Business & Economy

Chile’s vital mining sector feeling the effects of drought

By Maria M.Mur

Santiago, Sep 3 (EFE).- The recent announcement by Antofagasta Minerals that its production of copper could fall significantly short of projections due to extreme drought highlighted fears about prospects for a vital sector of the Chilean economy.

Lack of rain in the northern region of Coquimbo, where the company’s Los Pelambres mine is located, has the potential to reduce 2021 output from a range of 730,000-760,000 tons to 710,000-740,000 tons, Antofagasta said.

Chile, which extends 4,000 km (2,485 mi) from its northern deserts to glaciers in the south, is 13 years into the worst drought in its history due to climate change.

The current Southern Hemisphere winter, now drawing to a close, has seen 80 percent less rain than normal, while snowfall is down 85 percent.

The mining industry represents 10 percent of Chilean gross domestic product.

“There is no mining without water,” Manuel Viera, president of the Chile Mining Chamber, told Efe, adding that the group expects national copper production to decline by up to 200,000 tons this year.

The chamber says that the operations likely to be worst affected are those in the Andean highlands, such as El Teniente, the largest underground mine in the world.

Chile produces roughly 6 million tons of copper – 28 percent of global output – in a typical year and the red metal accounts for more than 55 percent of the country’s exports.

Water is essential for every step of copper production.

The process of separating out the copper from ore requires 520 liters of water per ton, the Universidad de Chile’s Willy Kracht, director of the Center for Copper and Mining Studies, told Efe.

The water shortage has pushed the industry to become more creative by re-using the liquid and investing in desalinization.

Last year, 65 percent of the water used in mining was desalinated ocean water.

But Jonathan Barton, a professor at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, cautioned that desalinization is not a magic bullet for the mining industry, noting that majority of projects in Chile remain in the permitting and development stage.

“A technological revolution is needed to introduce alternatives in the processes that are the largest consumers of water,” he said.

Environmentalists and many scientists, meanwhile, contend that Chile’s extractivist economic model and its extensive privatization of water have contributed to accelerating climate change.

The Mining Chamber responds by pointing to figures that show mining to be only the fourth-largest consumer of water, using no more than 4 percent of the total, compared with 72 percent that goes toward agriculture.

Those numbers are misleading, insisted Estefania Gonzalez of Greenpeace.

“Chilean mining is bloated and isn’t adapted to the conditions of the climate crisis,” she told Efe. “At this rate, in 10 years we will have to ask ourselves what do we need, copper or water.”

Barton echoed that view.

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