For eight months, Sechaba Mokhethi, Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, and Cindy Sipula investigated years of outcry from residents living near a UK diamond mining company. The team conducted scientific analysis of water  flowing out of the company waste pipe into the community river, used satellite imagery to determine the level of alleged pollution, and examined seven years of the company’s revenue and profit in Lesotho.

A UK diamond mining company 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, a journalists’ investigation has found.

Letšeng Diamonds, a subsidiary of GEM-Diamonds,  has been linked to the cause of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and nitrates pollution in Lesotho’s indigenous communities, which are alleged to have caused the death of animals, the extinction of fish, the illnesses of locals, and the death of a child.

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

 Our team of journalists on October 31, 2023 visited three villages in Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains; Maloraneng, Patising, and Lithakong, and all of the community residents we interviewed blamed the company for polluting the community river, which serves as the major source of drinking water, cooking, washing, and fishing, with its wastewater.

Satellite image in May 2004 showing Letseng Diamond mining sites

Satellite image in September 2013 showing Letseng Diamond mining sites

Satellite image in July 2023 showing Letseng Diamonds mining sites

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

On January 24, 2024, we collected water samples directly from the water flowing out of the Letšeng Diamonds wastewater pipe —before it entered the community river. Other water samples were taken from Feeane stream —50 metres away from the company’s perimeter fence, Patising and Maloraneng streams.  According to locals, the company’s wastewater is allegedly channelled into the community river, which the villagers depend on for water.

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

Gem Diamonds, in an email, denied that its wastewater was the cause of E.coli in the community river, and claimed that E.coli is caused by animals using the river. The company said it is aware of the nitrate level but has made efforts to reduce it.

Drinking water contaminated with E.Coli — which often indicates the presence of human or animal faeces in water — can cause illnesses such as diarrhoea, cramps, nausea, and tract infection, according to the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information. Nitrates can be harmful to pregnant women.  According to the Maine Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Ecoli is a clear indicator of sewage or animal contamination.

Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), a human rights NGO says they made several attempts to solve the water problem with the company but Letšeng Diamonds told them it had asked an expert to conduct the water analysis or could not discuss the water issue because the case is in court or sub judice.

Photo shows Maloraneng village on November 1, 2023 © Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi 

Community Struggles

Maloraneng is a small town near Letšeng Diamonds Mine. It takes about six hours to drive from Lesotho’s capital, Maseru to the village.

This distance means that Maloraneng has limited access to health care services, and villagers often rely on local herbal medicine to treat illnesses. Although there is a local clinic in the village, residents said that health workers only come to the clinic to see patients once a month.

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 stated that her granddaughter had rashes, difficulty breathing, and was crying 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.”

Even as we speak, local children are crying about stomach pain, and Moahi says, “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.”

Villagers’ fears about water pollution have increased since so-called slime dams were constructed by Gem Diamonds,  just above Patising Village, which is located downslope of Letšeng.

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.

Moahi said: “This contaminates our unprotected water sources, which we rely on for laundry, animal drinking, and even human drinking during droughts, as the taps constructed by the company do not provide a reliable supply of water.

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

Photo shows Matokelo Moahi in her village, Maloraneng on November 1, 2023 © Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

40-year-old Matokelo Moahi said her grandchild, a 9-month-old baby, usually has skin rashes whenever she washes the baby nappies and bathes with water from the stream, which runs from the mine.

Matokelo’s only option to avoid the stream water is to walk thirty minutes to a nearby reliable water tap in a neighbouring village, but during the drought, “We resort to the river,” she said.

Photo shows Khubelu River, adjacent to the Patising river. Both rivers are joined together ©Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

The Road To The Patising Stream Is Only Accessible Through The Company, And On January 24, 2023, 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 Wastewater Pipe Into Feeane Stream, A Stream That Joins Khubelu River From The Mine.

Meanwhile, since the slime dams were built, fishermen we spoke to say they can 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.

Photo shows Lematla Malefetsane in Maloraneng while returning from the farm on November 1, 2023 ©Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

Lematla Malefetsane, a fisherman residing at Ha Ramosoeu village recalls growing up he usually caught yellowfish, but it went extinct after the arrival of the mine. “During my entire time of fishing, we have only had these two types, yellowfish and trout.

“As a shepherd, I earned around M100 to M300 per month, but from selling fish, I could make as much as M400 per day.

“I had been fishing before the arrival of the mine, but I stopped last year as old age caught up with me, but the quantity of fish in the river had drastically dropped,’’ Malefetsane said.

Lesotho’s first diamonds were discovered in 1957. A small mining industry was established in the 1960s. Since then, other mining companies have come and gone before Gem-Diamond bought the large shares from the government in 2006.

However, residents in the three villages we visited claimed that despite the presence of the mines, clean water was also obtained and other activities were normal until Gem Diamond took over.

Photo shows Likei Lematla, Fisher at the river bank of Khubelu on November 1, 2023  ©Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

Before the Letseng Diamond, “if I catch a small fish, I will just throw it back into the water, but now, I have to take it because there is no fish,” said another fisher, Likei Lemantla, displaying the small size of the fish he had caught after spending more than 10 minutes fishing.

The 42-year-old fisherman has been fishing for two decades. He has two young children and a wife who relies 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.”

He feeds his family with the fish he caught in the river. According to him, prior to the existence of Letseng Diamonds, he would catch more than 20 fish per hour, but on his previous visit in October 2023, he caught only five small fish after four hours in the river.

Photo shows Khethang Lematla,in her home at the Ka Lithakong of Patising village on November 1, 2023  ©Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi 

Khethang Lematla, 66, was born in the Ka Lithakong of Patising village. He has spent all her years in the village sewing horse-riding saddles and herding animals for her father—this was their major survival.

Lematla said there has always been mining activity at Letšeng “during my upbringing, but we grew up drinking clean and non-salty water from our stream.” He lamented that with the emergence of the Gem Diamond, their drinking water has been polluted.

“The polluted salty water running from the mine affects our animals, as some end up dying from drinking this water.

“I remember one incident when the mine’s slime dam burst. The stream was overflowing, and in the process, the water washed away our chickens and plants. The matter is still yet to be addressed by the mine,” he said.

Despite being polluted, Lematla said she and other community residents rely on the water for drinking. “We don’t have any other option.  We use it for drinking, cooking, laundry, and for our animals.”

A herder who lost his first child through a miscarriage. According to him, the doctor said this was caused by the mother drinking contaminated water during pregnancy, and his other son became ill as well and was taken to a clinic during our visit. “My wife has taken my other surviving son to the hospital because the child has diarrhoea.”

He owns 200 goats and sheep, nine donkeys, and 20 cows. He sells sheep for M2,500 and goats for M1,500 in South Africa. He claims that approximately 20 of his animals die each year as a result of either drinking polluted water from the stream or being unable to drink due to drought. “I have now taken the animals away from the village to avoid any deaths.

Photo shows Community leader, Lentsoete Moahi, in front on his house at Maloraneng village on November 1, 2023  ©Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

It’s not just the water that locals say the mine has polluted. Lentsoete Moahi, chief of the  Maloraneng village, said the diamond mine has negatively affected people’s livelihoods and taken the pastures where animals were grazing.

Dust created by the blasting of rocks to get at diamonds has settled on grasslands where animals graze. Moahi fears this could be poisoning the pastures. “The same dust passes through villages and we inhale it, Moahi added. “We have been crying over these damages, but no compensation has been provided.”

Company’s Comments

Gem Diamond denied that the dust from its mining operations affects the local community. In an email, the company told us that Letšeng Diamonds has a dust monitoring protocol in place, and the testing of the dust by an eternal laboratory has not shown any negative impact.

The company denied that it has contaminated the community’s water but has helped the community by providing water.

In an email, Mark Antelme, company media officer, stated that the company is very concerned about the environment in its communities and has taken steps to reduce the impact of its activities.

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

 “We have retention dams and a wetland that respectively trap and dilute the water leaching from these areas. To minimise the potential for nitrates leaving the mine lease boundary, water in these dams is either reprocessed through our ore treatment plants or treated through our newly constructed bioremediation plant.

“We provide potable water for our communities where we believe water is contaminated with E.coli or other bacteria (this is not caused by the mine, see below) or may contain higher levels of nitrates (i.e. boreholes, spring water standpipes to access points, water tanks, etc.).

“We have recently completed the commissioning of a bioremediation plant to significantly reduce the nitrate levels of water leaching off the active waste rock dump, which we capture in a retention dam.”

According to Antelme,  seepage from the dam is trapped in a second pond to be pumped back to the retention dam and treated through the bioremediation plant. Initial results of denitrification are very positive and all water leaching from the dumps will be treated to environmentally acceptable standards before leaving the mine lease area.

The company said it is aware of elevated levels of nitrates in the stream flowing from the active waste rock dump. “We are positive the above actions will reduce this considerably, and regarding the Khubelu River.” The most recent independent water quality assessment, conducted by an accredited laboratory in South Africa, confirmed that nitrate levels in the Khubelu surface water sources at the downstream communities of Patising (23km away from the Letšeng mine) and Maloraneng (20km away from the Letšeng mine) have consistently been within the potable water standards.

However, a previously confidential report by MNN Lesotho has shown the company admitted to contaminating these water sources.

Company’s Awards and profits

Gem Diamonds won the ESG Award for Best Climate-Related Reporting in 2022, and in 2023, the company won the Junior ESG Awards 2023 for Water by Investing in African Mining INDABA, which was chosen by the Mining Indaba Sustainable Committee.

According to the company, the award was given to Gem Diamonds in recognition of its commitment to improving local communities’ access to clean water, as well as its innovative and effective water pollution prevention systems.

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

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

GEM-Diamonds made the most profit from the Letšeng Diamond Mine with revenue totaling $1.3 billion from 2017 to 2023 and a total profit of $259 million between 2017 and 2023.

On February 17, 2024, the company announced the recovery of a high quality, 113ct Type II white diamond from its Letšeng Diamond Mine, Lesotho—this in addition to the 295 carat high-quality Type II white diamond recovered on January 8, 2024, and a 139-carat low-quality Boart diamond recovered in Lesotho on January 17, 2024, according to the information listed on the London exchange market.

The 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.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Gem Diamonds, in its 2023 annual report, mentioned that it built schools and offers bursaries for community residents.

Moahi, the community chief, said: aside from taps, the mine has built a footbridge across Khubelu village at Moeaneng Ha ‘Mapoka, allowing children from Lichecheng, Moeaneng, and Patising villages to cross to Ramosoeu Primary School in Matlakeng village.

He said the company has built a community lodge, Maloraneng Lodge, which is now rented out to a tenant who is supposed to pay M30,000 per month, according to their agreement. A field belonging to a late village member was appropriated for the lodge’s construction, and the company built a two-room house in exchange for her land.

Two classrooms were also constructed at Pae-la-Itlhatsoa `Primary School.  The company also provided the villagers with foodstuffs at the height of Covid-19 pandemic. Pit latrine toilets were constructed at Ha Moroka of Ha Seema, two at the clinic and another 2 at the lodge last year. “But they could not last due to their poor quality and most of them are no longer functional at Maloraneng,” said Moahi.

According to him, there are no schools in the village; “our kids must walk over 30 minutes to get to the nearest school in Pae-la-itlhatsoa.  

“We also have a clinic in this village, but it is not reliable; it opens once a month and comes with a salary at the end of every month. Initially, it was only for women and young children, but it has changed to cover everyone, he said, and continued: “They do not have operating hours; they leave once the queue is finished. My village is made up of 80 households.  

However, when we visited the villages in October 2023, the tap water provided by the company was not functioning.

Photo shows tap water built by Letseng Diamond was not working as of November 1, 2023  © Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

Rights Groups Intervene

Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), a human rights NGO that has intervened between the company and the villagers, says it is unable to address water pollution-related issues because every time they [NGO] meet the community with the Gem Diamonds subsidiary, the company says “it cannot discuss water issues as it claims they are in court and sub judice.

Rokoe Lefera, the special projects officer of the NGO told the journalists that her organisation attempted to resolve the water pollution problem, but the company countered by saying that they had hired independent, accredited experts to test the water, and the results showed that it was safe for the host communities to drink.  

Lefera said the villagers maintained that the water made them sick and even claimed that it had a discoloured appearance. “Afterwards, we reached an agreement to collaborate with the company and the community to engage an impartial specialist—not Letšeng alone—to verify these claims through testing.”

She says regrettably, a faction within the community decided to pursue legal action, prompting them to suspend their plans to refrain from interfering in matters that are under litigation.

Lefera claims Letšeng is avoiding discussing issues related to water, considering the case is in court. “Even when we go to the gatherings, the mine always makes it a point that they can discuss everything except water.”

Lefera noted that TRC is not confined to water-related issues, but is focused on service delivery in general. “We want the host communities to develop. Our focus is on corporate social responsibility; theirs is so broad, and we want something crafted specifically for Pae-la-Itlhatsoa (the host community) as the most affected. These are the things that we are more interested in.”

Thabo Lerotholi, president of the Maluti Community Development Forum (MCDF), an interest group that advocates for the rights of poor communities in mining areas, is assisting communities affected by Gem Diamond mining operations in obtaining justice from the High Court.  The organisation is demanding that the court order the company to relocate the villagers.

The reason for seeking a court order to compel the company to relocate villagers is fear of being engulfed by flooding from the mine’s slime dams, as well as possible contamination of the water on which they rely for drinking and other domestic purposes.

Steve Emerman, an MCDF network consultant based in the United States, has offered to conduct the safety audit to assist the High Court in making an informed decision. Emerman owns Malach Consulting, which focuses on groundwater and mining issues. However, Advocate Lerotholi claims that due to their poverty, the community cannot afford to bring Emerman to Lesotho.

“Without actual engineering reports such as dam safety audits, there is no way the court can be in a position to determine the safety or otherwise of the dam,” Emerman said in his confirmatory affidavit.

Lerotholi said they are considering withdrawing the case from Lesotho court and pushing it to the UK.

Laboratory Comments On E.Coli

In an email, the Test It Lab says the water is unsafe for human consumption according to the guidelines outlined in SANS 241, which delineates the minimum standards for water to be considered safe for human consumption.

“When turbidity levels exceed 5 Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTU), it signifies an operational failure, indicating that the water treatment process is not performing optimally. Moreover, a turbidity level above 1 NTU is considered an aesthetic failure, impacting the water’s appearance and acceptability to consumers”.

“Total coliform counts exceeding 10 Colony Forming Units (CFU) per 100 milliliters are indicative of an operational failure due to an inadequate disinfection process. This suggests that the measures in place to eliminate harmful microorganisms are not sufficiently effective.

“The presence of E. coli bacteria in water is considered a severe health hazard, indicating immediate risk. Consumption of such water should be avoided unless steps are taken to eliminate these bacteria, which may include methods like boiling, chlorination, or other forms of disinfection to ensure safety.

“Nitrates levels surpassing 11 milligrams per litre (mg/L) present a specific risk to pregnant women and certain animal species. Nitrates can bind to haemoglobin in red blood cells, inhibiting oxygen transport, a condition commonly referred to as “blue baby syndrome” in infants. This condition can also lead to spontaneous abortions in animals due to hypoxia.”

We worked with the UK “follow the money” journalism organisation, Finance Uncovered, to analyse Gem Diamonds financial statements.

This story is produced with support from JournalismFund Europe.

For eight months, Sechaba Mokhethi, Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, and Cindy Sipula investigated years of outcry from residents living near a UK diamond mining company. The team conducted scientific analysis of water  flowing out of the company waste pipe into the community river, used satellite imagery to determine the level of alleged pollution, and examined seven years…