Social Sustainability Solutions to Water Crisis in Extractives Communities

Social Sustainability Solutions to Water Crisis in Extractives Communities

Water stress is a global challenge that also exists largely in many of the world’s mining sites. While the Earth has finite freshwater water resources, increased population growth, business activities and lately climate change has further worsened the already bad situation. In newly discovered extractive communities some of the quickly observable features that occur is an influx of people and activities, these changes inadvertently put increased pressure on the resources and infrastructure of the communities such as water.

Mining is highly water intensive. Water is necessary at various stages of exploration, planning and construction, operations, closure and postclosure. Mining uses water during drilling and for mineral processing, wastes water as runoffs and spills, and sometimes contaminate water sources. Initially, when the activities of mining companies affect a community’s water source, most local community members do not voice their dissatisfaction because of insufficient knowledge about the water cycle as well as existing policies and best practices around water management. However, increased water stress leads to water scarcity, which then affects the water available for use on their farmlands and other domestic activities, thereby increasing the community’s discontentment. Also, over the years, the activities of civil society movements in mining communities have increased hence local stakeholders have become better informed about their rights and the gravity of water scarcity. The combination of all these have led to reoccurring unrest in mining communities.

Water conflicts result from poor or non-proactive water management strategies, although, some are inherited by acquisition. Water conflicts leads to a discord between companies and communities. Often when trust in mining communities are broken they remain broken for years, and a conflict with a single company can affect the entire sector in a region. Studies of the experiences of many companies indicate that recovering from a conflict is more expensive than preventing it. But if mining companies are able to manage their impact on the resources of a host community’s ecosystem, they open up opportunities for the sustainability of their business and improvement in their community relations. With sustainable practices, mining companies can create long-term value in the communities where they operate, build trust and reduce risks.

Several water management models exist, but the most effective are those that infuse sustainable technical strategies, such as water minimisation, recycling, reuse and desalination, with social strategies. Hence, understanding traditional beliefs and incorporating them into water management and creating opportunities for shared decisions in water plans, can reduce misconceptions and conflicts.

The International Financial Corporation proposes a three-dimensional (3D) approach to shared water management in mining communities which includes:

Internal Alignment

A sustainable water management requires cross-functional and collaborative alignment within the company. From the administrative head office to the regional and operational offices, mining companies should be aligned in their approach towards water management in mining communities. This alignment can be achieved if the environmental and water operations team in mining companies are able to speak the language of senior management and technical staff by translating the water case into a business case. This involves informing the internal stakeholders about the true cost of a water crisis financially, legally, reputationally, environmentally and socially.

Within the company, there is need to develop Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for tracking water-related duties and outcomes. Dialogue trainings should be provided for employees especially field staff to increase their community engagement skills.

In the course of solving a water crisis and improving their community-company relationships, some companies have been able to develop certain tools. For instance, Anglo American has developed several social and technical tools in the process of addressing water issues. The company has launched “Socio-Economic Assessment Toolbox (SEAT)” which focuses on establishing a deeper understanding of the socioeconomic environment of communities, and also the “Water Efficiency Target Tool (WETT)”, developed to track water use and savings across projects, encouraging innovations in water reclamation, reuse, and conservation.

Strategic Communications

This involves listening, understanding, sharing of information as well as responding to issues in a thoughtful manner. It goes beyond the traditional media relations as it involves various stakeholders in the process. This also involves creating a communications infrastructure with grievance mechanisms and crisis response scenarios. Complaints and feedback mediums should be open with timely responses given to any issue raised. Localised messaging to ensure understanding across various stakeholder groups. For instance, some mining communities train local CSOs and community groups on some water management and awareness practices like how to measure water quality and monitor water usage. This goes a long way in building trust between the community and the company.


Water is largely a shared resource and minerals tend to exist in water-scarce regions. Hence, it is imperative that a multistakeholder approach is adopted to ensure the optimisation and accessibility of water resources. A quick take away from multistakeholder partnerships in the management of water resources in mining communities is the transfer of knowledge among involved stakeholders. While the community transfers the knowledge of the cultural sensitivity and patterns of various water sources to the company, the company transfers technical knowledge of water management such as measurement, monitoring, and quality assessment to the community. Co-management also helps to build an array of expertise on water issues, trust and transparency. Rio Tinto Argyle Diamond Mine, the operator of the world’s largest diamond mine is a good example of a mining company that has effectively utilised the co-management strategy.

There are no short cuts to water management. In new project areas, a proactive and strategic approach is needed and in already existing mining sites with potential water scarcity and crisis, high level social and technical management strategies are needed to ameliorate the crisis and reduce the exposure of the company and community to further risks.


  1. Water, Mining and Communities: Creating Shared Value through Sustainable Water Management. International Financial Corporation, January 2014.

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