By Alice Evans, water lead, International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM)
Going beyond water management to proactive and holistic water stewardship requires a comprehensive understanding of the quality of water being managed at a mine site, and how this is influenced by the characteristics of and activities within the wider catchment. Understanding water quality is important for reducing water related risks, identifying opportunities, attracting investment, and building trust with local communities.
The Complexity Of Water Quality
Water is a precious shared resource, with significant social, cultural, environmental, and economic value. It is a basic human right and a fundamental requirement for healthy, functional ecosystems that are vital to sustaining life on earth.
Water is also essential to all mining and metals operations. From providing drinking water for employees to dust management and mineral processing. Without water, there can be no mining to produce the metals required for our modern lives (from mobile phones to electric vehicles and solar panels).
Recognising this, the mining and metals industry will often invest significant resources into developing water management strategies and publicly reporting its interaction with water resources. This transparent disclosure is critical for meaningful stakeholder engagement and to drive improved water stewardship across the industry. While water availability is typically well understood and reported, water quality is a complex issue with wide ranging implications for several of the Sustainable Development Goals. There are numerous reasons for this, including the multiple parameters that can be measured (from nutrients to chemicals, bacteria, and conductivity), difficulties in accurately monitoring water quality over time and variations in water quality standards and regulations across the globe.
These challenges have led to experts warning of an ‘invisible crisis,’ which is growing in complexity as prosperity expands and new contaminants emerge.
Pressure For Improved Disclosure
Globally, it is estimated that around 80 percent of wastewater is released back into the environment untreated and while global pressure on freshwater resources increase, so do societal expectations for responsible water management and transparent disclosures. This is particularly true for industry sectors seen to be responsible for low quality discharges to the environment.
The 2019 CDP Global Water Report presented a summary of the extent to which 2,433 companies from a range of sectors are taking action on water pollution. These companies ranged from the service and retail sectors to agriculture, infrastructure, and mineral extraction. The results showed that while reporting of water-related risks was highest among mineral extraction companies (compared to 12 other industry sectors), so was the company response, with 100 percent of the mineral extraction companies reporting monitoring of their discharges by temperature and parameters (compared to less than 60 percent of the agricultural companies and 30 percent for retail companies). This is a fundamental first step in managing and mitigating risk posed to the water environment and other water users.
The leadership shown by the mining and metals sector bears testament to many years spent devising and applying industry wide accounting and reporting frameworks — from the Mineral Council of Australia’s Water Accounting Framework (WAF) to ICMM’s Minimum Disclosure Standard for water reporting.
How Companies Monitor And Measure Water Quality
Despite the challenges of accurately determining water quality, it is essential to responsible water management and stewardship. Before mining begins, baseline analysis of the current water quality in the catchment and current water users (receptors) provides a starting point to understand the local context. This information can lead to the development of site-specific water quality standards, developed with the authorities, that an operation would need to comply with throughout production. In the absence of site-specific standards, some jurisdictions require compliance with national standards or global benchmarks, like the World Health Organisation drinking water quality standards, depending on how the water may be used by either human or ecological receptors downstream of the operation.
As water quality data only provide a snapshot of the current water quality in the catchment at any given time, a risk-based approach to water quality monitoring is considered best practice by many, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and European Union. The approach looks at likely sources of contamination, possible pathways, and potential receptors, allowing resources to be targeted to the most significant risk depending on the individual project and catchment characteristics.
As the operation becomes more established, routine monitoring of water quality becomes more refined, focussing on specific constituents of concern, or known discharge locations. This again is guided by the risk-based approach to optimise resources where potential risks could be highest. The information collected from the monitoring network is compiled and assessed by the company and regulating body for compliance against set water quality standards.
In recent years, some mining companies have begun encouraging local communities or interested parties to participate in water quality monitoring programmes and discussing the results with them. As an example, ICMM member Barrick provide site tours and participatory monitoring programs for members of the local community every quarter in the Dominican Republic. This drive to improve transparency can be incredibly beneficial in building trust between companies and local communities.
ICMM Commitments On Water Quality
The ICMM Position Statement on Water Stewardship outlines members’ commitments to corporate water governance, effective water management at operations and collaborating to achieve responsible sustainable water use. This includes a commitment to “publicly report company water performance.”
ICMM’s Minimum Disclosure Standard requires member companies to publicly report water withdrawal, discharge and consumption by two water quality categories — high and low quality — based on the consideration of a number of water quality parameters. The simple split between these categories is easily comprehensible to all interested parties and allows better transparency around the mining and metal industry requirements and practices.
It also encourages ICMM members to demonstrate preferential use of low-quality water (where available and suitable) in their operations. This standardisation of reporting water quality helps to promote consistency across the ICMM membership and reinforces sector-specific best practice.
Improving Communication To Enhance Transparency
The challenge of globally degrading water quality presents both risks and opportunities to the mining and metals sector. Disclosure of reliable, accurate and understandable information is a critical first step to optimising resources and reducing water pollution. Recognising the need for clear, transparent disclosure to improve performance led ICMM to simplify its water quality categories into two clear distinctions, high and low water quality for ease of communication with external parties. ICMM members commit to disclosing this information through the ICMM Minimum Disclosure Standard and through reporting against GRI’s Sustainability Reporting Standards.
The external reporting landscape will continue to evolve and ICMM members remain active participants in the dialogue on standardising and simplifying public disclosures. In 2021 we will be updating our water reporting guidance to provide greater clarification around key definitions, including additional examples and case studies to support broader uptake across the mining and metals sector. We encourage all mining and metals companies to join us on this journey, to enhance transparency around the way we interact with and manage shared water resources and ultimately to champion availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.