Water is a critical input for extractive industries (mining, quarrying, oil and gas extraction). All of them consume large (sometimes very large) quantities of water. It is no accident if the issue of water has often been central in the many social conflicts spurred by mining or fossil fuel projects in recent years across the planet, in the context of a global commodity boom.
The reason for this is simple: water is a vital resource, both for drinking and hygiene and because it supports traditional livelihoods, through agriculture or fishing. The destruction or degradation of water sources is often rightly seen as a matter of life and death, especially in regions where water is scarce and therefore has a special importance in the local culture and social organization. In addition, many of the indirect, cascading impacts of extractive activities, such as downstream pollution or water scarcity, make themselves felt through water.
Fracking, tailings dams, pollution... The multiple impacts of extractives industries on water
The impacts of extractive industries on water resources are multiple and often severe: overexploitation of surface or ground water sources; pollution; destruction of glaciers, forests or wetlands - but also issues related to large-scale water transfers, hydroelectric dams to power mining operations, pollution of land and air, or the effects of extractive activities on local climatic conditions.
The impacts and risks of unconventional hydrocarbon developments, such as shale gas, for water resources are significantly higher than those of conventional extraction.
Dams retaining toxic wastewater from mining or oil operations also represent a significant risk to water resources, as illustrated by major accidents in recent months, from Mount Polley in Canada to Samarco in Brazil.
True and false solutions
The responses developed by corporations to address these issues - including ‘corporate social responsibility’-style approaches and technological solutions such as desalination and wastewater treatment - have not demonstrated their effectiveness, particularly over the long term.
Experience shows that even where regulations exist on paper to protect water sources and mitigate the negative impacts of extractive industries, such rules are rarely enforced in practice, because of the imbalance of power, resources and capacity between multinational corporations on the one hand and public authorities and local communities on the other. Similarly, scientific monitoring of the impacts of extractive industries on water and access to relevant information are usually insufficient.
The right to water, a political right
Even though it is relatively recent and currently lacking enforcement mechanisms, the notion of the “human right to water”, recognised by the United Nations in 2010, can empower communities and local authorities which seek to prevent or mitigate the impacts of extractive projects on their water sources. The notion of a right to water already seems to underlie many legal battles between communities and oil or mining companies worldwide.
To achieve this purpose, however, the notion of the right to water must be taken in a broad, non-restrictive sense. The mere delivery of a quota of drinking water to communities neighbouring extractive operations is charity – not the recognition of a human right, nor does it address the many issues faced in practice by communities. The right to water must be seen as a political right, that is to say, it should involve respecting the autonomy and at least a degree of self-rule for communities, and their right to decide their own future and that of their land.