Protecting groundwater where we operate

posted: 22/03/2022

Groundwater is the focus of this year’s World Water Day on 22 March. For Glencore, groundwater is a critical and vital resource – not just for its role in our operations – but necessary to support all life on earth. As with all sources of water, we are committed to the responsible and sustainable management of this shared resource. Read how we are ensuring proactive water stewardship across the business.   

Accounting for more than 90% of the Earth’s available fresh water, groundwater is found in geological formations called aquifers. Beneath the planet’s surface, aquifer water travels through spaces formed between soil grains, and even through rock crevices, cracks, and fractures.  

We know that groundwater can be stored in aquifers for thousands of years, even in regions where climate conditions have changed over millennia. In fact, in 2013 scientists found water that was around 1.5 billion years’ old at a depth of approximately 2.4 km below ground at Glencore’s Kidd Mine in Ontario, Canada. Later, in 2016, at a deeper level of 3 km below the surface, additional investigations revealed an even older source of water at the mine, dating back at least 2 billion years.*1

While groundwater aquifers can be found at many levels below the Earth’s surface, water in more shallow aquifers often naturally migrates towards lakes, rivers and oceans, where it can discharge into these systems. Groundwater can also be withdrawn by people, through the drilling and pumping of wells, or by creation of openings in the land, such as open pit mines. Rain and melted snow, where present, can seep into aquifers underneath the land to replenish groundwater supplies.

Clean, potable groundwater is a limited resource and, if the land above an aquifer is permeable, underlying groundwater systems can become polluted by industrial or agricultural activity, rendering them unsafe for drinking or watering livestock and fields.

The United Nations, which organises World Water Day, describes groundwater as a natural “hidden treasure” and says that “as climate change gets worse, groundwater will become more and more critical. We need to work together to sustainably manage this precious resource.”

At Glencore, we fully recognise that need, and are committed to managing water responsibly, striving to minimise impacts on water quality and quantity, protecting the ecosystems in which we work, and supporting equitable access to water by all. 

Sound understanding & strong governance

To support our commitment to responsible water management, including groundwater, in 2021 we enhanced our global water governance framework in the form of our new Environment Policy, its accompanying Environment Standard, and our updated Water Management Guideline .

These documents ensure that we identify and address the potential impacts of our business on water and understand our dependencies. Aligned with the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) and international best practice, we encourage a watershed-based approach to water management, working within our communities to identify, evaluate and respond to risks such as flooding, water supply system reliability, pollution and the increasing cost of water. This applies to all phases of the asset lifecycle, from exploration to closure.

Through proactive water stewardship we can also support the long-term sustainability of our business and the environment in which we operate, by identifying and enabling water opportunities, such as reducing our water operational footprint wherever possible.

In 2021, we set our first-ever external Group-level water target, requiring all our managed operations in water-stressed regions*2 to finalise the assessment of their material water-related risks, set local targets, and implement actions to reduce impacts and improve performance by the end of 2023. This external target complements and reinforces our existing internal site-level water targets to drive performance improvements and greater transparency.

Supporting life in Queensland

Our Mount Isa Mines operation in Queensland is the second largest copper producer in Australia and is located in a Water Resources Institute High Water Stress region. An outback city of 22,000, residents rely on clean surface water for their water supply and groundwater is mainly used for irrigation of sport fields and livestock drinking water supply.

In line with our target of assessing water-related risks, the Mount Isa Mines team spent three and a half years conducting a Groundwater Environmental Evaluation project. This project aimed to investigate and further understand the groundwater system in the area of this historic mining camp. 

During the project, test holes were dug, groundwater wells drilled, an airborne geophysics survey was undertaken, and potential mine-related sources of contamination were assessed. 

*2 According to WRI Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas

We drilled and constructed over 30 new groundwater wells, revised our conceptual understanding of our groundwater aquifers, and assessed any potential impact that our mining operation could have on the groundwater system. The project has helped us to raise awareness of the relevance of our aquifers and increase our understanding of the variety of services that groundwater provides to our communities, businesses and the environment.

Rodrigo Correa - Senior Water Advisor at Queensland Metals

Rodrigo further added: “We don’t usually see groundwater, so sometimes it’s hard to believe there is anything beneath us. However, groundwater is there, moving, interacting with vegetation, feeding our rivers and supporting life.”

The importance of responsible water management, including groundwater, is echoed by Linda Wrong, Global General Manager, Environment: “Across Glencore, we will continue our efforts to implement our enhanced governance and meet our commitments as leaders in environmental performance, minimising harm to the environment and driving responsible management of our shared water resources."

Learn more about World Water Day on the official website of the event.

You can find out more about Glencore’s approach to water management on our dedicated microsite.