Shared water, shared responsibility, shared action: Upper Hunter Valley, 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.

As the coal industry was thriving and growing in the Upper Hunter Valley, there was a growing discontent about mining’s negative impacts on the local environment. For local residents, mining operations were creating dust and noise. They were impacting housing, water quality, and water availability.
The mining companies active in the area realized that the concerns raised were not specific to any one site. They understood that a collective response would
be required to address the issues. The Upper Hunter Mining Dialogue was established in 2011, bringing together eight coal producers with community, environmental, and business groups, as well as local government and regulators.

The value of interaction and shared decisions

Both industry and communities have recognized the importance of relationship building with communities and between companies.

“The positive I’ve seen from the dialogue is around building relationships,” said Chris New of Rio Tinto. It is also around building trust with both community members as well as within industry. “Because people have been finally able to connect a mine or a project with a person, they can then have that proper conversation they should’ve been having a long time ago and feeling like they’re getting to know those people as individuals, not just as committee members,” he added.

From discussion to practical action

From the outset, companies recognized the importance of turning community discussions into practical actions in order to build trust. They set up working groups that identified specific projects to take on, such as the development of a water accounting framework.

This further built the credibility of their commitment to communities as efforts and actions got underway. “I think you need a genuine commitment from the industry to actually put in place the things that are being talked about,” said John Drinan, one of the community representatives.

In 2015, the Dialogue set up a joint steering committee, which strengthened the commitment to shared decision making with communities even more. It also firmly positions the Dialogue as a proactive force for engaging with communities. It is clear that the Dialogue seeks to understand their concerns even when the industry is not being directly challenged. Over the long term, this approach will help to reduce future risks to mining companies in the region, such as discontent around economic opportunities post-closure.