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Time to treat water as a non-renewable resource

August 2012

Despite the fact that water falls free from the sky, shortages now represent a significant business risk for companies like Anglo American, affecting not only day-to-day operations but long-term sustainability.
 
Everyone needs water. And while demand continues to increase along with the world’s population, supply does not. Many industries need to treat water as a strategically important, non-renewable resource and mining is one such industry. Last year, Anglo American consumed more than 115 million cubic metres in its primary activities alone.
 
Minerals are often found in parts of the world where water is already scarce. More than 70% of our operations are in water-stressed areas of Chile and southern Africa, Peru and Australia. Establishing a mine is expensive and its lifecycle can be enormously long, with the period from initial exploration to closure ranging from 40 to 170 years. Today’s investment decisions are, therefore, well within timescales that could be significantly affected by climate change. 
 
So what are we doing? 
 
First, we’re getting our own house in order. We have a 10-year water strategy directly linked to the group’s overall aim of ‘operating safely, sustainably and responsibly’. The strategy includes consumption targets for all of our businesses, and ways of measuring performance that [are/can be] audited. 
 
Second, we’re partnering with other stakeholders and investing in infrastructure. We have to ensure that we can secure water for our own needs without compromising water resources for others. In South Africa, we have invested US$100m in a water reclamation plant that converts waste water from underground mines into drinking water. The plant currently provides 510,000 people in the city of eMalahleni with around 12% of their water. 
 
Third, we’re investing in research. We are working with the UK Metrological Office and Imperial College London on modelling the potential regional impacts of changes in precipitation resulting from climate change.
 
Ultimately, we will need to radically change the way we operate so, by 2030, we want our new mines to be water neutral. This means that they would be using 50% less water than existing mines. And, from this reduced quantity, 80% of the water they do use would be recycled or recovered. We are also looking at options for dry processing what we mine rather than using water.
 
But while dry processing would reduce our water consumption, it could also increase our energy consumption and therefore our carbon footprint, which is why, in parallel, we are designing a carbon neutral mine. We know there’s no silver bullet but we are confident that by improving the way we operate, investing in technology and research, and working with our stakeholders, we are finding the solutions to these challenges.
 
Samantha Hoe-Richardson is head of sustainable development and energy at Anglo American. Email: samantha.hoe-richardson@angloamerican.com
 



Anglo American | UK & NI Ireland | Water

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