Mining relies on water. Even though mines consume between 2 and 5 percent of South Africa’s available water, that’s substantially less usage than agriculture (61%), domestic/municipal use (27%) and industry (7%), based on research by the CSIR. Yet while mining has a relatively smaller consumption footprint, it’s still often wasteful.
In an eBook published by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the authors explain this dynamic. Water makes up a small but vital part of a mine’s operations. Adding more water helps create substantially more lucrative output than the additional water’s cost. As a result, water consumption and planning don’t command as much attention as other parts of a mine’s complicated operations.
Yet this scenario is changing. Strained resources are making it harder for mines to secure more water sources – mines in China and Chile already feel the pinch of reduced local water access. Too much water is also an issue – shifting weather causes more severe water damage at mines. In a 2013 Carbon Development Project (CDP) survey, 64% of mines had negative water-related impacts on business.
But mining’s water woes are also an opportunity for quick wins.
“Water is ever present in mines,” says Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager at Xylem Africa. “Mines are either removing water or using water to manage the site such as reduce dust, combat fires or move slurry or tailings. Wells and pumps are commonplace on mining sites. So, mines know how to work with water. They can apply new water management principles and technologies more readily than most other sectors and see the benefits more quickly.”
Modern water management options
The benefits of becoming water stewards include greater operational sustainability and efficiency, and better relationships with communities and governments. They become more attractive to investors who link water stewardship with future-minded mining operations.
Mines can improve their water management and conservation through five avenues:
New technologies: A wide array of sensors and monitoring equipment help mines track water consumption, environmental impacts, and track down problems such as leaks and membrane failures. Site data combined with artificial intelligence (AI) helps improve a mine’s predictive capabilities.
Efficient processes: Mines can improve water-related processes to reduce usage and costs. For example, energy-efficient pumps save considerably on power consumption, and digitally-managed chemical dosing requires fewer chemicals, resulting in less pollution.
Reuse: By leveraging AI, mines can reuse water intelligently for specific processes such as minimising water intake, tailing storage, and effluent discharge volumes – thus hugely reducing overall consumption. Improvements in using water to transport waste, extracting water from tailings ponds, and capturing water at seepage spots, also deliver significant savings.
Recycling: By using modern modular water treatment systems, mines can recycle and reintroduce clean water for various objectives. Recycled water can support on-site personnel, supply local communities, be safely reintroduced into the environment, or store for later use.
Alternative water sources: Mines typically operate in rural areas where access to suitable water is not commonplace. In such areas, mining operations benefit from alternative water sources, including desalination, damming and raw seawater.
Many of these interventions are not new. But modern improvements in engineering, materials and technologies provide mines with more choice, says Mistry:
“New enhancements such as data-driven planning, remote control of water infrastructure, smart pumps, and modular treatment systems such as ozone provide mines with a wider range of options on how to manage their water consumption and reuse. These technologies are already making a difference for mines in the most rural and driest parts of the planet, such as the remote areas of Australia and Chile. They help those mines operate efficiently and reduce their impact on surrounding communities and environments. Above all, they help mines become more sustainable and self-sufficient while also reducing operating expenditure.”
Overall, this is a terrific time for mines to use water stewardship to improve their prospects, “There are many great options for mines that care about water conservation and savings. It’s a massive opportunity for the industry to enhance its place in the 21st century.”