The mining sector has a key role to play in contributing to good global water management and supporting the objectives of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. However, this can only be done by mining companies working collaboratively with all stakeholders. GERARD PETER reports.

Without doubt, there are a number of water risks associated with mining. However, by integrating broad water risks into their business model and by pro-actively collaborating with local communities, mining companies can demonstrate to investors their management of water risks, build trust among all stakeholders, and show respect for other water users and the ecosystems in which they operate.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN MINING REVIEW AFRICA ISSUE 3, 2021
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This was the general consensus of the panellists in a recent webinar titled Water Risks in the Mining Sector: Why they matter to business? Organised by the Responsible Mining Foundation, the webinar focused particularly on a shared responsibility to mitigate water risks. It also highlighted the role that investors can play in ensuring water security.

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Leading the discussion was Hélène Piaget, CEO of the Responsible Mining Foundation. She pointed out that on the whole, mining operations require a lot of water whether it is fresh water, recycled water or desalinated water. On top of that, mining also releases toxic waste onto tailings storage facilities and such waste could find their way into rivers and lakes.

When water risks are underestimated both mining companies and investors are courting disaster.” – May Hermanus

Piaget added that water in the context of mining is always local. “It happens in a community and has an effect on activities such as farming or even on far away cities that are down river that rely on the river for drinking water. Therefore, there needs to be a shared responsibility for valuing water – everyone should share the responsibility of mining minerals,” she stated.

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Weighing in on the conversation, May Hermanus, adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand stated that once a mining operation has been established, there needs to be consideration about how the mine impacts on water resources and what safety measures are in place to protect such a resource, both during mining and after mining.

“Another key consideration is the chemical reactivity of the mineral or metal that is being mined as well as the waste material that is being produced,” added Hermanus. “So, if chemical reactivity is an issue, it is important to know whether mining will liberate acid building compounds or radioactive materials. Also, if acid mine drainage is a risk, can heavy metals in the host rock or soil be mobilised?”

According to Hermanus, the measures and the costs involved have to be determined upfront and need to be considered by investors. “Is the mine located on a large ore body or an isolated ore body? Are there other mines located on the same ore body? What will be the collective impact on the water resources? All of these measures need to be considered by financial backers. Remember, when water risks are underestimated both mining companies and investors are courting disaster.”

Real results and not mere policy

Another point of discussion during the webinar was mine tailings impoundments and the water associated with them. Hermanus cautioned that people who are homeless and destitute often see these areas as viable habitable land. However, the consequences of habitation of this land has severe impacts for the health and well-being of these people.

Also on the panel was Vagner Diniz of the Instituto Camila e Luiz Taliberti in Brazil. Diniz suffered a personal loss during the Brumadinho dam disaster two years ago. He pointed out that the effects of the disaster are still being felt today by the local community. This includes people falling ill and the quality of water in the area being compromised due to the contamination by heavy metals.

Diniz cautioned that any funder of a mining operation needs to carefully consider the impact such an operation will have on water security. “Investors should not just rely on mining companies showing them their ESG policies; they need to see the proof of these companies engaging with communities and implementing their policies,” he added.

Meanwhile, Peter Kindt, head of metals, mining & fertilisers (EMEA) at ING Bank in Holland agreed with Diniz about the role that investors can play in ensuring that water risks are mitigated. He stated out that investors have a key role to play in setting the tone and driving mining companies to take action.

Furthermore, Kindt pointed out that nowadays, many investors are leaning towards putting money in companies with strong ESG principles. “However, rather than just having policies in place, companies need to be on a genuine trajectory to improve their ESG ratings. Sustainable business is better business. Those mining companies that engage in reduced water usage have a better prospect of getting investment,” he concluded.