Where is Mining on the Water Stewardship Journey?
October 5, 2020
Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes

Three years ago, 27 of the world’s largest mining and metals companies pledged action to support the responsible use of water through the launch of the International Council on Mining and Metals’ (ICMM’s) position statement on water stewardship. By signing up to the position statement, members committed to transparent, consistent disclosure on water performance, managing water at operations effectively and collaborating with others to achieve responsible and sustainable water use for all.

Collaboration and learning from others are central to the water stewardship journey. To support member companies in achieving these commitments, ICMM hosted a number of workshops, knowledge shares, webinars and troubleshooting sessions, leveraging the collective experience of practitioners across 650 sites in over 50 countries.

One of the many activities included a water innovation roundtable facilitated by Golder, which formed the basis of our joint webinar. The aim: to bring together some of the best minds in the extractives industry, NGOs, academia, and investor institutions to share best practice approaches to tackle some of the biggest water challenges we face today. Over two days attendees explored valuing water, developing effective cross sectoral partnerships and innovative models for delivering solutions to some of the biggest shared challenges faced by water users at the catchment scale. Through discussion, several key themes were identified as critical to progressing a water stewardship approach.

Strong leadership is needed to drive change

In terms of concrete water stewardship actions, business leaders need to recognise and champion the value of water to lives, livelihoods and economic resilience throughout their business, to shareholders and wider external stakeholders. This starts with championing a move away from the current critical risk-based and liability approach towards a mindset that views water as an opportunity and an asset.

Now, more than ever, we have all experienced the value of strong leadership during a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene as a critical first line of defence against the virus. In response, several ICMM members have been providing water to rural and urban communities across Africa and South America through the construction of water tanks, borehole drilling, distribution of drinking water and establishment of handwashing stations. COVID-19 has also highlighted the longer-term need to build resilient water systems to cope with future crises, which will require dynamic leadership and joined-up solutions from government, civil society and business.

Recognise that water is a local issue

While we often think of water stewardship in a broad organisational context, it is important to remember that it is a local, site-specific, or catchment-specific issue and consequently requires a local solution. Translating organisational aspirations and policy to the catchment level requires insight, deep knowledge of the context, and a supportive network of internal and external stakeholders. One size or approach cannot fit all situations. Transitioning to a context-based approach requires early establishment of cross-functional teams to allow multiple perspectives on water use, risks and opportunities to be included in decision-making and for wider perspectives on the value of water to be considered.

ICMM has developed step-by-step practical guidance for taking companies through the process of implementing a catchment-based approach to water management. It has also worked with members to pilot the guidance, supporting stakeholder-inclusive approaches to identify major water issues and risks in the catchment and across the mine life cycle; and to build a response strategy to address these water risks.

Breaking down communication barriers and building trust

Change requires conversation and an understanding of diverse stakeholder perspectives, needs and challenges of both internal and external environments. Internally, organisations’ finance, legal and executive teams may not be entirely comfortable with the language of water stewardship and sustainability, its technical dimensions, and social challenges, barriers and enablers. Externally, there may be a lack of mutual understanding regarding water and its value to each party.

Inclusive dialogue and transparent communication will help support the development of trust. Trust is the foundation for effective relationships whether they be internal (corporate to site level) or external (company to wider water users and prospective partners). Trust takes time to develop, patience is required and access to information, transparency and accountability is essential. Stakeholders need to feel that their voices are being heard equally in the development of a shared vision for a catchment.

Companies can promote inclusive dialogue and stakeholder participation in a number of ways. One example is conducting regular open forums with water users and interested parties to raise and discuss water concerns. Another is to involve communities and interested stakeholders in participatory water monitoring, a collaborative approach with stakeholders that helps to reduce conflict and establish trust. Finding meaningful and culturally appropriate ways to engage with local communities on complex water challenges, whether through community theatre, storytelling, focus groups or training, can also be powerful.

Collect data, appraise, and share

Among the most commonly cited challenges relating to water stewardship is the lack of good water data to help set strategy, deliver on site-level targets and make sound business decisions. Fundamental to any decision-making at site level – yet often a missing piece of the puzzle – is a reliable site-specific water balance, which is the operators primary decision-making tool to help appraise water risk and opportunity.

Even rarer is a reliable water balance at a catchment or regional scale, allowing a mine to understand its relationship to other water users in the wider catchment. The regional water balance should create a unified approach to improve monitoring and reporting to relevant stakeholders and external agencies, identifying common water risks and opportunities including the potential for collaboration, and supporting discussions with communities and governments. If the data challenge a company is facing is at the catchment-scale, then some creativity and innovation may be required.

Mining companies typically hold a lot of relevant catchment data already – from Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs), ongoing monitoring activities, aerial surveys, and stakeholder engagement. Gaps in regional data can further be filled through leveraging the ever growing and increasingly available global datasets from big tech and using innovative approaches to harvest this data for the water balance. To address this gap, Golder is developing a tool to integrate such data sets with local data for the development of regional water balances to assess current and future risks and opportunities through scenario analysis.

If your company does not have a water balance, then this needs to be the starting point.

Effective delivery requires creativity

There is an abundance of global capital available for investment into water projects. However, release of this capital is often dependent on projects being able to provide a return on investment. ‘Bankable’ projects are harder to set up when considering water stewardship measures in isolation or at small scale. Considering alternative approaches to project set-up and financing, such as joint venture partnerships, blended financing, green bonds or combinations of these options may improve the bankability of projects. There may also be opportunity for independent water service providers to meet user requirements.

Encourage a longer-term view

Redirecting an organisation’s focus from short-term thinking to longer-term strategy can be a challenge when faced with permit deadlines and day-to-day operational constraints. However, it is clear that decision-making for water investments requires a long-term perspective as the design-life and ongoing needs of other water users may well exceed the life of mine.

For the mining industry, water stewardship decision-making is generally tied to the life-of-mine cycle. Mine development is concerned with access to water resources and permitting of extraction and discharges from the facility into the surrounding environment. Operational concerns are generally dealing with sustainable access, competing demands (water rights), discharge minimisation and onsite water management. Closure of mines is often dealing with issues of in-perpetuity management and site repurposing to minimise long-term cost and promote sustainable communities with access to sustainable clean water supplies. By undertaking an integrated approach to long-term decision-making, mutually beneficial opportunities can be identified and implemented early on that consider the broader needs of the surrounding catchment, its ecosystem, dependent communities and other users.

So, where is mining on the water stewardship journey?

Adopting a water stewardship approach takes time, effort, resources, and significant leadership. It starts with understanding your context and building awareness to help engagement with stakeholders and developing partnerships that can creatively deliver large-scale water solutions.

Great progress has been made. Mining and metals is the only industry in the CDP’s 2019 Global Water Report that routinely monitors and discloses its impact on water quality. Maintaining a water balance and transparent reporting of company risks, impacts and interactions with water is a mandatory requirement of membership of ICMM and a component of most ESG reporting initiatives. Outside the mine fence, significant strides have been made around partnerships to address shared water challenges. Companies are setting ambitious targets aimed at achieving action that is both positive for business and for the communities and environment in which we operate.

Even with all this progress, the water stewardship journey is only just beginning. Mining companies range from those who have a defined plan that is in the process of being enacted to those who are just starting to become familiarised with the concept. Water stewardship is a collective journey and those on that journey can benefit from the experiences of others – the good and the bad, successes and failures. A good starting point for all is the sharing of knowledge and learnings to help and encourage others to take action. We are after all, in this together.

For an in-depth discussion by the ICMM and Golder on this topic, watch our webinar Water Stewardship: Taking Action in Mining.


Mike Lelliott is a Principal Hydrogeologist at Golder with 20 years' experience specialising in technical assessment and development of integrated water supply and management solutions for mining, hydrocarbons and infrastructure clients. He has worked extensively across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Hayley Zipp is a manager within the environmental stewardship and social progress work programme of ICMM. Her key areas of focus include water stewardship, biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation and community relations.

Mike Lelliott

Mike Lelliott Member Name

Principal Hydrogeologist

Hayley Zipp

Hayley Zipp Member Name

Water lead & Senior Manager at ICMM (Guest Author)

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