Water has gained increased importance in communities’ and NGO’s agendas, becoming the most powerful convening issue for territorial based social movements resisting mining. Water is the most sensitive issue for communities as negative impacts on water directly affect food security and health. Water is also crucial for mining. It is required for workers and their families, for sanitation, for mineral processing, and is often a by-product of mining that needs to be treated before going back to the environment.
Actual and potential impacts of mining to important water sources are evident both in qualitative and quantitative terms. There are severe human health and ecosystem productivity impacts due to water pollution with heavy metals and suspended materials, and reduction in quantity of available water, resulting in competition and conflict with other water users. This situation is affecting a variety of ecosystems, including paramos (Andean moors), glaciers and glacier lakes, rivers and streams, natural lakes, oceans, and underground aquifers. Of special concern to rural peoples is the impact of mining activities on springs and streams that feed local aqueducts.
A few recent examples demonstrate the severity of the situation, caused by all types of mining, large, medium and small, as well as legal and illegal:
- The destruction of extensive areas of rainforest in the Amazon and Chocó basins and the silting-up of rivers, lakes and streams with suspended particles produced by mechanized alluvial gold mining;
- Mercury pollution of rivers and lakes by artisanal, small and medium gold mining;
- The rupture of large tailings dams, such as the 32.6 million m³ of tailings that came down from the Samarco dam polluting the Rio Doçe river all the way to the Atlantic ocean in Brazil in 2015, among many others;
- Cumulative water pollution with heavy metals and reduction of quantity due to mining in the headwaters of streams and rivers, for example in the Moquegua region of Peru;
- Continued acid mine drainage from abandoned and orphaned tailings and mines, and the lack of technologies and financial instruments to manage these impacts in perpetuity;
- The displacement of streams and rivers to gain access to mineral underlying them, a common practice of mining activity at all scales;
- The push to mine in the Arctic and along the backbone of the glaciers of the Andean Cordillera in South America;
- And, the pressure on underground aquifers.
These are a few of the scenarios explaining why water in mining today has come to the top of the agenda for governments, miners and communities, and needs to be seriously addressed. In this blog I shall outline the recent position on water stewardship proposed by leaders of the large-scale mining industry and others. In future blogs I shall focus on the water challenges for different types of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and how this global water stewardship tendency may be expected to impact on water management in ASM.
“Water is a precious shared resource with high social, cultural, environmental and economic value. Access to water has been recognised as a right; integral to wellbeing and livelihoods and the spiritual and cultural practices of many communities. It is also essential to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the services they provide”.
This is one of several statements that have been recognised by members of the International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM), the leading global institution comprised by many large-scale mining companies in their efforts to address severe water risks facing the planet. The industry recognises that:
“Water challenges are increasing around the world. Earth’s freshwater resources are finite and under pressure from industrialisation, urbanisation, climate change and the needs of a growing global population… These challenges are shared across countries, industry sectors and society. In order to meet demand, a change is needed in the way water is used, managed and shared. This will require collaboration and concerted action from all parties, including government, civil society, business and local communities (Op.cit)
Water is a material issue in mining. This means that there are high risks for governments, communities and mining enterprises associated with mining. Every mining enterprise, whatever its size, must have an effective water management plan “inside the fence”.
The Alliance for Water Stewardship has been leading and articulating important efforts to develop a collective and basin approach to management of water as a common pool resource. The stewardship approach involves the following:
“The use of water that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site and catchment-based actions. Good water stewards understand their own water use, catchment context and shared risk in terms of water governance, water balance, water quality and important water-related areas; and then engage in meaningful individual and collective actions that benefit people and nature”.
Innovative leadership in the mining industry requires collective and watershed approaches to sustainable use and management of water resources. Mine managers need to look beyond water management inside their operations, and articulate a broader watershed approach to ensure sustainable and inclusive water access by different rights holders, stakeholders and the environment.
 See: http://www.samarco.com/en/rompimento-de-fundao/
 For chronology of dam failures see: http://www.wise-uranium.org/mdaf.html
 See in Spanish only: https://web.facebook.com/ObservatorioConflictosMinerosPeru/videos/1483499658429652/?_rdc=1&_rdr
 See: https://www.epa.gov/nps/abandoned-mine-drainage
Cristina Echavarria is a geologist, social scientist and development practitioner based in Colombia, from where she works globally. With over 30 years of experience in applied action-research for sustainable development and participatory natural resource management with indigenous and afro Colombian rural communities and artisanal and small-scale miners in South America, Africa and Asia. She is experienced in applying intercultural and gender responsive approaches in mineral rich territories, with emphasis on the social, environmental, supply chain, and governance dimensions of sustainable development. She works with international agencies, governments, NGO’s, community leaders and mining companies, to enable fair and sustainable deals for all. She was the founding Executive Director of ARM and is currently a member of the Board of Directors. Cristina is also an independent member of the Forum for Corporate Responsibility of BHP and a member of the Mining Dialogue Group in Colombia.