Don’t Mine Me 

Navigating water management challenges in Latin America's mining industry.  

The relationship between the mining industry and water use is complex and often contentious, particularly in regions like Latin America, where water stress is a significant concern. In countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Peru, the mining sector’s impact on water resources has sparked debates about sustainability and the rights of local communities.

Mining operations in Latin America have traditionally been water-intensive, posing a dual challenge of high consumption and contamination. This has led to conflict with local communities, particularly in water-scarce regions, “who tend to blame the miners for the drought,” expressed an expert from an EPC company. For example, lithium mining in Bolivia and northern Argentina uses the evaporation method, which consumes vast amounts of water.

This practice has caused concern among indigenous communities, reminiscent of the situation in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where excessive water use by mining company SQM was linked to aggravating drought conditions, resulting in hefty fines by the Chilean government in 2022. “Chile has been experiencing a long drought, which has started hitting some operations. Anglo’s operation in Los Bronce and Antofagasta’s Los Pelambres have been quite notorious.” The sector specialist continued, “The companies are addressing this issue via desalination plants and increasing water recovery in operations.”

“Chile has been experiencing a long drought, which has started hitting some operations. Anglo’s operation in Los Bronce and Antofagasta’s Los Pelambres have been quite notorious.”

Sector specialist, Latin America

Despite these challenges, there are examples of advanced water management practices within the region. The EPC company expert affirmed, “At least in Chile, there are excellent practices. For instance, Escondida’s desalination plant, Escondida Water Supply, is probably the most modern in Latin America,” capable of pumping 4,000 litres per second, crucial for sustaining its operations. Similarly, the Los Pelambres mine has invested in a desalination plant and a 62-km pipeline and “will pump desalinated water from Punta Chungo terminal to the El Mauro dam,” confirmed the expert.

Compared to global standards, Latin America’s mining industry generally lags in sustainable water management. Factors contributing to this include inadequate regulations, insufficient enforcement and limited investment in sustainable technologies. “The authorities ignored the “water rights” in Chile, so even if you have one, you’re not allowed to use it whenever you need to.” The expert from an EPC company added, “This creates not only operational but also certainty issues.”

However, some local practices, such as desalination technology and increased water recovery systems, align with global best practices. “Today, typical investments are in desalination plants, increased and improved tailings water recovery systems and only a few mines use saltwater in their processes,” informed the EPC expert. These initiatives demonstrate a growing awareness and response to water management challenges but highlight the need for broader adoption across the region.

Increased scrutiny of environmental issues has prompted changes in the regulatory landscape across Latin America. The sector specialist noted, “This issue is hitting new projects across the board; environmental and social licenses are now key for current and upcoming projects.” Citing, for example, “the case of the suspension of Cobre Panama, which has been quite dramatic.”

Whilst the shift seems to be towards more sustainable and community-inclusive practices, “It appears to be a consensus that environmental permits are taking too long.” The sector specialist elaborated, “The government expects to address it via an update of the permitting process, although no schedule or target date has been provided.”

“It appears to be a consensus that environmental permits are taking too long.”

Sector specialist, Latin America

Engagement with local communities and authorities is essential to address and mitigate water-use concerns. Developing comprehensive water management plans that include monitoring, mitigation, and restoration measures is crucial. These plans should be developed transparently and in collaboration with local stakeholders to ensure they address the specific needs and concerns of the affected communities. Luckily, the sector specialist highlighted, “We have seen a drop in protests and stable operations for nearly a year or so.”

Despite Latin America’s notable advancements and regulatory improvements, achieving global best practices remains an ongoing challenge. To secure a sustainable future, the industry must accelerate its investment in advanced technologies, refine regulatory frameworks, and deepen engagements with local communities. Such initiatives are essential for conserving vital water resources, enhancing the sector’s reputation, and ensuring long-term regional operational stability.

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