In the long term, we like to believe the mining industry is a safe bet because much of the world’s population lives in emerging economies. Residents in these countries want the comforts – electric appliances and indoor plumbing – that we in Canada take for granted and soon enough they will be able to afford them. It’s a persuasive argument, especially when you think of all the metals that will be required to furnish this lifestyle, all the copper in the wiring and piping. The miners who can tough out the down times will be in great shape with this vision of the future.
With this issue though, we shift the focus away from the pipes to what flows through them: water. And with that shift, the scenario changes.
When hundreds of millions more people have access to indoor plumbing, it means you have hundreds of millions more people using it. As Michael Sudbury pointed out in his presentation at the recent CIM Convention in Toronto, the richer we get, the more water we use.
Growing economies fuel the demand for metals and minerals, but they also drive other water-intensive industries such as energy generation, manufacturing and agriculture. All of these require an enormous amount of water. Yes, industries have, over time, begun to use the resource more efficiently – mining particularly – but competition for water and the public’s anxiety over its use is growing more intense.
We are resigned to the fact that tomorrow’s mines will have to exploit lower grade ores, a trend detailed in our focus on mass mining. And, as Pierrick Blin and Antoine Dion-Ortega illustrate in “High and Dry,” high-tonnage deposits only add to a list of factors that increase the stress on water supply for our industry. Social and market forces, along with technological improvements, make a compelling case for exploiting the vast, if salty, potential of the oceans: whether that means investing in desalination to secure a water supply or running processing circuits with salt water.
But our industry’s relationship with water reaches far beyond processing plants and tailings ponds. As MAC’s Brendan Marshall points out in his column (“Canadian miners busy navigating new marine pollution rules”) shipping regulations are being tightened to protect marine environments. And growing interest in deep sea mining has prompted the United Nations to begin drafting the framework for mining permits in international waters (“Progress on deep-sea mining licenses”).
In today’s troubled financial markets, the positive long-term outlook for the mining sector is encouraging, but it is likely that all of this growth will come with a grain of salt.