Mining operations are vital to sustaining our modern way of life and are often located in areas that have limited water supplies or are at an increased risk of the effects of climate change. However, few studies have considered the interactions between the mining industry and water resources on a global scale. These interactions are often complex and site specific, and so an understanding of the local water contexts of individual mining projects is required before associated risks can be adequately assessed. Here, we address this important issue by providing the first quantitative assessment of the contextual water risks facing the global base metal mining industry, focusing on the location of known copper, lead, zinc and nickel resources.
The relative exposure of copper, lead-zinc and nickel resources to water risks were assessed by considering a variety of spatial water indices, with each providing a different perspective of contextual water risks. Provincial data was considered for water criticality (CRIT), supply risk (SR), vulnerability to supply restrictions (VSR) and the environmental implications (EI) of water use. Additionally, watershed or sub-basin scale data for blue water scarcity (BWS), the water stress index (WSI), the available water remaining (AWaRe), basin internal evaporation recycling (BIER) ratios and the water depletion index (WDI) were also considered, as these have particular relevance for life cycle assessment and water footprint studies. All of the indices indicate that global copper resources are more exposed to water risks than lead-zinc or nickel resources, in part due to the large copper endowment of countries such as Chile and Peru that experience high water criticality, stress and scarcity. Copper resources are located in regions where water consumption is more likely to contribute to long-term decreases in water availability and also where evaporation is less likely to re-precipitate in the same drainage basin to cause surface-runoff or groundwater recharge.
The global resource datasets were also assessed against regional Köppen-Geiger climate classifications for the observed period 1951–2000 and changes to 2100 using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s A1FI, A2, B1 and B2 emission scenarios. The results indicate that regions containing copper resources are also more exposed to likely changes in climate than those containing lead-zinc or nickel resources. Overall, regions containing 27–32% (473–574 Mt Cu) of copper, 17–29% (139–241 Mt Pb + Zn) of lead-zinc and 6–13% (19–39 Mt Ni) of nickel resources may have a major climate re-classification as a result of anthropogenic climate change. A further 15–23% (262–412 Mt) of copper, 23–32% (195–270 Mt) of lead-zinc and 29–32% (84–94 Mt) of nickel are exposed to regional precipitation or temperature sub-classification changes. These climate changes are likely to alter the water balance, water quality and infrastructure risks at mining and mineral processing operations. Effective management of long-term changes to mine site water and climate risks requires the further adoption of anticipatory risk management strategies.