Industry Leaders

President of Water in Mining 2014 President of Water in Mining 2014

Alvaro Hernández

The president of the Water in Mining 2014 Congress and Director of Water Resources at Codelco, Chile spoke about water shortage and the use of sea water as a supply source for mining projects. 

Water shortages in Chile- Have they hampered mining projects? 

Without a doubt, water scarcity impacts mining projects and operations. A mining project that does not have a set water source will most definitely have difficulty developing and being financed. Water determines mining projects. 

Do you think that the use of seawater is a solution for new supply sources? Is it feasible? What is the impact? 

This has been demonstrated in the industry without question, yes. Sea water usage has evolved from simply a project and is now used in actual operations. However, it is an expensive solution and the scarcity problem becomes a cost issue. This causes difficulties for less profitable projects and makes them less viable, since not all projects can afford to use sea water. Therefore, the impact is economic; it is the limit of water scarcity. We could have all the water we wanted, but we would still have to pay for it. 

What are the main challenges or difficulties implementing desalination plants in mining processes? 

The main difficulty again would be the cost, as a lot of economic investment is required for a desalination plant and water pumping.  I want to point out that if our plants were on the coast, water would no longer be an issue. The issue is not desalinating the water, but transporting it to over 2500, and sometimes up to 4000, meters above sea level. This is a very large consumption of energy and that costs money. Moreover, energy here is expensive, even if it cost half of what it costs now, it would still be expensive. For this reason I would say that the main challenge here is cost. I believe we also have to be working towards reducing costs, scaling-up efficiently and improving design, especially in impulsion. 

Do you think that there is a margin for making more efficient use of water? Do mine sites reuse the water from their processes?

The mining industry in Chile, given its extremely arid conditions, and having most of its operations in the north, in Regions I, II and III, has made progress in the field of water efficiency. We have reuse levels that are some of the highest in the world as no one has conditions as extreme as ours. As a result, we are forced to reuse and recycle. 

However, we have to go a bit further than simply recycling. Nowadays water efficiency is centered on both recycling and tailings. In tailings we can still do more, currently we are in the stage of thickened tailings but we could begin filtering tailing.  Today, the cost of water supply alternatives, such as sea water, makes what used to be considered expensive, not seem so. It is all relative. This could be an opportunity when facing sea water conditions; we need to improve how we use water so that we can use less of it- that is also an important space for discussion. 

How can this conference contribute to putting water management on track? 

These types of events are for sharing experiences, knowledge and ideas; it is a meeting of specialists. Many of us have known each other for quite some time and perhaps this is an instance to go over what has happened over the last two years, and to somehow refresh the specific scope that this issue is currently focused on. Unquestionably, in two years from now, we will be talking about things that have arisen from water code reform or the progress we have made in technical aspects, especially in the use of sea water that continues to grow.