Undermining the watercycle

Mine building Yellowknife Northwest Territories Canada
A critical appraisal of the mining industry’s contributions to the global water crisis, on World Water Day 2019 and in the wake of recent disasters.

Mining is capable of polluting water bodies over vast distances. Even when a mine has closed its impacts on water may continue to worsen and spread for centuries, leaving a toxic legacy for future generations.


Around the world people’s ability to access enough fresh water to live and live well is being threatened as sources of freshwater and the species that rely on them are devastated and depleted.

Our changing climate and the growth of global population by approximately 85 million people a-year are often cited as the main causes of the world’s water crisis. But neither climate change nor population growth alone can adequately account for our present situation.

The consumption of global water supplies is doubling every 20 years, at more than twice the rate of human population growth. Experts believe we ought to see climate change as a product and intensifier of our existing water crisis, as well as a contributing cause. Right Livelihood Award Laureate and clean water advocate, Maude Barlow, explains:

Mining and water

“Major bodies of water have been destroyed from over extraction and water diversion, not climate change as we usually describe it. The destruction of watersheds and water–retentive land is causing rapidly growing desertification, which in turn warms the planet.”

A pressing question, then, is: who is responsible for this destruction, diversion and desertification?

The mining industry is a key, but often overlooked, contributor to the global water crisis as a whole and the suffering caused by it.

Though the industry may not consume as much water in absolute amounts as, say, industrial agriculture, mining is capable of polluting water bodies over vast distances. Even when a mine has closed its impacts on water may continue to worsen and spread for centuries, leaving a toxic legacy for future generations.

On World Water Day 2019 it is critical to call out the mining industry for its crimes against water and our human right to it. Two factors make this task especially urgent.

Greenwashing mining 

First, the mining industry is actively seeking to greenwash its image by, for example, ‘mapping mining to the sustainable development goals’.

This includes Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, and as we will see, the industry’s claim to anything nearing responsibility and sustainability is tenuous at best.

Second, because mining is emerging as a new and genuine threat to ‘new frontiers’ of water. In the race to extract ‘clean’, ‘green’ minerals and metals for, amongst other things, electric vehicles, mining companies want to mine the little-understood ecosystems of the deep sea.

Mining is capable of polluting water bodies over vast distances. Even when a mine has closed its impacts on water may continue to worsen and spread for centuries, leaving a toxic legacy for future generations.


The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body, has issued 27 contracts for mineral exploration in the deep sea. These contracts encompass a combined area of more than 1.4 million km2.

Mining’s can unleash sudden and devastating impacts on water systems and communities.

Mining disasters

The recent collapse of a dam at the Corrego do Feijao Mine, Minas Gerais, Brazil, operated by Brazilian mining company Vale, has re-highlighted the deadly consequences of tailings dam disasters. The death toll has reached an estimated 186, many remain missing and hundreds have been left injured while local water sources have been devastated.

Just three years ago, also in Minas Gerais, the Vale – BHP Billiton co-owned Samarco mine also suffered a dam breach. The flood of mud and waste released killed 19 people and sent a plume of mine waste down the Doce River.

This waste turned over 500km of the Doce bright orange and, two years on, in 2017, 88.9 percent of the 18 monitoring stations along the river still found the waters of the Doce unsuitable for consumption.

When disasters like these occur, they are often painted as one-off events by the industry or the actions of a rogue company. But a recent analysis conducted by the Responsible Mining Foundation (RMI) revealed that 30 of the world’s leading mining companies scored poorly (a low average of 22 percent) when it came to preventing tailings (mine waste) risks.

Even more worryingly, 17 of these companies showed no indication of tracking, reviewing or taking action to mitigate these risks.

Despite the industry’s regular claims about advances in technology and safety, studies show that catastrophic tailings dam collapses are getting more and more common, as is the devastation to communities and waterways they cause.

Toxic footprint

Mining is also a cause of chronic pollution that can contaminate waterways for generations.

The leaking of toxic minerals or Acid Mine Drainage into groundwater systems is one common impact. In Johannesburg, for example, the water supply of a whole city is threatened by contamination caused by century-old gold mines.

The Xikrin community in Brazil, whose territory has been exploited for nickel by Mineraçao Onça Puma, owned by Vale, have reported a significant declines in the abundance of fish and other water-borne organisms since mining began.

Community members have started to manifest symptoms typical from exposure to polluted water, such as rashes and burning eyes. Although their suspicions have been disregarded by the company, they were confirmed after a 2015 study that revealed the river’s water contained a higher proportion of heavy metals than recommended by the National Environmental Council (CONAMA).The water is no longer drinkable or safe to bathe in or cook with.

The Xikrin also use the river in their rituals. These are so central to their culture that they would rather continue to bathe in a polluted river than cut ties with their ancestral customs and identity.

Digging for justice

Unable to operate safely on land, the mining industry cannot be trusted to reach into the deep sea’s fragile ecosystems for minerals and metals. Nor can companies be trusted to regulate their own activities in the name of sustainability, like extractive foxes watching the SDG hen house.

The solutions to mining’s disastrous and chronic impacts on water systems globally must be systemic in nature. As well as dramatically improved and well-enforced regulation, we need to address the fundamental drivers of ‘new’ mining- overconsumption, a one-size fits all, materialist development paradigm and an economic system that demands the extraction and commodification of ever greater quantities of minerals and metals.

Communities fighting tooth and nail to defend their sources of water, fish and spiritual well-being, know this and are increasingly calling for alternatives to ‘extractivism’. One of the best tools for holding industry to account is to ensure information flows to these communities as early in their struggles as possible and as freely as water.

Mining companies, when entering new territories, frequently mislead frontline communities by downplaying or concealing the potential risks to their lands, livelihoods and waters.

In an aim to address this, The Gaia Foundation and the global Yes to Life, No to Mining solidarity network have put together the Water is Life Toolkit.

Launched today, on World Water Day 2019, the toolkit is available in English, Spanish and French. It can be accessed online and it is designed for frontline communities and their allies. The toolkit is composed of different written, pictorial and video resources that inform communities about mining’s impacts on water and how to defend this most precious element.

More resources

Visit the toolkit here.

Read an interactive story about the toolkit and communities defending water from Colombia to Finland.

These Authors

Sara Campanales is a biologist and primatologist currently working at The Gaia Foundation. Her recent academic fieldwork has focused on the social aspects of conservation in Ecuador.  Hannibal Rhoades is Communications and Advocacy Coordinator at The Gaia Foundation, a UK-based organisation working internationally to support indigenous and local communities to revive their knowledge, livelihoods and healthy ecosystems.

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