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World Water Day 2023 — Seven ways ICMM members are taking action on sustainable water management

22 March 2023

Water is a precious shared resource, underpinning the wellbeing of people, the environment and the economy. Worldwide, significant progress has been made in improving access to clean drinking water and sanitation, but many people continue to be left behind. The UN estimates that as many as one in three people are still affected by a lack of safely managed drinking water, and two out of five people do not have access to adequate hand-washing facilities.

By Emma Gagen, Closure and Water Manager, ICMM

As global temperatures rise, these totals can be expected to increase with some of the already poorest countries in the world being affected by drought, and its resulting impacts of famine and malnutrition. Given this context, the sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) identified by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 focuses on access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030.

Often operating in remote, and water stressed locations, the mining and metals industry has an important role to play in facilitating this goal by developing and implementing sustainable water management solutions that benefit not only the mining operation, but also people and the planet. ICMM’s company members, who collectively account for around one third of the industry in terms of production value recognise this, and have voluntarily committed through the ICMM Mining Principles to apply strong and transparent water governance; manage water at operations effectively; and to collaborate to achieve responsible and sustainable water use. They are already making great progress in different areas of water management, and below are just some examples of the actions being taken by members to develop scalable solutions that maximise the availability of water resources and support the targets of SDG 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all).

Anglo American: Utilising water for mining and local farming at the Quellaveco Copper Mine in Peru

For over a decade, Anglo American has partnered with Peruvian communities local to its Quellaveco mining operation to access sustainable water resources for its agricultural activity. The resulting Agromining Water System initiative has improved the quality and availability of water for more than 6,000 local farmers while guaranteeing water supply for the mine. Through a partnership agreed with local stakeholders, the mine uses water from the Titire River, a water source that is not suitable for human or agricultural purposes due to naturally occurring high levels of boron and arsenic. Using this low-quality water for mining purposes frees up other better-quality water for agriculture.

The Quellaveco site also captures excess rainwater in its Vizachas dam, which it shares with local communities, to increase shared access to high quality water. At a capacity a 60m3, of which only 4m3 is used for mining, the dam has the added benefit of allowing for the conservation of ecological processes in the basin of the Titire and Vizcachas rivers. Find out more about this initiative that contributes to SDG 6.1, 6.4 and 6.6 here.

Antofagasta Minerals: achieving 100 per cent seawater use at Minera Centinela in Chile

At Antofagasta Minerals’ Minera Centinela mine in Chile, a $131 million investment in water management systems, including building a 144 km long seawater pumping system, has allowed for the removal of groundwater consumption in all site operations. By using 100 per cent seawater, the mine site also contributes to Antofagasta Minerals’ goal that more than 90 per cent of the water used in its operations will be from the sea or recycled sources by 2025.

This commitment directly responds to SDG target 6.4, which calls for a substantial increase in water-use efficiency across all sectors, and the ensuring of sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity. Find out more about their approach to sustainable water withdrawal here.

Barrick: Creating access to fresh water for local communities at the Kibali Gold Mine in the DRC

At the Kibali Gold Mine, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Barrick developed and delivered on a plan, alongside local communities, to drill more than 100 new boreholes and upgrade many more to provide ready access to potable water for the communities closest to their operations. In collaborating with local communities, Barrick is directly supporting target 6.1 of the goals, namely achieving ‘universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all’.

Barrick has also entered into an agreement with the Community Development Committee (CDC), a community partnership model deployed at all their operating mines, to invest in a water distribution project near the Kibali Gold Mine, to pump and purify water from nearby hills to a network of 40 water fountains in the local city of Durba. This plan has coincided with sustainable water management practices to reduce fresh water taken from the local Kibali River by over 50 per cent in 2021 (SDG 6.6). Find out more about their work and how they are prioritising community investments that facilitate access to water here.

BHP: Participating in multi-industry partnerships for river health in Australia

The Fitzroy Basin, in Queensland, Australia, has been under pressure from various kinds of human activity for many years. To equitably protect and restore water ecosystems in the region (SDG 6.6), it was decided that a more participatory approach to water stewardship was required. A partnership of over 20 organisations, which includes ICMM company member BHP, resulted.

This inclusive approach may be more time-intensive than any single company-led response, but working with technical experts and the Queensland Government, the Partnership has benefited from being able to deliver a more complete picture of river health of the region. The salinity model allows all involved to better understand the health of the waterways in the region, and out through to the marine area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Its work has highlighted gaps in the data, empowering industry to mitigate future environmental risks on a much broader scale, which new monitoring and collaborative research programmes are addressing. Find out more about the partnership here.

Glencore: Utilising mine-impacted water for local farming in Mpumalanga

In the Mpumalanga region of South Africa, large portions of  land that could be used for farming are located near sources of mine-impacted water. In making remediated mine water available to farmers in the region, Glencore is directly benefiting local communities, while also reducing shared pressures on freshwater resources. In particular, the Mpumalanga Winter Wheat Pilot, a collaborative initiative implemented by ICMM, Glencore, Impact Catalyst and Business for Development, shows that mine-impacted water and land can offer sustainable opportunities for local communities, and even offer higher yields than those planted on virgin soil.

Through this partnership and others like it, mining companies are assisting the delivery of integrated water resources management plans (SDG 6.5) that create a positive social and environmental legacy. Read more about the pilot to learn how ICMM members are supporting and strengthening the participation of local communities in water management here.

MMG: Community-led partnerships for modern sanitation in Laos

Diseases associated with unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene are among the leading causes of death in children under five, and are often a root cause of malnutrition and stunting in young children. Recognising the vulnerability of local communities, MMG wanted the closure of its Sepon Copper mine in the mountainous Vilabouly district of Lao to leave a legacy of improved water, sanitation and hygiene in the region.

The company, alongside UNICEF, the Lao Ministry of Health and the Lao Ministry of Education and Sports worked to support programmes in 14 communities to bring potable water supply, gender-segregated latrines and hand washing facilities to schools. Part of a multi-faceted local community development programme aiming to mobilise communities to completely eliminate open defecation, the work focuses on both the infrastructural and behavioural change needed to ensure real and sustainable improvements. Through community partnerships, open defecation has decreased dramatically, bringing health benefits and reduced disease spread to the local communities, making a meaningful contribution to the achievement of target SDG 6.2 (access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all). Read more here.

Vale: Understanding the impacts of climate change on the water cycle in the Itacaiúnas River Basin

Effective integrated water management (SDG 6.5) is underpinned by catchment-level data and approaches. The Itacaiúnas River Basin is an important watershed for the mining sector in the Carajás mineral province of Brazil where ICMM company member Vale operates. Researchers at Vale Institute of Technology (ITV) have studied the Itacaiúnas River Basin, to understand its water resources and how deforestation and climate change might impact the water cycle in the Basin in the future.

Since the 1970s, there has been large scale deforestation in the Basin and now more than half of its native forest has been lost, mainly replaced by pasture. ITV observed that further deforestation could result in a greater decrease of water transfer to the atmosphere in the Basin and an increase in streamflow. Increased flow in the local water system is associated with water quality issues and flooding.

Through a partnership with Chico Mendes Biodiversity Conservation Institute, Vale helps to protect and monitor Conservation Units in Carajás region (800,000 hectares of forest). The results showed that deforestation that occurred upstream of the Conservation Units affects the rivers in the Conservation units and may change water quality and biodiversity even in pristine areas. The results highlight the value of protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems (SDG 6.6). It also allows researchers to identify and evaluate how water-related risks can impact watersheds in ways that can be replicated in different mining locations across Vale’s portfolio. Learn more about the research here.

These represent just some of the actions being taken by ICMM company members to advance the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation, in and around their operations.  Find out more about ICMM's work on sustainable water management here.