Parched mines search for water sources in drought-hit Chile

A record-breaking drought in Chile is affecting mining operations and driving corporations to expand their hunt for additional water sources, which includes anything from water treatment and expensive desalination projects to persuading employees to use less water in the shower.

The Andean nation, the world’s top copper producer and second-largest producer of the battery ingredient lithium, is in the midst of a 13-year drought. As a result, the capital Santiago has implemented unprecedented water rationing policies for citizens.

The repercussions are also being felt in mines.

According to Anglo American, output at its flagship Los Bronces mine in central Chile fell 17% year on year in the first quarter of 2022, owing in part to water constraints. Drought caused a 24 percent decline in output at Antofagasta Minerals’ Los Pelambres mine in the first quarter.

Tensions over water consumption have been developing for years among Chile’s miners, who rely on it to pump minerals like lithium to the surface, smelt copper, and transform raw ore into useable material in concentrators.

They have traditionally relied on continental waters, or water from lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

“Our biggest task is to locate additional sources outside continental waters,” Maximo Pacheco, head of state-owned mining firm Codelco, told journalists.

Pacheco said Codelco planned to recycle more water and save water through efficiency improvements, but he didn’t go into specifics.

Anglo American and Antofagasta, for example, have targeted mine waste tailings to boost recirculation, minimize water loss from pipelines, and utilize greywater.

Mine workers at Los Pelambres, Coquimbo’s northern area, are reminded to decrease personal water consumption by screens surrounding the dining room, as part of the mine’s “Every Drop Counts” water conservation campaign.

Antofagasta’s mine will also be getting a desalination facility in the second half of the year, with the goal of getting 90 percent of the mine’s water from the ocean or recirculating by 2025.

With the drought set to linger and challenges establishing desalination facilities far from the coast, Jorge Cantallopts, chief of research at the national copper commission Cochilco, told the media that mines high up in the Andes in central Chile were facing the greatest difficulty.

Cantallopts cited Los Bronces as the most prominent example, but added that others, such as Codelco’s Andina and El Teniente, might face similar problems in the near future.

“They will face the same issues in a few years,” he said, “and we must act.”

Willy Kracht, the mining undersecretary, told the media that the government is pressuring mining companies to share water infrastructure and that a forum would be established to improve cooperation.

In response to media inquiries, Anglo American claimed Los Bronces was aiming to improve production efficiency and locate water sources that “don’t compete with human use.”

The company has already boosted water efficiency and lowered freshwater extraction, albeit it has cautioned that water availability and Covid-19 consequences might impair its copper output predictions of 660,000 to 750,000 tonnes this year.

Water consumption is also becoming more political, with President Gabriel Boric, a communist, pushing for stricter environmental laws.

Regulators have previously considered suing or fining certain mining companies for excessive water usage, particularly in the Atacama desert region, which is a key source of lithium, which is in high demand for use in electric car batteries.

According to a forecast released last month by Cochilco, fresh water usage would drop by 45 percent by 2032 owing to desalination. However, the procedure is costly, requires a lot of power, and isn’t always possible in inland high-altitude Andean regions.

BHP Group, an early adopter, today uses the technology to fulfill water demand at its massive Escondida mine and has a desalination facility at its Spence mine, while the Cerro Colorado deposit still relies on continental waters.

Antofagasta has stated that the survival of its Zaldivar mine is contingent on the extension of continental water rights, as the mine’s size does not justify the cost of a desalination plant.

Protecting water resources and the environment while boosting economic growth in the mining-dependent country, according to Kracht, is a difficult balancing act.

This drought needs to be addressed. There’s obviously climate change and global policy to push, but we’re also being encouraged to create more mining. As a result, there is a paradox that we must learn to balance “he stated.

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