Mining and Water, some truths to be told (1st part)
Water (H2O), our vital liquid to which we all should have access since it represents a human right, as we know, is a substance, odorless, colorless and tasteless, which exists in a more or less pure state in nature and covers around 71 % of the surface of our planet, located mainly in the oceans and seas (96.5%), glaciers and poles (1.74%), aquifer deposits (1.72%) and the rest (0.04%) in lakes, rivers, soil moisture and finally, in the body of living beings.
There are many taboos, half-truths, and misinformation regarding the use of water in the world and in our country, the mining industry is no stranger to this circumstance, however, in this article we intend to present specific information that allows us to form an opinion on what is the reality of its use and distribution.
In the world, it is estimated that 70% of the water consumed by humanity is used for activities related to agriculture and livestock, 23% to industry and 7% is consumed in homes; another interesting fact is that out of the 100% of the water that rains, around 70% evaporates, 24% runs off into rivers and only 6.2% manages to infiltrate the underground aquifers.
In Mexico, approximately 63% of the water consumed by humans comes from a surface source (rivers, lakes, lagoons, etc.) and the remaining 37% comes from underground sources. Referring to groundwater, our country has 653 underground aquifers identified by CONAGUA (National Water Commission), of which it is estimated that at least 200 are in deficit, that is, more water is consumed annually than the water they recover.
If we talk about drinking water, a worrying figure for Mexico is that out of the 100% of the drinking water that is consumed and/or used, only 53% is invoiced by the competent authorities, and out of the 47% that is not charged to anyone, 84% represents physical loses and 16% represent illegal consumption. If we transfer it to drops, of every 100 drops that are consumed in Mexico, 53 are charged by the various water control agencies, 40 are lost due to leaks, broken or obsolete pipes and/or any other physical cause, such as poor water hoarding, use, and storage systems; and the remaining 7 drops represent illegal extractions and consumption.
The situation of human consumption of water in our country is not very encouraging either, it is estimated that today at 2023, almost 60 million Mexicans do not have water sanitation, that is, they do not have the infrastructure to collect, transport and treat water in their cities or communities to avoid negative effects on the environment and on the people who use it. Nearly 11 million Mexicans do not have drainage, 9 million lack piped drinking water in their homes and the availability of water per capita is declining, having presented a supply crisis even in important cities such as the recent case of Monterrey.
It is not strange to anyone that in Mexico we have a crisis in relation to water, we have not been diligent as consumers, much less have we had competent authorities who are committed to improving the system of hoarding, use, storage and distribution, nor have we been able to prevent the unnecessary loss of water and stop illegal consumption and extraction of it (these last two items represent practically 47 drops out of every 100 consumed in Mexico and therefore represent almost 50 times the consumption used by the responsible mining industry in Mexico, as will be seen later).
Now, knowing the water situation in our country a little better, the question arises: is mining partly to blame for this crisis? The answer, speaking solely on behalf of responsible mining, would be definitely no.
In Mexico, CONAGUA authorizes two types of concessions for the use of water, underground (subsoil aquifers) and surface water (rivers and lakes); of every 100 drops granted by our water authority, 76.7 drops are used for agriculture and livestock, 14.1 drops are granted for urban public consumption, 5.1 drops are used for electricity generation and the remaining 4.1 drops are used by the industrial sector, of which approximately 0.9 drops correspond to the mining sector. This means that of the 53% (fifty-three) percent of the water that is legally consumed in Mexico (excluding losses and illegal extraction), less than one drop out of every hundred is consumed by the mining industry.
However, the position of the current federal administration in water matters seems to be unaware of this reality and appears to be determined to unfairly blame the mining industry as partly responsible for the water crisis that prevails in Mexico. The head of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has expressed in various forums that "the estimated water footprint (which is the total volume of water used in the production of a product or service) of mining is 1,131 million cubic meters”, highlighting in a generic way that this translates into irreparable negative impacts for the surrounding communities and their ecosystems.
Truth to be told, neither SEMARNAT nor CONAGUA have acknowledged that they do not have a clear estimate of how much water each industry consumes in Mexico, including mining, which is why they recently announced the creation of the "Water and Mining Geographic Information System" which was prepared by the Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA) and which aims to retrieve information from the Public Registry of Water Rights (REPDA) on the extraction concessions granted to mining companies, with the aim of knowing more accurately the level consumption of the industry and have a clearer outlook for the development of public policies related to water.
What is true is that the mining industry consumes little water and pays dearly for it. According to CAMIMEX reports, mining companies pay up to $26.00 Mexican pesos per cubic meter of water, much higher than the average for other industries, which is of approximately $14.00 pesos and the municipalities only pay an average of 58 cents per cubic meter; and despite the fact that mining consumes approximately one single drop of every 100 drops that are measured and invoiced in Mexico, this industry represents around 50% of the income of the water authorities by payment of rights for the use of water, being the industry that contributes the most to the public treasury in this sense and contrasting with the farmers and ranchers in Mexico who pay minimal or no amounts for the rights of the concessions that are granted to them; and even so, there are authorities who intend to continue unfoundedly blaming mining for the current shortage of this vital liquid.
Let's be honest, water plays a fundamental role in mining, it is used in various processes, for mineral processing, equipment cooling, chemical reactions, dust suppression, tailings transportation and general services, including personal consumption and hygiene. However, the responsible mining industry not only consumes little water and pays dearly for it, it also consumes water in a sustainable and highly efficient manner, since a very high percentage in the industry, close to sixty percent, implements closed circuits for the management of water in its different processes, which means that the water is reused and comes from treated and recirculated wastewater sources and contrary to other industries and activities, such as agriculture and livestock, water discharges that will never be recovered are avoided; and when said discharges are unavoidable, the responsible mining industry complies with the applicable regulations for them.
Responsible mining is even a strategic ally for the various water control and distribution agencies, since various mining companies operating in Mexico have implemented successful programs and projects for equipment and infrastructure for human water consumption, allowing residents of surrounding communities have access to the distribution, consumption and treatment of piped drinking water, as well as rainwater harvesting programs, consumption monitoring programs, educational programs in relation to responsible consumption of the same and the construction of several treatment plants.
How much is a liter of water worth? It is possible to assign a specific value and know if it is more expensive in a supermarket, in an airport, in a restaurant, in the kitchen of our house or in the operation of a certain industry, however, common sense tells us that the most expensive liter of water is the one that is not available or cannot be found.
Mexico can redirect the course towards a more sustainable and efficient management of water, however, a deep reflection is required on the true causes of the crisis and take effective measures to eradicate these causes, including better regulation of consumption that is carried out by primary activities such as agriculture and livestock, a national strategy of public policies and infrastructure development to prevent water from being lost in its distribution routes through obsolete pipes and, of course, ending the consumption and illegal extraction of water.
It is necessary to emphasize and insist that the responsible mining industry is a necessary and strategic ally for the various water authorities in our country, an ally that uses little water, legally, sustainably and efficiently; trying to deny this reality seems to have the sole objective of diverting the attention of the population from the real problems that cause and continue causing the water crisis that prevails in our country, avoiding the responsibility or incompetence of those responsible for ending the crisis.