Shared water, shared responsibility, shared action: Athabasca, Canada

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Water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of people, a figure that is projected to increase as a result of climate change. By 2050, it is projected that at least one in four people will be affected by recurring water shortages. Ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030 requires greater investment in infrastructure, sanitation facilities and hygiene programmes at every level. All ICMM members implement the 10 principles that underpin our Sustainable Development Framework. Principle 6 requires companies to continually improve their environmental performance which includes water management.

When the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) officially came into force in January 2016, the nations of the world committed to mobilise efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. Business has a significant part to play, alongside governments and civil society, in creating pathways for a greener, safer and sustainable future for us all. Metals and minerals are essential to almost all aspects of everyday life; they enable farming, healthcare, communications, construction, transport and energy and water supply. And they will arguably become more important as they help to deliver the infrastructure required for a low-carbon future. This is one of a series of case studies gathered as part of joint paper with IFC to show how through collaboration comminities, governments, and industry can work together to manage shared water risks.

In the late 1990s, AREVA and Cameco, two uranium mining companies active in Canada’s northern Saskatchewan province, took a leap of faith. They committed to long-term independent environmental monitoring.

It was a big deal for the companies, which—like many—were accustomed to a corporate culture of privacy and tight control. It also was a big deal for the leaders of six local communities, who had seen the pollution arising from poor management of effluent by mid-twentieth century mining operations.

Taking risks

Overcoming their hesitation, the parties gathered around a conference table. One by one, they signed a landmark partnership agreement that would ensure enduring trust that the companies will take care not to pollute the community’s precious waterways. Together, they created the Athabasca Working Group (AWG) Community Environmental Monitoring Program, to carry out regular sample collection and analysis to monitor pollution levels.

AREVA and Cameco financed participatory water testing for areas and contaminants that were of concern to communities, in addition to testing already conducted by the company in accordance with industry best practice. To Russell Powder, a community representative from Uranium City, the most important aspect of the program is that he could go out and collect the samples himself. “Being there and knowing they’re being honestly taken” is key, he said.

Since 2000, CanNorth, an independent environmental agency owned by members of one of the local nations, has supervised the monitoring program. CanNorth deploys its own scientists along with citizen monitors–local residents who assist in the testing process.

Reaping rewards

The monitoring has shown that the best-in-class pollution controls put in place at the mines are effective. A rewrite of the original partnership agreement has reduced some of the significant obligations as a direct result of the increased trust the communities have in the company. In fact, today the mining companies say they have a strong and positive working relationship with the local communities.

The hard-won bond of trust also has resulted in a tangible business benefit: the Athabasca Basin communities are supportive of new developments and licensing applications.