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Implement water stewardship practices

Water is a precious shared resource with high social, cultural, environmental and economic value.

Access to water is important to the wellbeing and livelihoods of us all and the spiritual and cultural practices of many communities. It is also essential to the ecosystems upon which we depend.

Water challenges are increasing around the world. The Earth’s freshwater resources are finite and under pressure from industrialisation, urbanisation, climate change and a growing global population. Already, as many as 1.2 billion people live in areas of water scarcity, with many experts predicting that global water demand will exceed supply by 40 per cent as early as 2030.

As freshwater becomes increasingly scarce, and competition for resources grows, the ways in which we plan, manage and monitor its usage are ever more important.

Water and mining

The mining and metals industry recognises that it is one of the most water-intensive industries. In 2020, water scarcity was recognised as the greatest risk to the industry according to investors (Fitch Ratings).

A secure and stable long-term supply is essential to the mining process. It is also a critical intersectional issue for the mining sector, linking operations to the surrounding catchment and neighbouring communities. Mining activities have a significant influence on the quality and quantity of water resources. As such, there is increasing demand for transparency and disclosure on water use and management. ICMM members pledge to manage this shared and precious resource in a fair and equitable manner by implementing public-facing water stewardship commitments.

We also see increasing examples of the mining industry using innovation and technology to increase efficiency as well as supporting broader social outcomes. The water treatment technologies employed by mining are being used to reduce reliance on freshwater and support community objectives. The focus of these is to increase the use of poor-quality water (eg municipal wastewater, saline groundwater or seawater) in mining processes.

Strengthening operational capacity

In response to the increasing global problem of freshwater scarcity, and the accompanying need for more effective sustainable water management practices and policies within the water-dependent mining and metals industry, ICMM launched its position statement on water stewardship in January 2017. 

This commits all ICMM company members to adopt strategies that guarantee strong and transparent water governance, effectively manage water at operations and encourage collaboration – all with the aim of ensuring responsible and sustainable water use within the sector.

Adopting a catchment-based approach

Effective water solutions require collaboration between governments, civil society, communities and the private sector. The mining and metals industry, as a significant water user, has an important role to play in the sustainable management of water resources in the locations where companies are active.

Water stewardship requires a management approach based on finding solutions that work for the business and those other water users. Central to our stewardship strategy, the ICMM Water Stewardship Framework, which includes practical guidance, adopts a catchment-based approach to water management. This method seeks to develop a holistic understanding of the needs, concerns and priorities of all water users across an entire catchment area – which may be purely geographical, a physical water basin, or encompass a broader socio-economic area of influence.

Access to water is integral to human wellbeing, the spiritual and cultural practices of many communities, and the healthy functioning of the environment. Water is also critical to many economic activities, including the safe and effective provision of the minerals and metals we use in everyday life.

Historically, the mining and metals industry has approached water management primarily as an operational issue. Yet even the most water-efficient operation is vulnerable to water risks when the needs of other water users – including local communities, other industries and ecosystems in the catchment – are not considered. These external demands will inevitably affect access to water.

A more inclusive approach encourages a broader understanding of how competing demands on water resources can create insecurities, which, if not appropriately managed, may in turn lead to conflict. The ICMM Water Stewardship Framework outlines a standardised approach to water stewardship for the mining and metals industry, recognising that water connects an operation to the surrounding landscape and communities.

Through the effective management of water at site level – as well as collaborating with other stakeholders within the wider catchment – the mining and metals industry can become a catalyst, creating a shift towards the responsible management of precious shared water resources.

How does the approach work in practice?

ICMM’s practical guidance for the mining and metals industry takes companies through a comprehensive method of identifying, evaluating and responding to catchment-based water-related risks. These risks include flooding, water supply system reliability, pollution, the increasing cost of water and institutional capacity – to name just a few.

Our guide lays out detailed instructions on motivating internal teams in mining companies to identify and work with local stakeholders, clarifying their concerns around water basin management. It also provides helpful tips on undertaking effective, engaging consultations with stakeholders to ensure that best practices are implemented.

The benefits of this approach

Adopting a catchment-based approach is beneficial to both mining companies and the communities in which it is used.

It brings transparency to water decisions – allowing local stakeholders, as well as local businesses, to have a say in how water resources are managed. It also provides accountability, while ensuring that inclusive engagement is taking place throughout the process. This in turn allows all participants to mitigate risk in the water basin, therefore:

  • Improving the management of the system.
  • Providing meaningful information that supports more effective water use and catchment management.
  • Contributing to improvements in water security and sanitation for all stakeholders.

Accountability through water reporting

Another key element of our approach to water stewardship is effective water reporting, accountability and auditing. As competition for water continues to grow, water-dependent industries such as mining are under intense scrutiny, especially when operating in water-stressed areas, necessitating a greater need for greater transparency around water use.

There has been much progress on water reporting, measurable outputs, data accumulation and disclosure through numerous existing water reporting standards –including CDP, Dow Jones Sustainability Index, SASB, CEO Water Mandate and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). As a condition of membership, ICMM members must report to GRI on an annual basis. However, these water reporting requirements do not fully consider the industry’s specific material water practices, nuances and risks.

ICMM has collaborated with a range of stakeholders to develop minimum disclosure reporting commitments – reporting against this is now mandatory for our member companies. By publicly reporting how much water the industry uses, mining companies can become more accountable to stakeholders, while supporting and encouraging a more sustainable and equitable approach to the management of global water resources. An updated version of the guidance that supports our minimum water reporting commitments will be released in 2021.

Our guidance on water reporting is also a vital tool in tracking how the mining industry is helping to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG6 on clean water and sanitation.