UK diamond company that won water and climate awards has been linked to water pollution in Lesotho

Maloraneng village. Photo provided by The Colonist Report, used with permission.

For eight months, Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, Sechaba Mokhethi, and Cindy Sipula investigated years of outcry from residents living near a UK diamond mining company. Their investigation report was originally published by The Colonist Report, and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Gem Diamonds Limited, a diamond mining company based in the United Kingdom that has won awards for improving local communities’ access to clean water, has been accused of polluting drinking water in three villages in Lesotho, southern Africa.

On October 31, 2023, The Colonist Report visited three villages in Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains — Maloraneng, Patising, and Lithakong. All of the community residents we interviewed blamed Letšeng Diamonds — a subsidiary of Gem Diamonds — for channelling wastewater into the river which is the major source of water for drinking, cooking, washing, and fishing.

The Indigenous people who we interviewed alleged that the polluted bodies of water have caused the deaths of animals, the extinction of fish, illnesses in locals, and the death of a child.

A satellite image shows what looks like a suspected pipe from the company’s facility linked to Feeane, the community river.

On January 24, we collected samples of the water flowing out of the Letšeng Diamonds wastewater pipe before it entered the community river. Additional water samples were taken from the Feeane stream (50 metres away from the company’s perimeter fence), as well as the Patising and Maloraneng streams.  

We sent the water samples to a laboratory in neighbouring South Africa for testing. The test results revealed the presence of high levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli), 12 MPN/100mL, exceeding the limit of 1MPN/100mL, and nitrates of 30mg/L surpassing the acceptable upper limit of 11mg. Both levels of nitrate and E. coli are harmful to human health and animals

According to the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information, drinking water contaminated with E. coli can cause illnesses such as diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and intestinal tract infection. Nitrates can also be harmful to pregnant women.  E.coli is a clear indicator of sewage or animal contamination.

Community struggles

Malineo Moahi’s nine-year-old granddaughter became ill and died in 2015 after drinking water from the river into which Gem Diamonds allegedly dumped its waste. 

Moahi told us that her granddaughter developed rashes and difficulty breathing and was suffering from stomach pain when she decided to rush her to a local clinic. With no hospital or public transportation in her village, she decided to walk three hours through the high mountains to the Mapholaneng clinic while carrying her granddaughter on her back. “I had to return halfway because the baby died on my back.”

Moahi added, “Even as we speak, local children are crying about stomach pain. It is even worse during droughts; the water becomes too salty, and children get sick from drinking it.”

According to her, bathing in river water causes a face rash, itchy skin, and stomach pain. “I have eight children, and all of them have had these symptoms, though not at the same time.”

According to Moahi, the company sometimes releases water in the dam, and when the water in the slime dams is released, it comes down salty and with a white substance.

Photo shows a whitish substance from the water running out from the Letšeng Diamonds mine. Photo by The Colonist Report, used with permission.

“When an animal falls sick and dies from drinking the mine-contaminated water, we see the whitish salt substances when the stomach of the animal is cut open,” Moahi said.

Matokelo Moahi, a 40-year-old woman, said her grandchild, a nine-month-old baby, usually has skin rashes whenever she bathes and washes the baby's nappies with water from the contaminated stream.

Matokelo Moahi in her village. Photo by The Colonist Report, used with permission.

Moahi’s only other option is to walk 30 minutes to a reliable water tap in a neighbouring village, but during the drought, “we resort to the river,” she said.

The road to the Patising stream is only accessible through the company, and on January 24, 2023, The Colonist Report's collaborative partner, the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism, was able to reach the stream. On the road to the stream, water was seen coming out with high pressure, flowing from the company's wastewater pipe into the Feeane stream, which joins the Khubelu River from the mine.

Meanwhile, since the slime dams were built, fishermen we spoke to said they could no longer get a catch. The villagers have sued the mine over this issue, and the case is pending in the High Court of Lesotho. 

Before Letšeng Diamonds came, the situation was different: “If I catch a small fish, I will just throw it back into the water so I can catch a bigger fish, but now, I have to take it because there is no fish,” said a fisher, Likei Lemantla, displaying the small size of the fish he had caught after spending more than 10 minutes fishing.

Likei Lematla fishing at the bank of the Khubelu River. Photo by The Colonist Report, used with permission.

The 42-year-old fisherman has been fishing for two decades. He has two young children and a wife who rely on him to survive. He says he used to sell some of the fish to nearby villagers while his family ate the rest. “But now I do not sell any because I do not catch enough fish in the river.”

Company’s response

Gem Diamonds denied that it had spoiled the community’s water but instead has helped the community by providing water.

In an email, Mark Antelme, Gem Diamond's media officer, stated that the company was very concerned about the environment in its communities and has taken steps to reduce the impact of its activities:

 “We are aware of higher levels of nitrates that leach off our waste rock dumps and, to a lesser extent, our coarse tailings dumps.” He said the company has put systems in place “to reduce nitrate levels before leaving the mine lease area and minimise the impact of this on the environment.”

Antelme mentioned that the measures include portable water retention dams and a wetland to trap and dilute the water leaching from these areas. Additionally, he noted that a bioremediation plant, which will significantly reduce the nitrate levels in the water leaching from the active waste rock dump, was recently completed.

A confidential report by MNN Lesotho has, however, shown that the company admitted to contaminating these water sources.

Gem Diamonds has profited from its activities in the countries where it operates, including Lesotho. The company’s full-year revenue for 2023 is USD 140.3 million, with a profit of USD 1.6 million, compared to revenue of USD 188.9 million in 2022, with a profit of USD 20.2 million.  

GEM Diamonds made most of its profits from Letšeng Diamonds, with revenue totalling USD 1.3 billion from 2017 to 2023 and profits after tax of USD 259 million.

The government of Lesotho owns 30 percent of the Letšeng Diamonds Mine, while Gem Diamonds Limited purchased the mine in July 2006 and now owns 70 percent of its shares. Gem Diamonds reportedly paid USD 118.5 million for the company after De Beers operated the mine from 1977 to 1982.

Letšeng mine produces high-quality gem diamonds, consistently achieving the highest price per carat of any kimberlite mine in the world, according to the company. Since 2006, Gem Diamonds has produced three of the 20 largest white diamonds ever recorded.

This story is produced with support from JournalismFund Europe.

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