The vital role of water in the mining industry cannot be understated, impacting across many elements within the operation of a mine. However, water management practices of the past have, in some cases, led to significant environmental consequences.
With the ever-growing demand for minerals comes the need for the mining industry to implement more sustainable ways of working, rather than just scaling-up to meet high demand.
As highlighted in this article on the McKinsey blog, we can see that today, 30 to 50 percent of production of copper, gold, iron ore, and zinc is concentrated in areas where water stress is already high. Climate change is expected to cause more frequent droughts and floods, which could alter the supply of water and disrupt operations.
As water scarcity intensifies and attention on the environmental impact of mining continues, there is a growing impetus for companies to adopt water management strategies that protect both people and the environment.
Water plays a crucial role in a myriad of processes, namely in mineral processing. However, poor water management can lead to loss of resources along with damage to surrounding environments. This not only impacts local communities and ecosystems but also the reputation of mining companies.
Here, there is great risk but also great opportunity for positive change from an environmental and social perspective.
Minimising impact on the local community
Mining companies have started embracing innovative water management practices to promote sustainability. This article by WSP outlines some of the main reasons why it’s so important that new strategies are implemented that promote water efficiency, reduce contamination and facilitate water reuse.
This not only improves operational efficiency, but also contributes to the wellbeing of local communities and the environment, thus raising the profile of mining from a societal perspective.
One of my favourite examples of this is Anglo American’s Quellaveco copper mine in Peru. This video shows how the organisation approached the planning and design of the mine in a way that aimed to reduce the environmental and societal impact.
Through an extensive community dialogue programme, the issue of water scarcity was brought to the surface. The closest river to the mine, which would usually be used to source water required for mining, was instead diverted and left intact so that water levels in the community remain unaffected by the presence of industry.
As an alternative, the majority of water required for the mining process was taken from a river that was unsuitable for consumption so as to avoid disruption within the community.
Taking the concept of water stewardship a step further, this piece by Fabian Cambero outlines how Anglo American also has plans to stop using fresh water altogether at its Los Bronces mine in Chile by 2030, instead using desalinated and recycled water.
Implementing potential solutions
Adopting innovative new technologies is another way in which value creation can be realised through water management. A prime example is the shift towards dry tailings.
Traditional wet tailings disposal methods, where the tailings are stored in large dams, have been associated with a variety of environmental and safety risks, such as the potential for dam failure and the contamination of surrounding banks and water sources.
Dehydrating and dry stacking tailings instead significantly reduces these risks, particularly in wetter climates with a higher risk of flooding. This process not only enables the recovery and recycling of water in the mining process, but also provides an additional layer of protection once the mine is no longer in operation. It’s a strategy that offers value, especially in water-scarce regions where conservation is so important.
Alongside dewatering tailings, there are other practices that mining operations can adopt. This piece by Bryan Christiansen illustrates multiple ways that companies can adapt their approach to water conservation. One of the ways to do this is through a closed-loop system, so as to minimise the use of fresh water.
Water recycling and reusing strategies, advanced wastewater treatment, and sophisticated monitoring systems not only enhance water efficiency and reduce the likelihood of negative environmental impacts, but also represent a tangible commitment to sustainable practices, which can bolster relationships with stakeholders.
These practices serve to underline the potential economic, environmental and societal benefits of adopting sustainable water management practices.
Overcoming the barriers to change
Despite the potential advantages, transitioning towards sustainable water management practices and technologies can be challenging.
High capital costs, technical hurdles and resistance to change can present significant challenges which make it hard to progress. However, these obstacles can be addressed.
Regulatory incentives could be introduced to encourage more sustainable practices and collaborative efforts within the industry can promote knowledge and the development and proliferation of new technologies.
Continued research and development can lead to new solutions that make sustainable water management practices more accessible and cost-effective.
As the mining industry continues to shift focus into combating these challenges, a value generating approach to water management can serve as a pathway to success.
Combining new technologies with responsible practices can not only enhance operational efficiency, but also community wellbeing and environmental sustainability.
In short, water stewardship presents the mining industry with an opportunity to contribute positively to society, creating real value for stakeholders, while also serving its own operational and economic interests.