Understanding the impacts of mining on local environments and communities

May 11, 2024

As part of ESI’s Program on Mining and the Circular Economy, Odell researches the impacts of extractive industries on local environments and communities, especially in Latin America. “Despite broad academic engagement with mining and climate change separately, there has been a lack of analysis of the societal implications of the interactions between mining and climate change,” says Odell. Compounding the problem of mining for greener energy materials to combat climate change, are the very effects of climate change. “Community members are also pursuing education in these topics so that there's not such a power imbalance between mining companies and local communities,” Odell remarks. The political and social landscape of Chile may also be changing in favor of local communities.

Odell is working with John Fernández, ESI director and professor in the Department of Architecture, on a project that is examining the converging impacts of climate change, mining, and agriculture in Chile. The work is funded by a seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS). Specifically, the project seeks to answer how the expansion of seawater desalination by the mining industry is affecting local populations, and how climate change and mining affect Andean glaciers and the agricultural communities dependent upon them. By working with communities in mining areas, Odell and Fernández are gaining a sense of the burden that mining minerals needed for the clean energy transition is placing on local populations, and the types of conflicts that arise when water sources become polluted or scarce. This work is of particular importance considering over 100 countries pledged a commitment to the clean energy transition at the recent United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28.

Hydrosocial displacement refers to the idea that resolving water conflict in one area can shift the conflict to a different area. The concept was coined by Scott Odell, a visiting researcher in MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). As part of ESI’s Program on Mining and the Circular Economy, Odell researches the impacts of extractive industries on local environments and communities, especially in Latin America. He discovered that hydrosocial displacements are often in regions where the mining industry is vying for use of precious water sources that are already stressed due to climate change.

Water, humanity’s lifeblood

At the March 2023 United Nations (U.N.) Water Conference in New York, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned “water is in deep trouble. We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating it through global heating.” A quarter of the world’s population already faces “extremely high water stress,” according to the World Resources Institute. In an effort to raise awareness of major water-related issues and inspire action for innovative solutions, the U.N. created World Water Day, observed every year on March 22. This year’s theme is “Water for Peace,” underscoring the fact that even though water is a basic human right and intrinsic to every aspect of life, it is increasingly fought over as supplies dwindle due to problems including drought, overuse, and mismanagement.  

The “Water for Peace” theme is exemplified in Fernández and Odell’s J-WAFS project, where findings are intended to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms inflicted on mining communities and their limited water sources.

“Despite broad academic engagement with mining and climate change separately, there has been a lack of analysis of the societal implications of the interactions between mining and climate change,” says Odell. “This project is helping to fill the knowledge gap. Results will be summarized in Spanish and English and distributed to interested and relevant parties in Chile, ensuring that the results can be of benefit to those most impacted by these challenges,” he adds.

The effects of mining for the clean energy transition

Global climate change is understood to be the most pressing environmental issue facing humanity today. Mitigating climate change requires reducing carbon emissions by transitioning away from conventional energy derived from burning fossil fuels, to more sustainable energy sources like solar and wind power. Because copper is an excellent conductor of electricity, it will be a crucial element in the clean energy transition, in which more solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles will be manufactured. “We are going to see a major increase in demand for copper due to the clean energy transition,” says Odell.

In 2021, Chile produced 26 percent of the world's copper, more than twice as much as any other country, Odell explains. Much of Chile’s mining is concentrated in and around the Atacama Desert — the world’s driest desert. Unfortunately, mining requires large amounts of water for a variety of processes, including controlling dust at the extraction site, cooling machinery, and processing and transporting ore.

Chile is also one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural products. Farmland is typically situated in the valleys downstream of several mines in the high Andes region, meaning mines get first access to water. This can lead to water conflict between mining operations and agricultural communities. Compounding the problem of mining for greener energy materials to combat climate change, are the very effects of climate change. According to the Chilean government, the country has suffered 13 years of the worst drought in history. While this is detrimental to the mining industry, it is also concerning for those working in agriculture, including the Indigenous Atacameño communities that live closest to the Escondida mine, the largest copper mine in the world. “There was never a lot of water to go around, even before the mine,” Odell says. The addition of Escondida stresses an already strained water system, leaving Atacameño farmers and individuals vulnerable to severe water insecurity.

What’s more, waste from mining, known as tailings, includes minerals and chemicals that can contaminate water in nearby communities if not properly handled and stored. Odell says the secure storage of tailings is a high priority in earthquake-prone Chile. “If an earthquake were to hit and damage a tailings dam, it could mean toxic materials flowing downstream and destroying farms and communities,” he says.

Chile’s treasured glaciers are another piece of the mining, climate change, and agricultural puzzle. Caroline White-Nockleby, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, is working with Odell and Fernández on the J-WAFS project and leading the research specifically on glaciers. “These may not be the picturesque bright blue glaciers that you might think of, but they are, nonetheless, an important source of water downstream,” says White-Nockleby. She goes on to explain that there are a few different ways that mines can impact glaciers.

In some cases, mining companies have proposed to move or even destroy glaciers to get at the ore beneath. Other impacts include dust from mining that falls on glaciers. White-Nockleby says, “this makes the glaciers a darker color, so, instead of reflecting the sun's rays away, [the glacier] may absorb the heat and melt faster.” This shows that even when not directly intervening with glaciers, mining activities can cause glacial decline, adding to the threat glaciers already face due to climate change. She also notes that “glaciers are an important water storage facility,” describing how, on an annual cycle, glaciers freeze and melt, allowing runoff that downstream agricultural communities can utilize. If glaciers suddenly melt too quickly, flooding of downstream communities can occur.

Desalination offers a possible, but imperfect, solution

Chile’s extensive coastline makes it uniquely positioned to utilize desalination — the removal of salts from seawater — to address water insecurity. Odell says that “over the last decade or so, there's been billions of dollars of investments in desalination in Chile.”

As part of his dissertation work at Clark University, Odell found broad optimism in Chile for solving water issues in the mining industry through desalination. Not only was the mining industry committed to building desalination plants, there was also political support, and support from some community members in highland communities near the mines. Yet, despite the optimism and investment, desalinated water was not replacing the use of continental water. He concluded that “desalination can’t solve water conflict if it doesn't reduce demand for continental water supplies.”

However, after publishing those results, Odell learned that new estimates at the national level showed that desalination operations had begun to replace the use of continental water after 2018. In two case studies that he currently focuses on — the Escondida and Los Pelambres copper mines — the mining companies have expanded their desalination objectives in order to reduce extraction from key continental sources. This seems to be due to a variety of factors. For one thing, in 2022, Chile’s water code was reformed to prioritize human water consumption and environmental protection of water during scarcity and in the allocation of future rights. It also shortened the granting of water rights from “in perpetuity” to 30 years. Under this new code, it is possible that the mining industry may have expanded its desalination efforts because it viewed continental water resources as less secure, Odell surmises.

As part of the J-WAFS project, Odell has found that recent reactions have been mixed when it comes to the rapid increase in the use of desalination. He spent over two months doing fieldwork in Chile by conducting interviews with members of government, industry, and civil society at the Escondida, Los Pelambres, and Andina mining sites, as well as in Chile’s capital city, Santiago. He has spoken to local and national government officials, leaders of fishing unions, representatives of mining and desalination companies, and farmers. He observed that in the communities where the new desalination plants are being built, there have been concerns from community members as to whether they will get access to the desalinated water, or if it will belong solely to the mines.

Interviews at the Escondida and Los Pelambres sites, in which desalination operations are already in place or under construction, indicate acceptance of the presence of desalination plants combined with apprehension about unknown long-term environmental impacts. At a third mining site, Andina, there have been active protests against a desalination project that would supply water to a neighboring mine, Los Bronces. In that community, there has been a blockade of the desalination operation by the fishing federation. “They were blockading that operation for three months because of concerns over what the desalination plant would do to their fishing grounds,” Odell says. And this is where the idea of hydrosocial displacement comes into the picture, he explains. Even though desalination operations are easing tensions with highland agricultural communities, new issues are arising for the communities on the coast. “We can't just look to desalination to solve our problems if it's going to create problems somewhere else” Odell advises.

Within the process of hydrosocial displacement, interacting geographical, technical, economic, and political factors constrain the range of responses to address the water conflict. For example, communities that have more political and financial power tend to be better equipped to solve water conflict than less powerful communities. In addition, hydrosocial concerns usually follow the flow of water downstream, from the highlands to coastal regions. Odell says that this raises the need to look at water from a broader perspective.

“We tend to address water concerns one by one and that can, in practice, end up being kind of like whack-a-mole,” says Odell. “When we think of the broader hydrological system, water is very much linked, and we need to look across the watershed. We can't just be looking at the specific community affected now, but who else is affected downstream, and will be affected in the long term. If we do solve a water issue by moving it somewhere else, like moving a tailings dam somewhere else, or building a desalination plant, resources are needed in the receiving community to respond to that,” suggests Odell.

The company building the desalination plant and the fishing federation ultimately reached an agreement and the desalination operation will be moving forward. But Odell notes, “the protest highlights concern about the impacts of the operation on local livelihoods and environments within the much larger context of industrial pollution in the area.”

The power of communities

The protest by the fishing federation is one example of communities coming together to have their voices heard. Recent proposals by mining companies that would affect glaciers and other water sources used by agriculture communities have led to other protests that resulted in new agreements to protect local water supplies and the withdrawal of some of the mining proposals.

Odell observes that communities have also gone to the courts to raise their concerns. The Atacameño communities, for example, have drawn attention to over-extraction of water resources by the Escondida mine. “Community members are also pursuing education in these topics so that there's not such a power imbalance between mining companies and local communities,” Odell remarks. This demonstrates the power local communities can have to protect continental water resources.

The political and social landscape of Chile may also be changing in favor of local communities. Beginning with what is now referred to as the Estallido Social (social outburst) over inequality in 2019, Chile has undergone social upheaval that resulted in voters calling for a new constitution. Gabriel Boric, a progressive candidate, whose top priorities include social and environmental issues, was elected president during this period. These trends have brought major attention to issues of economic inequality, environmental harms of mining, and environmental justice, which is putting pressure on the mining industry to make a case for its operations in the country, and to justify the environmental costs of mining.

What happens after the mine dries up?

From his fieldwork interviews, Odell has learned that the development of mines within communities can offer benefits. Mining companies typically invest directly in communities through employment, road construction, and sometimes even by building or investing in schools, stadiums, or health clinics. Indirectly, mines can have spillover effects in the economy since miners might support local restaurants, hotels, or stores. But what happens when the mine closes? As one community member Odell interviewed stated: “When the mine is gone, what are we going to have left besides a big hole in the ground?”

Odell suggests that a multi-pronged approach should be taken to address the future state of water and mining. First, he says we need to have broader conversations about the nature of our consumption and production at domestic and global scales. “Mining is driven indirectly by our consumption of energy and directly by our consumption of everything from our buildings to devices to cars,” Odell states. “We should be looking for ways to moderate our consumption and consume smarter through both policy and practice so that we don’t solve climate change while creating new environmental harms through mining.”

One of the main ways we can do this is by advancing the circular economy by recycling metals already in the system, or even in landfills, to help build our new clean energy infrastructure. Even so, the clean energy transition will still require mining, but according to Odell, that mining can be done better. “Mining companies and government need to do a better job of consulting with communities. We need solid plans and financing for mine closures in place from the beginning of mining operations, so that when the mine dries up, there's the money needed to secure tailings dams and protect the communities who will be there forever,” Odell concludes.

Overall, it will take an engaged society — from the mining industry to government officials to individuals — to think critically about the role we each play in our quest for a more sustainable planet, and what that might mean for the most vulnerable populations among us.

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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