THE long-awaited construction of the Polihali Dam which is scheduled to begin next year faces new hurdles after the Ministry of Mining controversially awarded licences to three mining companies to prospect for diamonds at the dam site.
The Polihali Dam is due to be constructed in terms of the bi-national Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP Phase II) but the mining ministry went ahead and issued licences to three companies, namely, Poone Diamonds, Ledi Taemane and Thagalu-Data Matrix.
The Lesotho Times has also established that the two Ministries of Mining and Environment also gave the mining companies the greenlight t mine despite strong environmental reservations raised by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) and the local communities in Mokhotlong.
LHDA Public Relations Manager, Masilo Phakoe, said they raised objections to the Environmental Management Plans (EMPs) which were sent to them last year by the Department of Environment on the grounds that the EMPs did not provide a “credible picture of the potential impacts of the proposed mining activities on the environment and their mitigation”.
The LHWP is a multi-phased project to provide water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho. It was established by the 1986 Treaty signed by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa.
The project entails harnessing the waters of the Senqu/Orange River in the Lesotho highlands through the construction of a series of dams for the mutual benefit of the two countries.
Phase I of the LHWP, consisting of the Katse and Mohale dams, the ‘Muela hydropower station and associated tunnels was completed in 2003 and inaugurated in 2004. Phase II of the LHWP is currently in progress. It consists of two separate but related components: water transfer and hydropower generation.
The bilateral project which is estimated to cost at least M23 billion, is expected to provide about 3 000 jobs at the peak of its operations.
The water transfer component of Phase II comprises an approximately 165m high concrete faced rock fill Dam at Polihali downstream of the confluence of the Khubelu and Senqu (Orange) Rivers and an approximately 38km long concrete-lined gravity tunnel connecting the Polihali reservoir to the Katse reservoir. Other Phase II activities include advance infrastructure (roads, accommodation, power lines and telecommunication) and the implementation of environmental and social mitigating measures.
Despite the impending construction of the Polihali Dam on the same site, the Mining Ministry still approved the prospecting licences to the three companies.
The companies have not completed the prospecting exercise and should it yield positive results, then full scale mining operations are supposed to be commenced.
Given the fact that less than 10 months remain before 2019, the year the dam construction is scheduled to begin, it has become increasingly clear that the mining operations cannot be undertaken without impacting on the construction work.
Moreover, the LHDA Public Relations Manager, Masilo Phakoe, this week said that the LHDA was about to begin the construction of advance infrastructure for the dam in the areas targeted for proposed alluvial diamond mining.
Mr Phakoe said the alluvial mining would therefore interfere with the operations and negatively impact the construction programme of Phase II of the LHWP.
He confirmed that the LHDA received a letter from the Environment ministry introducing the three companies to the authority and that the three companies were introduced to the local Mokhotlong communities.
The letter was written last year in May.
He however, said the LHDA never received any Environmental Impact Assessment reports which were necessary to ensure that any activities that were conducted within the LHWP project areas were done in an environmentally and socially friendly manner and that the negative impacts were either avoided or mitigated.
He said “the granting of mining licenses in the LHWP Phase II area will impact the environment and communities in the area”.
“The ministry did not send us Environmental Impact Assessment reports but the Department of Environment did send Environmental Management Plans (EMPs).
“The Khubelu River is one of the priority rivers for the Polihali reservoir. Taking into account the sensitive location of the targeted exploration areas in relation to the Khubelu River, the information provided in the EMPs does not provide a credible picture of the potential impact of the proposed mining activities on the environment and their mitigation,” Mr Phakoe said.
“The project briefs did not provide sufficiently detailed descriptions of the project environments or the proposed project activities. Therefore, the nature of the potential impacts arising from the proposed mining projects cannot be assessed and managed accurately.”
He said the government risked a repeat of the Swissborough Case where it was taken to court by investors challenging the revocation of the prospecting licences they had been awarded on the site of the Katse Dam which was constructed during the LHWP Phase I.
South African businessman Josias Van Zyl and the Swissbourgh Diamond Mines (Pty) Limited initiated several legal challenges before finally losing their case against the government in the High Court of Singapore in August 2017.
Asked if the Mining Ministry consulted the authority before awarding the licences, Mr Phakoe said the LHDA was only given an opportunity to comment on the environmental management plans (EMPs) submitted by the three companies. He said the LHDA expressed its reservations about the plans.
Former Mining Minister, Lebohang Thotanyana, who was at the helm at the time when the prospecting licenses were awarded in May 2017, denied issuing them.
He said although the three companies had been selected as the preferred bidders, they were not issued prospecting mining licenses because they had not yet conducted the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies to determine the effects of their operations on the environment and local communities before he left office.
Mr Thotanyana left his job after the 3 June 2017 snap elections which ushered in the Thomas Thabane administration.
“We did not give them licences. I left the office of Mining Minister at a time when the companies had been ordered to carry out the EIA study and at the time I left, no one had been given a licence to mine alluvial diamonds in Mokhotlong,” Mr Thotanyana said.
He however, said the decision to start processes towards the awarding of the licences was taken out of the need to prevent a repeat of a similar situation where the Katse Dam was built before alluvial diamonds had been recovered from its site.
For its part, the Environment Ministry confirmed that it cleared the companies to prospect for diamonds.
The ministry’s Principal Secretary, Motena Tšolo, on Tuesday told this publication that her ministry approved the three companies’ EMPs as their main concern was to ensure the diamonds were mined before the Polihali Dam construction begins.
Ms Tšolo said the clearance certificates were first issued in 2014 after the licences were initially awarded and the second clearance certificates were issued last year after the expiry of the first ones.
Ms Tšolo said it was important to understand that the prospecting licences were first issued in 2014 and that the companies were given two years to complete their work.
“We have a dam which will be constructed in an area that has diamonds and so we are saying, let us extract diamonds before the construction starts.
“Yes, it is true that we cleared the companies because these diamonds are going to benefit the entire nation and they need to be extracted before the construction begins.”
“These issues date back to 2014 and they were going to do it in two years but somehow that did not happen.
“Right now, the issue is not so much about the environmental issues but the fact that the dam will soon be constructed and the companies were awarded time-bound licences but they didn’t carry out their mining activities.
“Now the biggest question is what will happen when the construction of the dam starts? And in my discussions with the Water ministry which is responsible for LHDA, we agreed that the companies must dig out the sand in the river and sieve it at another place,” Ms Tšolo said.
She questioned why the LHDA was blaming her ministry when it was common cause that it was Mining Ministry that issued licences.
“It is very surprising that the LHDA finds it easier to blame the Ministry of Environment and not the Ministry of Mining which awarded the licence. They should start with the issuance of licence and ask why it was awarded for a place earmarked for the construction of the dam,” she said.
Efforts to contact the three companies were fruitless as their telephones went unanswered.