Water management is one of the most significant issues facing mining companies – what is the best approach to ensure sustainable and efficient operations?
Contemporary water management is much more than simply complying with regulatory requirements. Miners need to take a new approach based on sustainable water management practices to improve efficiency and earn a social licence to operate.
The need for this is readily apparent, when considering that water security is one of the world’s most urgent problems, with significant human and economic dimensions.
The United Nations has stated that water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of the global population and this situation is projected to worsen.
Over 1.7 billion people are currently living in river basins where water use exceeds recharge, and by 2050, at least one in four people are likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water. Enabling access to water is therefore one of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Given the extensive interaction between the mining sector and communities worldwide, it is no coincidence that water is considered to be the sector’s most pressing issue. Faced with pressure from communities from which we derive our social licence to operate, and investors who are well aware of the risk water scarcity brings to mining projects, the mining community is taking action to meet the water challenge.
In January this year, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) set out new commitments on water stewardship. As the peak body set up specifically to address the core sustainable development challenges faced by the mining and metals industry and improve industry performance, and with membership comprising all of the world’s leading mining and metals companies, it is clear that this matter demands the attention of the mining industry.
The ICMM position statement recognises that the mining sector can play an important role in addressing water security. Member companies, who together account for about 30 per cent of mining activity worldwide, are bound to the commitments made by the ICMM. These compel them to ‘apply strong and transparent water governance (including robust public reporting); manage water at operations effectively; and collaborate to achieve responsible and sustainable water use.’
Golder has responded to this challenge with a global structure that recognises water as a standalone discipline. Our employee-owned organisation currently has more than 300 water specialists worldwide whose expertise can be drawn on to help clients tackle some of their most critical water problems, including water balances, source pathway receptors, water resource management, water treatment (mine water, drinking water and waste water), community water supply (surface and groundwater) as well as water conservation and water demand management strategies.
Golder is also contributing to the development of tools and resources that will benefit the wider mining sector as well as deal with the water issue.
In the Asia Pacific region, Golder’s team has a well-established track record in a diverse range of projects. Led by Alan Puhalovich, Golder’s Principal Hydrogeologist and head of the Mine Water team in Australia, the team also includes; Principal Water Resources Engineer, Scott Creighton; Russell Merz, Principal Hydrotechnical Engineer; and Doug Brown, Principal Hydrogeologist.
Scott managed the development of a water supply source for a mine in Queensland. The combination of a surface water supply, supplemented by site water reuse and artesian aquifer groundwater, has provided this mine with security of supply to manage business continuity risks. In addition, the surface water supply has been developed with long-term local users in mind, as well as incorporating an innovative fishway to protect and enhance more than a dozen fish species and associated ecological values.
Doug Brown led the award-winning Cloudbreak scheme for Fortescue Metals situated in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, currently one of the largest managed aquifer recharge (MAR) projects worldwide. This scheme both conserves valuable groundwater for future redraw and mitigates the environmental impact of mine dewatering.
Managed aquifer recharge: a tool for sustainable management
Often the water balance for a mining operation results in an initial excess of water (during pit dewatering) but a long-term deficit where a sustainable water resource is required for processing. MAR provides a tool to help to balance the water budget over the life of mine operations.
The regulatory environment concerning water management in mining operations is also becoming an impetus for the inclusion of MAR as a method of excess water management.
In Western Australia, there is now a requirement to have least investigated the potential for MAR as a method of excess water management where the water balance, hydrogeology and environmental constraints allow it.
Generally, the adoption (or at least the trialling) of aquifer replenishment as a method of excess water management will gain the support and approval of regulators and provide a licence to practice in challenging groundwater environments.
Similarly, the adoption of MAR techniques in mining will gain the support of the community and traditional owners who are focused on the long-term sustainability of the catchment and groundwater environment.
In South Africa, Golder has helped the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation (RSA) to assess the feasibility of groundwater resources to augment the Vaal Gamagara Water Supply (VGWS) scheme to meet increased water demands in the Northern Cape province.
The Vaal Gamagara Water Supply Scheme (VGWS) was completed in the late 1960s to supply Vaal River water to the arid areas of the Northern Cape Gamagara Valley.
This was done to enable large-scale diamond mining at Lime Acres and the mining of iron ore and manganese at Beeshoek, Sishen, Mamatwan, Hotazel and Blackrock. Several local authorities also receive water from the scheme as well as the Kalahari East Scheme (domestic and stock watering to an area of 1.45 million hectares, including more than 250 farms).
In the VGWS scheme, water demand is anticipated to more than double to approximately 40 million cubic metres per annum by the year 2030. The driving force of this increased water demand is the significant iron ore and manganese mining operations in the Kalahari Basin.
As part of an ongoing project since 2011 to increase water availability, three large-scale groundwater source development areas were identified by Golder, which combined will contribute 11.2 million cubic metres per annum to the VGWS scheme.
The VGWS scheme saw groundwater change from a private resource to a cost-effective communal resource, with financial benefits including lower cost of capital in the development phase and low operational costs compared to other solutions. The optimal development and use of groundwater is a sound strategy when the impacts on other water use and the environment can be managed and mitigated.
Golder’s environment and water team in Africa recently completed work on the South African Mine Water Atlas, a comprehensive reference guide detailing the vulnerability of water resources to mining activity in South Africa showing the interaction between mining and water resources. The atlas is considered to be the most extensive data set of its kind, with a multi-layered set of maps spaning all the mineral provinces in South Africa. It is available online for interactive usage.
In summary, contemporary water management practice is much more than simply complying with the regulatory requirements. Pressure continues to mount on the mining sector to effectively manage the water used in their operations in a sustainable manner.
Golder is helping clients with strategic water planning and management services to improve operational efficiency, comply with regulations, and report responsibly to important stakeholders, a practice that the whole mining sector should consider as part of its social licence to operate.
For more information on how miners can improve water management, contact Ralph Heath via email at RaHeath@golder.do.za or Alan Puhalovich at APuhalovich@golder.com.au.