Water is consistently ranked as an environmental and societal risk, and the trend has been upwards
The mining industry has access to knowledge and technology to mitigate water risks and unlock value
It is not enough to be a good water manager, miners need to embrace water stewardship to address the challenges ahead
Water is a shared and vital resource, essential to life, yet many parts of the world are experiencing water supply and water quality difficulties with serious consequences for the environment, communities, industries, and governments. If we recognize the importance of water, then why aren’t we solving the issues either effectively or quickly enough? What is the role of the mining industry in this dilemma and can more be done?
According to the 2019 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, environment risks occupied the top 3 of 5 Global Risks in terms of likelihood and the top 4 by impact. The environment risks identified all capture a water element and included extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaption, and natural disasters. Water crises ranked 3rd with regard to impact and were defined as a Societal Risk but are largely the result of climate and environmental factors.
Using risk as a proxy for action, a quick search of mining industry related information on water risk isn’t very encouraging in finding compelling evidence that the industry truly understands the nature and magnitude of the issue. For example, E&Y’s survey of the 10 business risks facing mining and metals does not explicitly mention water, even though we can point to some fairly high-profile examples of how water issues have impacted the industry in recent times. This situation seems to be in contrast to the broader survey of the World Economic Forum, we would expect to see some mention in the top 10 risks.
Do the results of these surveys suggest a disconnect between the mining industry and society in general? Perhaps. Perhaps there is simply a lag in terms of the mining industry fully integrating water planning in the business planning process for risk mitigation. This would suggest that the industry views other challenges as priority, before more thoroughly addressing the complex issue of water.
This is not to say that the mining industry doesn’t recognize the risk and the critical importance of responsible water use. In fact the industry has implemented many technological advances in recent years that has increased water efficiency and reduced its reliance on fresh water.
Looking at what the mining industry has done with regard to mitigating the risks we do understand, particularly with regard to water conservation and environmental issues, we see some interesting examples:
Heap leaching - possibly one of the greatest impacting technologies with regards to water use in the last 30 to 40 years, which has meant a significant reduction in freshwater consumption and has allowed many operations to be developed that may otherwise have been challenged in water stressed locations
Improved ore treatment techniques such as the use of waste water, brackish water, or even seawater
Alternative tailing disposal methods such as paste tails, that significantly reduce freshwater consumption and a reduction in potential environmental risks, and
Water treatment technologies, many of which with further development hold promise to be more cost effective and sustainable than they currently are.
Technological advances have undoubtedly brought benefits with regard to how we manage water and the inherent risks However, we are faced some very real challenges going forward that will demand more effort and resolve. A few examples are:
Lower grades - with the easy ore bodies found, and ever decreasing grades in operating mines, water consumption is likely to increase
Easy-to-process mineralogies are a thing of the past and we are being forced to mine ores with more complex technologies that typically demand greater water consumption
……. and as we're forced to mine more remotely and in more difficult locations, - technically and politically - access to water is being challenged requiring water to be transferred from ever increasing distances with all the cost associated
……. and finally, a growing awareness, a trend to water being perceived as an ever increasing societal risk, we are being forced to challenge ourselves with respect to whether we are doing the right thing.
Whilst technology offers some solutions, there are no silver bullets. As water is
a shared resource, collaboration and stakeholder integration are equally important if we are to be successful.
Therefore, the way forward is surely a 3 pronged approach of technology, collaboration, and stewardship:
Continue to develop technology and innovative solutions - whilst there have been some important technology developments, there are also some serious challenges. Whilst we can't perhaps expect such step-change solutions such as heap leaching, we can continue to build and innovate incrementally to meet these challenges. For example, improvements in sensor technology continue to hold promise, such as real time cyanide measurements in the field. Another example being cost effective cover technologies and materials to reduce water contact with acid water generating mine facilities. Interesting developments also lie in water treatment technologies trending to zero liquid waste discharge streams and beneficial product streams such as fertilizer or cement.
Embrace public awareness and understanding about the importance and nature of water and what is responsible management. As an industry, with access to the best scientific and educational resources in the world, miners have a role to play and a duty to communicate effectively and responsibly.
Promote basin scale water stewardship, drawing on global experience - not every solution and practice is applicable everywhere. Each basin or region has its own characteristics and challenges specific to that location, but a lot can be learnt from experiences elsewhere. We all have a role to play to care for the resources present, and that really is the focus of water stewardship initiatives - demonstrating leadership and best practices to achieve solutions at a local level.
The journey has only just begun. As noted by the WWF in their publication on Water Stewardship Revisited, most companies are stuck on their journey to true water stewardship and must understand that:
“collective action and positive engagement in water governance are not public relations exercises, but rather core to strategy, finance, marketing and operations.”
The mining industry faces many challenges as it strives to get its diverse range of products to market and access to water is just one, albeit seemingly under-valued. Given the mounting environmental and societal pressures around access to water, the industry needs to work harder and focus on not just being good water managers but transition towards being responsible Water Stewards.