Water use intensity in mining – in need of better metrics or water offsets?

Water use in mining GRI

Water use intensity (and quality) is critical to the extractive sector. Are related GRI Performance Indicators useful in understanding this aspect? Do we need better reporting metrics or should we look at water offsets to make a real difference?

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GRI offers a number of environmental indicators to encourage reporting about water use. These range from withdrawal (EN8) to impacts on biodiversity related to water bodies and habitats significantly affected by discharge and runoff (EN25).

Most mining projects and companies spend a lot of effort (read money) to understand and manage their water footprint. This starts early on during the planning stage. Mining projects have to either deal with water scarcity (for example, in dryer, arid climates), or deal with challenging overabundance of water in tropical conditions or as part of dewatering of underground mines and deep pits, not least for safety reasons.

So is limited reporting in the mining sector devious?  The answer is no (or at least a partial no) if you read the Carbon Disclosure Project's (CDP) Water Disclosure 2010 Global Report. This report, about which I blogged a few days ago here, points out that “Clearly, there is still work to do in terms of reporting basic water metrics, though part of the problem unquestionably lies with the lack of a standard measuring and reporting methodology.”

Let’s take a quick look at Teck’s reporting approach. First off, it seems unclear if Teck actually responded to CDP’s survey or not. On page 34 of CDP’s Water Disclosure Report, Teck is listed as a responder, while the Appendix, which provides a detailed listing of response status, shows Teck as “NR” (=Not Responded). But that seems beside the point…

Looking back a few years, Teck’s 2007 Sustainability Report addresses key water-related GRI indicators. One section notes the following: “Water recycling and water use reduction programs are in place at many of Teck’s Operations. In 2007, a total of 124,334,000 cubic metres (m3) of water was consumed, of which 119,078,000 m3 were recycled. […] The average overall water recycling rate for all of our Operations is 96%. […]”

Not sure if the lay reader (or even experts for that matter) can relate to any of these quantitative numbers provided. Taken on face value, the average recycling rate of 96% sounds great and the whopping 1,547% recycling rate at one of Teck’s operation makes you wonder how this has been ‘folded into’ the 96% average rate. But at the end, the questions ‘compared to what?’ and ‘so what?’ remains.

Teck’s 2009 Sustainability Report takes a slightly different approach. It highlights the development of a corporate water management policy and additional emphasis/activities related to water related issues at sites located in the most water-stressed areas. Although Teck continues to report recycling numbers, which – I feel – continue to make little sense without local sustainability context descriptions or benchmarking, I like that they highlight that GRI formula is inconsistently applied within the industry. This is to say that reported performance can’t be readily benchmarked across the sector.

Putting the important issue of reporting metrics aside, I also wonder if some of the expensive solutions being considered to marginally improve water use intensity at a particular mine sites could not be put to better use. Would it be acceptable to adopt an offset approach to water in a way similar to using offsets for  climate change and biodiversity impacts? Imagine, for example, how much more substantial water savings could be achieved when directing even a small portion of investments needed for marginal improvements at an efficiently run mining operation to reduce the water use intensity of the local agriculture sector or other major water wasters. Would that not be a more interesting and – from an overall sustainability perspective – a more relevant story to tell even if that does not fit neatly in the GRI indicators noted further above?

How do you deal with GRI-type reporting on water use intensity at your operations? What water offset approaches have you seen in the extractive sector?