This Machine Runs on Water: Latin American lithium

Because the mineral lithium can be used in lithium batteries, which are in high demand as the world seeks green energy now and in the future, lithium is the next big mining boom. The so-called Lithium Triangle, which consists of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, contains the world’s largest deposits of lithium and other critical and rare minerals.

Peru, which is neighboring Argentina, plans to export lithium and locally produced lithium batteries sometime in the next decade. In previous analyses for Geopolitical Monitor, I discussed lithium deposits in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. But one important thing to keep in mind—the dirty little secret of lithium—is that the extraction process uses water and pollutes water.

The Problem

The issue is that it is hazardous to extract even lithium, which will be used in green technologies. As a result, there are reports about the dangers of this industry in tandem with announcements about new lithium mining projects. The topic has been the subject of numerous academic papers and research articles with a focus on Latin America. Relic groundwater and prolonged drought confound interpretations of water sustainability and lithium extraction in arid land, for example, is the topic of a 2022 study that was published in Earth’s Future.

Water loss, ground destabilization, biodiversity loss, increased river salinity, contaminated soil, and toxic waste are all common environmental side effects of lithium mining, according to a 2021 article. The adverse effects of lithium mining, particularly the loss of water, are also affecting people, according to the article.

One example is the indigenous Aymara community in Bolivia, which works and lives near the Uyuni Salar and is beginning to feel the effects of lithium mining. Many Aymaras cultivate quinoa, raise camelid livestock, and sell salt and flamingo eggs—traditional means of earning money that are now being threatened by large lithium projects after hundreds of years.

To educate the local Latin American population about the perils and dangers of lithium mining in relation to water issues, articles and reports must be written in Spanish. Ernesto Picco, a professor at Argentina’s Santiago del Estero National University (Universidad Nacional de Santiago del Estero: ), spoke with BBC in November 2022. The lithium extraction procedure was summed up as follows by UNSE:

“The businesses drill into the crust of the salt flats, pump the brine—groundwater—and pour it into pools that cover a lot of square kilometers. That is left to evaporate in the sun, leaving behind a number of minerals and metals in the sediment that are later processed in chemical plants. The extraction of lithium carbonate or one of its variants takes place there.

A similar procedure is outlined in a 2022 article:

“You first need to crush the rocks in order to extract lithium from them, as is the case particularly in Australia, the largest producer in the world, and in China. After that, water is added to make a paste, and the paste is put in a tank where air separates the lithium from the rock. The lithium powder that is obtained is further refined following filtration.

[The powder] is heated to a temperature of up to 1,000 degrees in order to accomplish this. Before doing another filtration, chemicals and water are added. Due to its high energy consumption, the process is expensive and takes anywhere from one to two months. Furthermore, utilizing water and compound items makes it not extremely aware and amicable to the climate.”

(Picture Credit: Geopolitical Monitor)

It’s important to note that the water used in these processes is inside the flats themselves, not for human consumption. Mining companies, on the other hand, must obtain water from nearby bodies of water due to the fact that industrial practices use the local water until it runs out. In addition, once the lithium-bearing flats’ underground water is extracted, underground waterways may naturally bring in water from other underground reservoirs that are intended for human or animal consumption.

Latin America, lithium, and water were all in the news in 2022 when a collection of aerial photographs taken by German photographer Tom Hegen revealed lithium fields in the Lithium Triangle. The photos depict dozens of pools with unnatural colors, ranging from “pinkish white to turquoise, through highly concentrated canary yellow,” caused by the mix of lithium chemicals and water used to extract the lithium.

According to a report about Hegen’s work, lithium mining in the northern Chilean Atacama Desert “consumes, contaminates, and diverts the scarce water resources that local communities have.” The essay adds that lithium mining, including the evaporation fields, uses up to 21 million liters of water per day, and that one ton of lithium requires approximately 2.2 million liters of water. In the above-mentioned BBC article, Professor Ernesto Picco emphasized that “ecosystems continue to be sacrificed at the expense of the northern hemisphere in exchange for a few coins” when discussing Chile.

In more and more states in Latin America, research on lithium and water issues is becoming more common. The extent to which lithium mining pollutes local environments has been the subject of discussion by Bloomberg Linea. The article explains, citing a seminar held at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), how open-air mining will permanently affect regional biodiversity and the well-being of local rural and indigenous communities.

It will also use chemicals and “millions of gallons of water.” The Yaqui River’s waters will suffer greatly if lithium mining takes place in Sonora State. Additionally, in 2022, states in Mexico such as Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Sonora experienced moderate to severe droughts; Beginning in early 2023, a new drought in Sonora affected up to 75.5% of the state. As a result, if water from the Yaqui is lost or polluted as part of a potential lithium mining project, subsequent droughts will be even more devastating.

Similar circumstances exist in Chile, where frequent droughts and extremely dry conditions frequently result in wildfires in the summer. “If the waterways in their Andean homelands continue to dry up, so too will their ancient culture and traditions,” said Elena Rivera Cardoso, president of the Indigenous Colla community in the Copiapó commune in northern Chile.

Lithium mining is the root of the problem. A 2022 Natural Resources Defense Council analysis explains that “around 80 percent of the salt flats’ animal species are native, and the region is critical for migratory birds” makes the ecological effects of lithium mining in Chile’s Atacama desert even more concerning.

In a similar vein, a number of research and environmental organizations are publishing reports to raise awareness of the connection that exists between the lithium industry in Latin America and water, environmental protection (or destruction). For instance, a report titled “The impact of lithium mining on the High Andean Wetlands” (El impacto de la minera de litio en los Humedales Altoandinos) was published in 2022 by Wetlands International.

Having said that, it would be incorrect for this article to imply that concern about lithium and water only began in 2022, given that the majority of the cited news reports and articles are from that year. Lawyer Pa Marchegiani, a professor at the Faculty of Law of Buenos Aires University (UBA), presented in 2018 during the beginning of the lithium boom. In her presentation, Marchegiani correctly argued that “in some salt flats, three or four projects are being planned in the same place, with different uses of water, without knowing how those ecosystems work.”

Additionally, she emphasized that “there is not enough basic information available to assess the impacts of the projects and, most importantly, of the combination that may result from them.” Concerns about water pollution and depletion as a result of lithium mining have grown five years after that presentation; However, for the time being, it would appear that federal or local regional governments have not even begun to consider this link. A 2019 report on the social and environmental effects of lithium mining in Argentina was co-authored by Marchegiani.

A more robust water discussion is likely to be included in future lithium projects. The discovery of lithium by Brava Lake (Laguna Brava) in Argentina’s La Rioja province serves as an excellent example. Officials in the region are eager to make use of the deposits, claiming that the mineral will lead to growth and profit; Additionally, it is said that officials have incorrectly stated that lithium extraction does not require a lot of water.

Environmental groups have spoken out against the project and fabricated narratives, as well as made it clear how much water-intensive the industry is in fact.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador nationalized the nation’s lithium reserves in February 2023, specifically the Bacadéhuachi reserves in Sonora. As a result, international businesses will not be the only ones to benefit from Mexican lithium. However, if current water-intensive mining practices are followed, water pollution will likely still occur even if a Mexican mining company extracts Mexican lithium.

Does lithium mining require a lot of water?

The fact that the traditional lithium extraction method relies on the sun’s rays to dry the lithium-water lakes is one reason to continue using it. Sun power is not expensive, which is a clear advantage. In addition, “the evaporation process allows raising the degree of lithium concentration in the brine, from approximately 0.2 percent to 6.0 percent”

In Germany and the United Kingdom, some environmentally friendly methods for extracting lithium are being tested. For Dialogo Chino, Javier Lewkowicz provides an explanation. “However, each of the new methods has its own complexities to solve, from the great use of fresh water in the plant to carry out the lithium separation to the generation of waste due to the use of solvents and the intensive use of electrical energy.”

In her remarks from 2018, Professor Marchegiani argued that “these processes [lithium mining projects] should respect the decisions of communities that do not wish to put their ways of life at risk and reject extraction in their territories.” This was one of her main points.

Five years later, mining companies and regional officials generally do not take into account the wishes, rights, and concerns of these communities, particularly indigenous communities that are located close to lithium deposits. The loss of water resources, pollution, and effects on human life and local ecosystems are too significant to ignore, even though local populations clearly support lithium mining projects (new jobs and development are always welcome).

This does not imply that lithium mining in Latin America should be completely stopped. Instead, in order to fully comprehend the potential outcomes of any lithium project, including the destruction or contamination of valuable water resources, comprehensive environmental analyses are required. The project should be halted if it is determined that extracting lithium from a specific region would be too costly to the environment, including the loss or pollution of water. Humanity cannot afford to waste a single drop of water in 2023.

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