Fights saddle Polihali Dam project


Pascalinah Kabi

CLASHES have erupted between Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) contractors’ and directors of a mining company operating in the Khubelu and Senqu rivers confluence in Mokhotlong over resources and access issues around the Polihali Dam area.

So tense is the situation that the antagonists are threatening to kill each other.

Police this week confirmed to the Lesotho Times that the war of words has become so volatile as the warring parties battle for control of the resources from the Khubelu and Senqu rivers confluence.

The Khubelu and Senqu rivers fall into the priority area for the Polihali reservoir under Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

The Lesotho Times has learnt that the officials from Poone Diamonds are at war with the LHDA’s contractors over the latter’s refusal to buy sand mined at the Polihali Dam site from Poone Diamonds as well as the use of an access road. Poone Diamonds is one of the three mining companies that were controversially awarded two-year diamond prospecting licences in May 2017 along with Ledi Taemane and Thagalu-Data Matrix.

Poone Diamonds was subsequently awarded a 10-year licence to mine diamonds and sand in 2018.  This was despite the fact that the construction works for LHWP phase II were already underway and the effort to mine diamonds over the area in which the whole dam project was being implemented would result in inevitable conflict. The construction works are expected to end in 2026.

Poone Diamonds was controversially given a greenlight to mine at Polihali Dam site despite strong environmental reservations raised by the LHDA and local communities in Mokhotlong.

LHDA public relations manager Masilo Phakoe yesterday told the Lesotho Times that “there was a confrontational incident with the contractor EXR Company’s security personnel in August 2019 where representatives of the mining company attempted to use the site access road within the diversion tunnel contract works area”.

Mr Phakoe said the contractor reported the incidents to the police and they have since stopped. He said the mining leaseholder was currently not present at the site or in the Senqu or Khubelu rivers.

Mr Phakoe said the LHDA had never met Poone Diamonds’ directors over the sale of sand from the river. He said Polihali project area was declared “land set aside for public purposes” by Legal notice 71 of 2012 after the signing of the 2011 LHWP Phase II Agreement and that all interests in or affecting the land ceased to exist following this declaration.

“The only meetings that we are aware of were back in 2017/18, which came about because of their alluvial mining environmental authorisation,” Mr Phakoe said.

“The authorisation required them to consult and liaise with the LHDA to agree on operational issues to avoid negative impacts of the mining activities on the riverine resources and to find a harmonious way of dealing with issues that may arise before inundation of the project site.

“The mining company (Poone Diamonds) did try to use the LHDA access road to the river and this was denied. Access to and through the construction site is controlled by the contractor for both security and safety purposes. The LHDA has written to the Commissioner of Mines to notify him of the incident and to request him to advise the mining company to desist from such conduct.”

Mr Phakoe said the LHDA has not entered into any form of agreement with any entity to share the area or resources on the Project area.

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.

LHWP I, 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 is estimated to cost at least M23 billion. It is expected to provide about 3 000 jobs at the peak of its operations.

Despite the impending construction of the Polihali Dam on the same site, the mining ministry had gone ahead and approved the mining licences to Poone Diamonds in 2018.

And now that works have begun in Mokhotlong, well-placed sources told this publication that there were simmering tensions between LHDA staffers and Poone Diamonds directors over sand found in the belly of the Khubelu River.

The sources say that Poone Diamonds wanted the LHDA to direct its contractors at the site to purchase the sand mined in the belly of Khubelu River from them but the LHDA has refused. The sources said the directors claimed ownership of the sand because they were awarded the licence to mine diamonds in Polihali, much to the dismay of LHDA.

“The LHDA told Poone Diamonds staff on site that the authority would not buy the sand from them and that they would mine their own sand from the same river and use it for their construction works. This angered the directors of the mining company and one of them — Ntate These Phooko — went to Mokhotlong to confront LHDA employees and contractors on site,” a source said.

The talks turned sour when the LHDA contractors told Mr Phooko that they would continue mining their own sand in the Khubelu River, the source said.

“The situation is so bad that contractors have retaliated by blocking the road for Poone Diamonds. Poone Diamonds cannot access the river as we speak and efforts to have the LHDA mediate did not bear any desired fruits. The LHDA has told them that neither the authority nor its contractors would buy sand from Poone Diamonds.”

Another source said that there had been heated exchanges between the LHDA contractors and Poone Diamonds over the sand mined at Khubelu River and the access roads.

“The situation is so volatile that we suspect this will not end well. They shouted at each other the last time they were here and it does not look like things will end well between all of them. We are worried the clashes might turn bloody,” said the source.

Contacted for comment this week, Mr Phooko confirmed the conflicts and threatened to block the contractors from mining sand if the police, the Mining ministry and the LHDA do not make them stop.

“The true story here is that we were given licences to mine sand and diamonds at Khubelu River and when we began mining activities there, we realised that LHDA contractors who were building a tunnel had mined sand from the river. We tried to stop them but instead they got angry and went on to mine sand there,” Mr Phooko said.

He added: “They went on to block the road that we were using to access the mining area and refused us access whenever we tried to make a way there”.

“We asked the LHDA to mediate and even went on to show them our two licences but nothing has come out of the mediation and instead, those people are continuing to mine sand from the river.”

Although he hoped for an amicable solution after seeking intervention from the police and the Mining ministry, he said they would force the contractors from mining sand in the area. He however, did not say how.

“If there is no intervention from the authorities and they don’t stop mining sand there and unblock the road for us, we will forcibly stop them”.

A police officer investigating the matter only identified as Superintendent Bokopane said they had travelled to Mokhotlong with the Commissioner of Mining Pheello Tjatja to probe the matter. He said they found a mountain-sized heap of sand mined by one of LHDA’s contractors, EXR Company.

EXR Company allegedly told them that they had mined without a licence because they intended to construct a bridge at the site.

“There is a lot of confusion there and during our presence, the situation was so volatile that people were promising to kill each other. Death threats were actually thrown around in our presence. We also picked up certain illegal practices that include lack of work permits by the staff of the said company and that they were also using unregistered South African trucks on site,” he said.

Efforts to get a comment from Mr Tjatja were fruitless as his mobile phone failed to get through.

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