Access to water is one of the biggest global challenges of our time. Since the mining and mineral processing industry is highly dependent on water, this challenge poses a big risk to all of us in the industry. It is a challenge, of course, but it also creates opportunities for us to be part of the solution.
More than 2 billion people are compelled to drink unsafe water, and more than 4.5 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, according to the United Nations and the World Bank. By 2030, 700 million people will be displaced or at risk of displacement by intense water scarcity, facing 40% shortfall in water availability. That’s under 11 years from now. Without effective management of the world’s water resources, water scarcity will bring intensified disputes between communities, and possibly among nations. Some analysts even predict that major wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.
While the world’s population continues to expand, economic growth - especially in developing economies - is also lifting more and more people out of poverty and into a swelling middle class. This demographic change means hundreds of millions of people with disposable income, which in turn is fueling consumption and placing more and more demand on the mining industry to deliver material to the market. And with declining ore grades, we need more water to fulfill the demand.
As an industry, we find ourselves in a classic Catch-22.
A challenge to mining’s full life-cycle
Perhaps in our industry it is wrong to talk about a water shortage only. In some parts, it has just become more expensive and difficult to source, recover and transport water. This trend will only grow in the years ahead providing mining with a huge financial and operational risk if we do not look to change our usage and management of water. Contamination of water that has been in contact with mined material along with tailings dam failures are two of the biggest environmental risks caused by mining.
As ore grades decline, miners need to use more water and process more material, just to keep up with production rates, thereby creating more water and tailings to manage. Then into this mix add climate change and weather instability. Droughts and water scarcity are becoming more common, frequently putting local communities and farmers in direct confrontation with industry. At the other end of the scale, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, such as unseasonal or especially high rainfall can have potentially disastrous effects.
Turning the tide: Drivers of change from costs and risk to technology and sustainability
Extending across every industry and every geography, but especially the most arid and remote areas, there is a global sense of urgency about diminishing access to safe water, and a shared responsibility within mining that we must be a part of the solution. According to a recent Moody’s report, about 70 percent of mines operated by the “Big Five” – BHP, Rio Tinto, Anglo American, Vale and Glencore –are located in countries where water stress is considered a major risk.
What is required is a tricky balancing act: Shareholders, customers, employees and neighboring communities will expect miners to not only support global development, but operate profitably and to do so while lessening the industry’s environmental footprint. The mining industry now has the opportunity to redefine itself when it comes to environmental impacts and to embrace or develop more sustainable solutions, practices and technologies – and, in particular, those that improve water usage.
Already, a growing number of water-management solutions have been successfully deployed around the world. Some mines are already achieving a water re-circulation rate of 90% or more. New technologies are being developed, including dry processing, use of seawater or desalination of sea water (though this is often at a sizeable cost), filtration and water reuse and dry stacking of tailings, which is now possible for even large-scale operations.
Time to talk about tailings
When we discuss water in mining, wet tailings will always take centre stage – with Brazil and arid regions globally expressing most interest. Solutions are out there and we are seeing the industry increase its consideration of dry stack tailings over the last two decades, and especially over the last few years, for multiple reasons:
An example of an industry frontrunner, Goldcorp (now part of Newmont), who more than three years ago announced that they would be pursuing a “towards zero water” policy, with the objective of reusing all water needed in their mines, thereby not adding any new water to the system. After analysis of a substantial amount of operational data, they were able to recognise areas of high water use over a mine’s life-cycle and honed-in on their tailings management as a hotspot for improvement.
They identified that large capacity filtration was a key technology to be developed and collaborated with FLSmidth, who developed large-scale filtering and materials handling equipment for this important partnership. What resulted was the EcoTails® project, a potential game changer in the industry. I mention this not because it involves FLSmidth but because it involves removal of water from tailings and crucially collaboration between two actors in the industry. Combining forces can often result in significant breakthroughs.
Benefits for the industry, community and the environment
When we look at the bigger picture, solid tailings like these would result in a smaller mine footprint, lower overall risk and possibly a lower cost over the life cycle, which includes the closure and post-closure period.
From an environmental standpoint, this is a viable solution. It can potentially reduce water cots, mine life-cycle costs and allow them to redeem pit closure bonds earlier, improving cash flow.
Longer-term, this proof will make the attainment of a social license to operate easier, faster and cheaper. I’ve mentioned the importance of obtaining a social license to operate a few times during this presentation.
This might seem like a soft challenge, but the term covers some very tangible opportunities, and it creates many opportunities for us to collaborate and partner with important stakeholders. Support rather than opposition from a local community will increase productivity as we gain permits faster, have fewer interruptions, and become an attractive workplace for locals.
Simply put, it leaves us more time to focus on our core business.
Taking the first steps
Sustainability will – and should – affect the way we do business across the entire industry. There are opportunities for all of us and in the roles we play across the entire mining lifecycle.
Whether we develop the first feasibility study, look at more automated and efficient technologies, sustainably manage site operations, or ultimately de-commission and close a mine, we all play a part in developing and implementing sustainable water management practices. Each of which can benefit the industry’s environmental and social legacy, as well as improve financial and reputational impacts.
And as an industry, we must work together and bring these ideas to the market, now. I believe we can create a future where mining and minerals processing requires very little or no fresh water. To get there, I encourage you to make sure that each new project has a water management plan and policy in place, and to use data and digitalization to gather and share information to set new industry standards.
We as an industry need to collaborate; to co-create new solutions and keep pushing each other to innovate new and more sustainable solutions. Our recently launched 2030 ambition “Mission Zero” sets out our position as a key enabler and innovative partner for our mining customers as we strive to achieve sustainable productivity and zero emissions in our industry. We invite you on this journey.