February 21, 2008

South American Miners Run Out of Water

Miners in South Africa have begun pumping water from the Pacific Ocean in an effort to lower their dependency on unpredictable rivers due to climate change while avoiding disputes with farmers who also rely on water from nearby rivers.

Mining is the chief export for Peru and Chile, but the demand for water is high, and conflicts with neighboring farmers can often become violent.

As global climate change continues to pose a threat to glaciers, the fear of being without water is causing many miners in the Andes region to construct water desalination plants. Apart from paying for transportation and purification, water from the ocean is free. The average mine demands millions of water over the span of its lifetime.

In Peru, Cerro Lindo gets all of its water from the sea by pumping the desalinized water up 6,000 feet into the Andes to its 700 workers who live there.

The Esperanza project is projected to be able to pump water from the sea over a distance of 90 miles and an altitude of 7,545 feet to one of the world's driest deserts, the Atacama.

"Water always generates conflicts between mines and farmers, so this is a good alternative because the source is limitless," said German Arce, who runs Peru's newest big mine, Cerro Lindo, owned by Peruvian miner Milpo.

The world's largest copper mine, Chile's Escondida mine, may expand a desalination system it installed years ago, said a spokesman at BHP Billiton, the mine's owner.

The fear of pollution has also caused plans for mines to be halted, including those of Newmont's Cerro Quilish gold project, and the Tambo Grande gold project.

The need for water has become so high that residents in Peruvian mountain towns have delayed Zijin Mining Group of China's $1.4 billion Rio Blanco copper project and Anglo American's Quellaveco copper project, according to Reuters.

"The scarcity of water will cause economic conflict - it already has in parts of Peru, and it will affect the development of industry," said Jorge Alvarez Lam, climate change specialist with the Peruvian government.