The imminent threat of potable water scarcity is driving competition over water resources, which leads to increasing tension and conflict. The Water in the Mining Sector Report by the International Finance Corporation describes how water access and management remains one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Mexico Mining Review answers the most common questions related to how this precious resource is being used in such an important industry.
“Shared Water, Shared Responsibility, Shared Approach” – IFC
In the past, water was often regarded as another production input and most usage permits were effectively secured just by negotiating with the government. Today, water has become a strategic asset for any industry and in mining it holds a special relevance, as it is used in most stages of the mining process.
The mining sector, being a water-dependent industry, faces the urgent challenge of dealing with water management issues, which at the same time translates into a big opportunity for supporting collective solutions. “Mining companies are increasingly thinking more collaboratively with local communities, government and other industries about shared water use,” says the IFC. These partnerships often lead to improved infrastructure for better water management and increased cooperation among users.
How and Where is Water Most Used in Mining?
A study by the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, published in 2014, analyzes water usage in the mining industry. Gold and copper require a high use of water; nickel, coal, and iron ore a medium use; while platinum and diamonds a medium-low amount.
According to the Columbia study, “as ore reserves decline, mining companies have to expand operations into increasingly remote and arid regions, which require new ways of managing water. About 70 percent of the mining operations of the “Big Six” mining companies, for example, are located in countries where water stress is considered a risk.” These companies are BHP (formerly BHP Billiton), Rio Tinto, Anglo American, Vale, Xstrata and Glencore. The high-risk countries are located in the Magreb in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Mexico, in turn, is found to have a moderate risk for the mining industry, according to its availability of water resources.
As for where water is most being used in the Mexican mining sector, in an interview in 2016, Manuel Llano, Director of CartoCrítica—a non-profit organization that focuses on providing data on the extractive industries for the civil society—reveals that “half of the water for the mining industry in the country is extracted in only three states: in Sonora 107.9 million m3 per year is extracted, in Zacatecas 55.8 million m3 and in Michoacan 44.4 million m3.” According to CAMIMEX, mining in Mexico is concentrated in Chihuahua, Michoacan, Zacatecas, Durango, Sonora, Coahuila, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo, Sinaloa, Colima and Jalisco.
Regarding the question of how water is really being used in the mining processes, CAMIMEX explains that it is a key input in most stages of ore extraction. First, it is used during the exploration stage to wash the ore samples but also for the maintenance within the exploration fields. Later, during the flotation process is used to transport the concentrates and the tailings. Then, in the foundry and refining stages, water works as a reaction medium in hydro-metallurgical processes, and also serves for equipment cooling, infrastructure washing and irrigation. Mining requires a significant amount of water, so miners are now attempting to reuse it as much as possible. But is that enough?
The premise presented in the IFC report believes that “only through collaboration will we be able to realize a socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial water future for everyone.” Likewise, that “collaboration requires mining companies to look beyond the company fence towards a more coordinated, inclusive, and holistic approach to water use and management.”