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Govt Departments in Blame Game over Water Pollution


Bertha Foundation Fellow 

Lesotho’s Director of the Department of Environment, Motsamai Damane’s bombshell admission that mining companies are polluting water sources that rural communities rely on has triggered a blame game in government. 

While departments try to dodge being held accountable for not monitoring mining operations, this has raised questions about whether there is indeed political will in Lesotho’s government to implement the country’s laws and protect vulnerable communities.

In response to MNN’s investigation into the impact of mining operations on water sources that rural communities depend on for survival, Damane said that there was conclusive evidence that all local mining companies are polluting water sources in their catchment areas. 

This conclusive evidence, he said, was in the form of reports each mining company submitted to his department in line with local laws. Damane added that the reports are shared with ministries of Water and Mining to have a better understanding of the environmental impact.  

Watch: Stanley Damane and Mojakisane Mokake speak with Pascalinah Kabi on water pollution in Lesotho

Although Damane says his department “reserve [s] the right to withdraw the license if need be” he argues that: “it’s a delicate decision to go up and close the mine” or “takes to court the Ministry of Mining” over water contamination issues. 

He blames the ministry of mining, saying that “the rightful institution to hold, (or) to revoke the mining license is the ministry of mining”. 

But the ministry of mining hit back saying that it’s the responsibility of the department of environment to ensure compliance of environmental protection by the mines.  

“These questions are relevant to the department of environment since they are the ones that issue environment clearances so they ensure compliance,” read a response from the mining ministry in an interview with MNN over the effects of mining operations on water sources.

Damane also blames the ministry of water which, he says, is an expert ministry on water related issues. He says reports are shared with the department of water affairs for expert advice. 

“We are not experts in water issues….. they (water affairs) advise and assist with the deeper knowledge as per whatever that will be submitted”.

In response, the Commissioner of Water, Mokake Mojakisane, says his department  works hand in glove with ministries of Mines and Environment to look at best possible mitigation strategies on water pollution by mine operations. 

“The starting point is to alert the other party (polluter) that something is wrong and that they must fix it, if not, there are punitive measures in the legal instruments,” Mojakisane said, adding that both the departments of water and environment “must crack the whip”. 

These legal instruments include the Water Act, 2008 which states that the Minister of Water and other line ministries must take into account the “sustainable usage of water resources” when undertaking their duties of, among others, “protection of water sources”. 

The Act further states that no person shall cause harm to water sources such as wetlands and natural springs and that anyone who does that “commits offense and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding M50 000 or imprisonment not exceeding two years or both”.

Despite Mojakisane’s statement that the departments of water affairs and environment must take punitive measures in line with legal instruments, no polluter has been taken to court by the local authorities, with Damane saying it is a delicate issue. 

But, according to Damane, operations of all local mines including  Letšeng, Kao, Mothae and Liqhobong, are contaminating water sources. 

“Take a helicopter and just fly over to Kao and Liqhobong and stuff….you will see the coffee that is constantly going into the Katse Dam or something,” Damane said. 

Asked if he was concerned with the status of mining pollution on water sources, Damane said: “I am dead, you mean I am concerned, I am dead” with the status of mining pollution on water sources in the country.

There are six mining companies in Lesotho. Four of them –  Letšeng Diamonds, Storm Mountain Diamonds or Kao, Liqhobong Diamond Mine and Mothae Kimberlite – collaborated with the Lesotho Chamber of Mines and released the Lesotho Diamond Mine Industry Performance Report three years ago. 

Lesotho Chamber of Mines Chairperson Mohale Ralikariki says the purpose of the chamber’s report  is “sharing critical information that for many years has only been known to those who are close to the industry, in particular the government as the regulator, tax recipient and the shareholder”. 

But the report says little to nothing about the impact of mining operations on water sources, safe for the mention that they are committed to managing the environment in their working areas of Botha-Bothe and Mokhotlong.  

Lack of political will

Lesotho is crisscrossed by a network of rivers and mountains. These rivers and other water sources are an important part of Lesotho’s economy through the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) deal with South Africa. 

Unfortunately for Lesotho, according to Damane, both the country’s water and diamond resources are like twins growing in the belly of their pregnant mother, in this case, the country’s mountains. 

“There is so much conflict (there) and trade off that has to be done to benefit both sides (water and mining),” Damane said. 

At the foothills of these mountains are small villages of not more than 30 families per community. Majority of these communities rely on rippling rivers, streams and wells for water supply. 

These include Patising, Maloraneng, Kao and Motete communities who, for many years now, have accused the mines of polluting water they daily rely on for survival. In some cases, the mines responded by supplying clean water to these communities.

With the help of organisations such as the Transformation Resource Center, Survivors of Lesotho Dams and Seinoli Legal Center, these communities have elevated their complaints to the government and nothing has been done to address their concerns.

Former Minister of Water Kimetso Mathaba has previously expressed concerns that government ministries were dealing with water, land and other related natural resources issues in their individual capacities. 

“Various institutions responsible for management of water, land and related resources are applying their own individualised evaluation strategies with their unique objectives and methods,” Mathaba said. 

On his part, Damane says: “It is frustrating that people see the environment being polluted and degraded, their lives are affected, they know we (department of environment) exist, they know there is a law but they do not know what we are doing about it (pollution)….we are doing the best we can under the sun but you can only go so far,” Damane said. 

Asked if there was a political will to protect water sources, Damane said: “The situation we are experiencing in Lesotho is not unique in the developing world with regard to environmental issues versus visa economic development and activities”. 

While he says signing and domesticating international protocols on environment protection must be seen as a first step of showing political will, Damane is quick to mention that developing countries like Lesotho do not have enough funds to sustainably manage the environment. 

Lesotho is signatory to conventions such as United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (promotion of sustainable use of biodiversity),  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (prevention of dangerous human interference with the climate system) and United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (mitigate the effects of drought).

“There are other pressing budgeting priorities for our governments…I am not saying it cannot do better, it can do better…I do not know whether its lack of informed decision-making or what… Sometimes we do not have answers and understanding but we can do better, much better. The problem is environmental issues are marginalised, they survive on foreign funding, not from the government,” Damane said.

Lesotho benefits from foreign funding such as Global Environment Facility, world’s largest funder of biodiversity protection, nature restoration, pollution reduction and climate change response; Lesotho Lowlands Water Development Project Phase II supported by the European Union and ReNoka, which among others deals with wetlands restoration and conservation programme. 

Damane mourns that innovations on environmental management are not received with enthusiasm and support by the Cabinet, arguing that if that was the case, the country could have long established an autonomous body which could sue even the government in an event of its failure to protect the environment. 

In May 2020, outgoing Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro appointed Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) leader, Advocate Lekhetho Rakuoane, as Minister of Tourism, Environment and Culture. 

It was during Rakuoane’s tenure that the Cabinet issued a clearance for the establishment of the National Environmental Authority. 

While this was a giant step towards enhancing protection of the country’s environment, failure to set aside the required budget for its establishment may have exposed lack of willingness for politicians to protect and conserve water sources from polluters like the mining community. 

“At least the clearance is there but it is belated by 20 years, it should have happened a long time ago,” Damane said. 

Rakuoane says he worked hard to ensure the passing of the country’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations, which he says were long overdue. 

“Among other things, the regulations state that all developers, including the mines, pay a certain amount of money to the government before they start working on the land and that money would be used to mitigate environmental impacts of their operations and that include water pollution,” Rakuoane said. 

He thinks the regulations were never passed by previous governments and ministers because of lack of understanding or fear that investors would run away, further stating that there is not much of a political will to protect the environment. 

“I think there is that fear of losing investors. In fact, it is very difficult to find a balance between the protection of the environment and the country’s emancipation, but the question is, what will you do after destroying the environment because of economic activities,” Rakuoane said.  

Lesotho went for general elections on 7 October. Democratic Congress leader, Mathibeli Mokhothu, who was confident that he would become Lesotho’s next premier, lost the election to a multi-millionaire Sam Matekane-led Revolution for Prosperity.  

As part of his election campaign, Mokhothu repeatedly said his government would open 30 additional diamond mines.  

This proliferation would have had devastating effects on already threatened water sources.  Women and girls face the worst ramifications of lack of access to clean water. They are responsible for “water collection in 8 out of 10 households with water off premises, which means reducing the population with limited drinking water services will have a strong gender impact”.

Khubelu River

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