Reducing water footprint at mine sites: What every operator needs to know 

In the gold mine, a large yellow truck carrying gold ore to the processing machine, panorama view

Mining is a thirsty business. To get to the earth’s mineral resources, mining operations may consume vast amounts of water. And while mining may potentially have negative impacts on local water resources, it doesn’t have to. By implementing a responsible integrated water management strategy that combines industry expertise and innovative technologies, mining companies can minimise their environmental impact and even bring about positive benefits to the economy and society. 

‘Mining companies should explore the use of modern technology for real-time monitoring of environmental and health and safety data and adapt their communication to stakeholders accordingly.’ 

Sustainability Reporting in the Mining Sector, a UNEP report (source) 

Let’s face it: Mining is a vital part of the global economy. To meet the urgent challenges of climate change, the world demands increasing amounts of metals and minerals to support its growing population and production needs. The mining industry is a driving force that directly generates profits, employment and economic growth, according to a United Nations article. The world is also seeing an increasing demand for metals in the clean energy transition. By working with governments and civil society, mining companies can ensure that the benefits of mining extend beyond the life of the mine itself, enabling the industry to have a reduced footprint on the natural environment and a positive impact on social capital.  

How then can we create more efficient and environmentally responsible mines? With water being vital to the efficient operation of a mine, one of the ways is to implement an integrated water management strategy. One that isn’t just confined to the mine site but covers the entire mine life cycle in a watershed context. By taking a holistic approach, mining companies can optimise water usage, know when to act, and minimise potential environmental impact. 

The critical role of water in achieving efficient mining operations 

While mining operations vary significantly in terms of size, location and mineralogy, they share some common issues when it comes to water management. Too much or too little water can severely limit mineral production and bring about social conflicts related with water. A secure water supply is also critical when it comes to obtaining mining permits.  

Untreated effluent, as well as contaminated surface water runoff and groundwater, can impact the environment and drinking water supplies – and have major implications for neighbouring communities. 

Water is consequently a major consideration in many areas of mining operations, such as: 

  • Operational mine water planning 
  • Mine dewatering 
  • Site-wide and catchment scale water balances 
  • Tailings site facilities and closure 
  • Mine water supply 
  • Lithium extraction from brines in salars (critical for the transition to electrical vehicles) 
  • … and more 

The winning formula is industry experience + digital technologies 

Water-related challenges in the mining industry are complex, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Many mining companies have found that solutions tailored to the specific needs of their mining operation greatly impact the success of their mines.  

A successful mine water management strategy often combines industry expertise with the use of digital technologies in all stages of mining. For example, using a physics-based groundwater modelling software can help mine owners and operators evaluate the interactions between the mine operation and groundwater. To make critical mine water-related decisions in real-time, mining companies are also increasingly making use of cloud-based operational mine water management systems to get a complete and accurate picture of current conditions.   

Effective water management across mines plays a huge part in the success of any mining operation. To safeguard the environment, taking a holistic approach in a mine water management strategy is crucial. 

Modern technologies are enabling the mining industry to manage and use water more sustainably. With a responsible water management strategy, mine owners and operators can take the next step towards reducing environmental impact, improving public perception and getting swifter permits. 

A win-win scenario: More sustainable mining activities are more efficient mining activities 

With increasing costs related to water acquisition and management, emerging mine water risks and a commitment from industry leaders to decrease water footprint, water stewardship is at the forefront of the mining industry. With an integrated water management strategy in place, mining companies have the potential to not only achieve a more sustainable business but also to gain a more efficient business in compliance with increasingly strict environmental regulations and standards.    

The World Economic Forum (WEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) have published a report to illustrate how the mining industry could contribute effectively to the Sustainable Development Goals. Read it here for further inspiration: Mapping Mining to the SDGs: An Atlas

In short, to improve efficiency and productivity at mine sites and minimise the environmental impact, consider implementing an integrated mine water management strategy. Learn more. 

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