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01 December 2017

Water is a necessity in the mining industry, and the extraction of diamond, copper, and other valuable raw materials would be nearly impossible without it, given the remote, water-scarce location of most mines in the world.

According to the World Economic Forum, a shortage of clean fresh water presents the greatest global, societal, and economic risk over the next decade. By 2030, the global population is expected to reach 8.5 billion and could face a water shortfall of 40%. Little time is left to spare, and the mining industry must take the necessary steps to ensure that water is conserved as much as possible, beginning now, in order to protect available water resources.

Sustainability must be a core focus of the mining industry – approximately 75% of our mining operations are located in high water-risk regions, so we recognise the need to conserve water wherever possible.

64% of our total operational water requirements are now met by recycling and reusing water--and plans are underway to increase this quantity to 80%. In the mining industry, water is used primarily by tailings disposal facilities, where the non-valuable parts of ore are stored after separating the valuable fraction, and for spraying on haul roads to control dust.

Effectively managing water shortages mitigates the risk of operational disruptions and presents opportunities to play a leadership role in water catchments. Five years into an ambitious 10-year water strategy, we are focusing on water resilience by improving operations and investing in technology.

Operational water savings

To achieve operational excellence, we have set quantifiable water usage goals for all of our sites worldwide, targeting a 20% reduction from projected water consumption by 2020.

In 2015, for the third year in a row, we exceeded the 2020 target by achieving an estimated 16% water saving against its projected water usage. This saving stems predominantly from projects such as more effective dust suppression, dewatering of tailings, and more efficient ore separation – all of which contributed to the water saving of approximately 25 million cubic meters.

As well as saving water, water efficiency is rising through onsite water recycling and reuse. For example, water supply challenges experienced in 2015 limited production at Los Bronces copper mine in Chile provided an extra impetus to reduce fresh water consumption. To overcome this issue, a special water recycling system was developed in order to transport water via a 56-kilometer pipeline from the Las Tortolas tailings dam in Chile to Los Bronces. Los Bronces now currently recycles more than 70% of available water.

Innovative technology solutions

Investing in new integrated water solutions is fundamental to achieving a step-change in water-efficient mining. In 2015, we introduced several innovative, water-saving approaches and technologies including: separating water streams that do not contact wastewater; discharging less water to tailings; remotely monitoring water flows and levels in dams and tailings; and piloting passive water treatment technologies.

In June 2015, we held the first FutureSmart MiningTM Technology Open Forum in London, gathering world-class experts from a variety of industries to help solve some of the mining industry’s biggest challenges. The ultimate goal of the forum involved finding more efficient ways to mine and also, crucially, reducing the environmental impact of the industry to create a positive legacy for the surrounding environment and local communities. The forum had representation from more than 75 different market sectors, 30 companies, 16 countries, and six continents. Forum activities resulted in more than 1,150 hours of discussion and 1,000 generated ideas.

Potential solutions identified include reducing the quantity of tailings produced by focusing on minimizing water use earlier in the process. For areas rich in water resources, forum participants developed ideas on high-volume, low-cost water treatment to return the water safe for human use.

As a result of the Open Forum, 18 themes were identified including sustainability, bio-mining (in which micro-organisms leach out minerals), and gamification (creating water awareness through game incentives). Following the event, ideas were assessed and sorted into projects aimed at delivering water-efficiency targets, many of which come into full force later this year.

We have developed a more comprehensive and rigorous set of performance indicators to measure progress, which will be made public later this year. One of these measures is a modified version of the water-efficiency target tool (WETT), which incorporates improvements based on lessons learned over the first few years of implementation. WETT is used to drive water efficiency at individual operations and also to register water saving projects for the purposes of sharing and reapplying that knowledge across all of the company’s sites.

Growing regulatory and social pressure, increasing demands for limited natural resources, climate change, and the changing costs of water all highlight the business imperative of achieving water resilience for most industries worldwide. For us, the immediate focus is on securing adequate supplies and using resources more efficiently in order to ultimately reduce reliance on new water resources to near-zero.

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