy of the country, maybe we would do better if we were in America. But, even if there is that budget challenge, mines have an obligation of monitoring and reporting on environmental impacts,” Mojakisane said. 

He argues that: “Water Affairs cannot just confirm that the LHDA has complained and end it there, it has the law on their side, and it has got the stick. I don’t even know how the ministry can come in because the person (Water Affairs) who is confirming this, has got the law on her side to crack the whip.”

Mojakisane says he is shocked that the departments of Environment and Water had not taken action against the polluting mines.

In a separate interview, Director of the Department of Environment Motsamai Damane said it was impractical for his department to take action against polluting mines. Although the department has the right to withdraw mining licenses, he told MNN that it is politically difficult for government ministries to be seen fighting each other in court.

“It’s only that it is not an easy thing to do because now if the department of environment withdraws or takes to court the ministry of mining, you understand [the delicacy of this matter],” said Damane. 

Commissioner of Mines, Pheello Tjatja, refused to comment on the matter, saying: “These questions are relevant to the Department of Environment since they are the ones that issue environment clearances, so they ensure compliance”.

Meanwhile, the Department of Water Affairs is also failing to perform its lawful duties of preserving and protecting wetlands. 

In her 2020 audit report on the government’s consolidated financials then-acting Auditor General Monica Besetsa said wetlands are the key “sources of water of Lesotho’s main rivers”.

“Recent interviews with the chief technical officer revealed that monitoring activities were not undertaken on a quarterly basis due to lack of transport and that the last monitoring was done in 2013, hence [there have been] no monitoring reports,” read Besetsa’s report.

“However, the monitoring exercise was done only on wetlands in Mokhotlong at the source of the Senqubasin — namely Khubelu, Phapong, Ramosetsa, Motšeremeli, Khalo-la-Lithunya and Kotisephola wetlands — and they were constantly being rehabilitated under the support of Deutsche Gesellschafts fur Internationale (GIZ),” she said. 

She further notes thatthere were inadequate resources in terms of human resources and transport,“which significantly contributed to the destruction of wetlands, as theirstatus was not known, as well as the extinction of ecosystems aroundthem”. 

According to ReNoka, a citizen movement engaging all communities living and working within the Orange-Senqu River basin to collectively protect and restore land and water for shared prosperity, says communities in Lesotho have felt the harsh impact of climate change.  

“The global impact of climate change has been felt in Lesotho, threatening livelihoods as severe weather cycles of flooding and droughts have become more frequent with each passing decade,” states the ReNoka website. 

ReNoka suggests that in addition to building a resilient river basin capable of serving future generations, multiple steps must be taken that address social, political, economic and environmental challenges together. 

This, according to ReNoka, includes working with local leaders and communities at community and national levels to support and strengthen capacities and financing.

“Good policies are effective when there are strong instruments put in place for enforcement. To help enforce laws and regulations outlined in policies, we need strong institutions that will regulate, enhance accountability, implement and monitor policies.”

This story was produced by the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism  and syndicated by the IJ Hub on behalf of its member centre network in Southern Africa.