MAC: Mines and Communities

The War For Water: The Extraction Project Of Minera Escondida And The Risks For The People Of Atac

Published by MAC on 2007-04-23



The resource grows scarce. The mining firms need it to carry out their copper mining industrial production, and the inhabitants need it to survive. The project Pampa Colorada of mining firm Escondida will use 1,027 liters per second for twenty years from the high Andean river basins of the II Region of Chile. The Atacama communities of San Pedro de Atacama already have hoisted a black flag against the future they see coming.

By José Miguel Jaque, La Nación 23 April 2007

The first thing that you notice when arriving at the town of Peine -- located 98 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama -- is a huge black wall with white letters reading "The Atacama Community of Peine Rejects the Water Supply Operation of Pampa Colorado." If this weren't enough, the houses of the 300-some persons are also adorned with the black banners.

This is how the community is showing its opposition to the Minera Escondida project, which will pump out some 1,027 liters per second of fresh water from the lagoons Aguas Calientes, Tuyajto, and El Laco of the salt-flat region. The water are to be the source of the mine production processes for the next twenty years. "We don't want them to squander our water," protests María Barrera, president of the indigenous community of Peine and one of the organizers of the campaign against the mining plan. "The project is a coup de grace, and the amount of water they want to use are horrifying. Our community only uses 1.5 liters per second for our consumption, and it doesn't stretch far enough. And they want to use 1,027 liters?" she asks indignantly.

Sandra Berna, mayor of the San Pedro commune which includes the towns of Peine, Socaire andToconao -- all towns opposed to the project -- also wants some answers. "If water is a scarce resource in San Pedro, how on earth is it possible that all of a sudden they are going to pump out a thousand liters per second to make a mine function? These are millions of cubic meters of water they are going to use for twenty years. Nobody has told us how these water resources are going to be replenished. Who will assure us that we are going to be able to continue to live in this region? The mayor says that San Pedro has a 40% water shortage. "We can only use twelve liters per second, but we need twenty. We only use a hair's breath of what they intend to take, we don't have the money to pump out the water."

The mayor doesn't trust the Environmental Impact Report presented by Escondida. "They say that they will only leave behind the holes. They say that they are going to take care to not impact the environment, but I doubt that. The real results are not the same as those that are written on paper. On paper, things always turn out much better." She criticizes the political system as well. "We don't have the money to carry out the environmental impact studies needed to provide a counterpoint to the miners. In the halls of justice, a poor man can get an appointed lawyer, but we don't have anything." Berna speaks of the costs of water access in the region, to maintain the desert spring wetlands and the heavy significance that water has for the peoples of the Atacama communities. "To us, water cannot have a price, it is part of our community of San Pedro, and the thing we can do us care for it, never make it a business. They want the water to carry off a fortune." Berna affirmed that the communities will not take water in exchange for their acceptance of the project. "We don't need silver; we need to know that will be able to live out our lives in our own lands."

"There Is No Competition for Water"

The mining firms are treating the issue very quietly and cautiously. "We are in a very early stage of this process," explains Mauro Valdés, vice president of corporate affairs of the Escondida Mining. "we are interested in listening to the environmental and development-related worries that the communities might have with respect to the project. We are not going to put our reputation at stake for a project of this type."

In the company Environmental Impact Report, Escondido states that the community of Socaire has water rights over the river Sociare and Quepe spring, while the Peine community has rights over the springs Tulán, Chasquesoque, Ossa and Viste as well as the Tarajne river. This is why the firm is being asked to explain if there are connections and effects upon these water sources and thus the water rights of the communities. Escondida still has not acquired water rights for the mining operation yet, the title is still in the hands of World Explorations, Investment and Assessment, Inc. (Exploraciones Inversiones y Asesorías Mundo, S.A.)

If the project is sustainable, then why has Escondida limited the extraction for a period of twenty years? "Well, it's not like they have expiration dates, but you can only pump until either the water runs out or it produces an impact upon the environment. This is why we need to change water sources along the way," responds Valdés. "This will be a twenty year project because our studies say that twenty years and a determined amount of water is what is environmentally sustainable for the project. If we pump out too much water the effects will probably be a lot harder to mitigate."

At this time, the company has control over four water sources. Two of them are underground -- the wells of Punta Negra and Montauraqui -- and a desalinating plant in Antofagasta which permits the mining firm to pump 500 liters per second from the ocean. Is it costly to pump water from the coast to the desert? "It could be in the future, but it is obviously more expensive. And we need to generate electrical energy to produce and pump water, and this is an added cost which makes our industry less competative."


What is the project?

The Pampa Colorada Water Provison Project consists of the extraction of underground waters from high Andean watersheds in the Pampa Colorada region, in order to supply water for industrial use in Minera Escondida. The project is slated to pump out some 648 million cubic meters of water at a rate of 32.4 million liters per year. This means a flow of 1,027 liters per second. The project calls for a U$300 million investment and will have a useful life of 20 years. The construction phase of the project is projected for the second half of 2008. Where is it located?

The Pampa Colorada area is located in the commune of San Pedro de Atacama, the high desert Andes, or altiplano, of the II Region of Antofagasta, Chile, some 160 kilometers to the southeast of the town of San Pedro de Atacama, some four thousand meters above sea level. The Pampa Colorada area is part of the Area of Indigenous Development of Atacama La Grande, and has attractive landscapes and potential tourism, and features sites of interest such as the salt flats of Aguas Calientes II and the Tuyaito lagoon. What will be the impacts?

According to the report issued by the mining firm, the principal effects during the operation of the mines will be a gradual lowering in the underground water table levels and a reduction in flow of the aquifer release rates, affecting indirectly and in a gradual manner some sectors of the springs, wetlands and lagoons. The project is considering methods of mitigation and monitoring to reduce impacts.

* Minera Escondida is majority owned and controlled by BHPBilliton, with a smaller share in the hands of Rio Tinto, with a minor investment by the World Bank/IFC

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