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Mokhotlong communities gear up to preserve wetlands

MANTŠALI PHAKOANA

Lesotho’s rich and diverse animal, water, plant and aquatic biodiversity that used to provide a critical ecosystem that served as a buffer against the harsh climate change are being depleted, but Mokhotlong communities are starting to come together to act.

This experience of dramatic loss of biodiversity negatively affects livelihoods, water supply, and food chain and lessens resilience to extreme events, particularly for people living in rural areas in Mokhotlong.

Amid the local communities impoverished, Mokhotlong is Lesotho’s richest district in mineral wealth, especially diamonds and water.

Interestingly, Lesotho exports water to neighbouring South Africa through Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), a bilateral project between the two countries.

The waters are harvested from rivers such as the Senqu/Orange, Malibamatšo, Senqunyane and Matsoku, which main sources are wetlands.

The biggest diamond mine in the country is Letšeng Diamond Mine, and Lesotho’s diamonds are among the largest in the world.

As mining developments in the district of Mokhotlong increased there has been loss of wetlands due to mining activities including prospecting, exploration, construction, operation, maintenance, abandonment, decommissioning and repurposing.

Such activities impact social and environmental systems in a range of positive and negative, direct and indirect ways and post a threat to survival of wetlands.

Mine exploration, construction, operation, and maintenance result in land-use change from subsistence farming and grazing pastures and may have associated negative impacts on environments, including deforestation, erosion, contamination and alteration of soil profiles, contamination of local streams and wetlands, and an increase in noise level, dust and emissions.

It is these negative effects on the environment and wetlands that are driving the Mokhotlong communities to deploy efforts to reverse the negative impact on their water sources and wetlands through work done by civic group Maluti Community Development Forum (the Forum).

The Forum is finding ways to protect these fragile environments through sustainable management and by making responsible choices that can promote both protection of water sources and spur tourism.

In its journey to preserve wetlands, the Forum launched a project to preserve wetlands specifically in mining-affected communities in Mokhotlong.

The project entails undertaking public awareness on the need for preservation of wetlands. This project was launched in Mapholaneng, Mokhotlong on Friday, October 11, 2019.

The Forum was formed in 2013 by concerned residents of Mokhotlong with the aim of protecting the use of minerals and other natural resources of Mokhotlong for the maximum benefit and empowerment of the communities on their land and in a sustainable manner through the establishment of local and international markets.

The Forum primarily targets affected communities within major national treasure points such as water sources and or wetlands, sandstone mining, diamonds mining, and farming areas.

In the midst of one of the country’s worst droughts in recorded history, the government, through mining ministry continued to renew and issue new licenses to diamond mining companies amid “failing” their host communities.

Letšeng Diamond Mine, in particular, is gaining increased scrutiny from the local communities as it has had its mining licence renewed after failing to respond and act towards demands and grievances by Tlokoeng community.

Tlokoeng community argues Letseng Diamond Mine among other issues, does not hire the community members even for unskilled labour work.

Chief Molatoli Sekonyela, speaking at the launch of the project spearheaded by the Forum, said they will oversee the function of the forum to the best interests of the community.

He said he is committed to guiding the forum to meet and resolve the needs and grievances of the Mokhotlong communities.

“Most of the communities whose properties were affected by the mine suffered a lot because they were not compensated with erection of property after loss of their property.

“The community affected by construction of Polihali Dam in second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) have lost hope in government and the projects management.

“Similarly, with Polihali Dam, our community is already suffering,” Sekonyela said.

Sekonyela said he had been visiting the construction area to check one of the water wells, which he said is in dire need for repair.

He accused the Lesotho highlands Development Authority, implementing body of the Lesotho highlands water project, of neglecting the communities it is operating within and said it does not see any need to give back to the communities amid using its project activities consuming water from the same water well used by the community.

“That is so unfortunate. But I trust the forum will strongly advocate for this community and they will be heard by the government, and those with powers.”

For his part, the Forum’s president, Advocate Thabo Lerotholi, pictured, expressed the organisation’s disappointment over government’s secret renewal of Letšeng Diamond Mine mining licence with 10 years.

“Diamonds are non-renewable minerals, when it is depleted, it will be gone forever, if we will not benefit from it now, there is no hope that the future generation will benefit from it,” said Lerotholi as he urged Mokhotlong communities to unite in conservation of wetlands.

Lerotholi said he does not find preserving wetlands an easy task as it involves various stakeholders.

“Preserving wetlands it’s not an easy task, it needs a collaborative team, without you people living in Mokhotlong, it would not be easy for the Forum to do this work.

“As the forum, we cannot fight this problem alone but should educate herd boys and livestock owners so they understand the importance of preserving wetlands,” he said.

In the previous years, there was a similar project launched at Khalong la Lithunya in Mokhotlong, but unfortunately, Lerotholi said when the project was about to show its impact, the wetlands were over-grazed by herd boys.

“We know that our livestock, especially sheep and goats are attracted by wetlands because they are water natured.”

He told the community that if they continue destroying their wetlands through activities like over-grazing; even their livestock will not have water, and thus ultimately die.

He further said if wetlands are not restored, there is the Polihali Dam which is under construction will also go dry.

“It is a known fact that Khubelu valley, Senqu, Mokhotlong, Sehonghong and Moremoholo Rivers are aligned and originate from the wetlands. If we do not preserve our wetlands, Lesotho, major projects like the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) and everything will be over.

Sharing similar views at the launch, Tourism consultant, ‘Makamohelo Mokone said: “We have witnessed the rudeness at which Mokhotlong wetlands are being destroyed.”

According to Mokone, Mokhotlong based mines are rudely destroying wetlands through dumping sites and other activities.

“It is sad because wetlands are our future, the future for our unborn children. We have witnessed that during construction of LHDA Phases, Basotho do not benefit, the water goes straight to South Africa while you are left with nothing, and there will be the same with Polihali.

“Wetlands are very sensitive to disturbances, therefore should be closely monitored and preserved,” Mokone said.

Besides environmental benefits, she said wetlands provide economic benefits to surrounding areas through tourism and recreation, like hunting and fishing. “Wetland areas are not only important to our environment but directly benefit our society,” she said.

Mokone adds: “If we can preserve and strengthen our few existing wetlands, maybe we will still be left with water when our government transfers the rest to South Africa.

“We should protect the little we have because wetlands are sources of our daily living water. When there are no wetlands, there is no chance we could have water.

“The time is now for you Mokhotlong community to learn ways to preserve wetlands for your own benefit,” Mokone said.

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