Shared water, shared responsibility, shared action: Fitzroy, Australia

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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 2008, the mining industry in Australia’s Fitzroy region became the focus of concerns over water quality after a mine pit filled with floodwaters. This resulted in higher than normal discharges back into the local waterways. Although the Fitzroy Basin had been under pressure from various kinds of human activity for many years, the eyes of the community and regulators were focused on the mining industry.

A perception problem

Communities were targeting the mining industry with their water quality concerns. The mining sector’s social license to operate was at an all-time low. It was essential for any solution to include participation from sectors that were potentially contributing to water quality issues as well as those who believed they had been impacted, such as representatives from the agricultural industry and local community. This inclusive approach would assist with credibility.

A collective solution delivers a more complete understanding

With the involvement of more than 20 organizations, all with competing interests and differing opinions on other topics, agreeing on a way forward was significantly more time-intensive than a company-led response. With the support of the Fitzroy Basin Association as an independent mediator, the group ultimately found a key point of consensus to unite the group: a more complete picture on river health was needed.

The response also needed to be collaborative, the group determined. As the Fitzroy Partnership was formed, each partner committed to a collectively designed, consistent, and accessible reporting system.

“Our view was that catchment communities, policy makers and regulators should be informed by a science-based understanding of the catchment and the various water contributions that occur within that catchment,” explained Rio Tinto’s Stuart Richie. “Too often decisions and understanding are informed on incorrect perceptions of the catchment and its function.”

The importance of maintaining vigilance after the crisis has passed

Social pressure following the flood events elevated the importance of collaborative reporting and data sharing for companies. Today, the memory of the 2008 flooding incidents is fading and social and regulatory pressures have declined. Global coal and gas prices have dropped. And companies have downsized. Yet, coal and gas output from the basin is expanding and industrial and population pressures on water and pollution continue to increase.

According to Nathan Johnston, head of the Fitzroy Partnership for River Health, there were warning signs of the dangers of longer-term cumulative impacts long before the 2008 floods. Continued investment by companies in the partnership today will ensure that cumulative impacts are better understood, in turn empowering industry to mitigate future environmental risks. “It also will serve to prevent undue pressure on the industry should an incident arise in future,” he said.