Chile's lithium miners consume 65% of region's water
The social license for battery material producers is challenged by water depletion, toxic dust and worker exploitation, according to a report released Wednesday by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Miners in the Democractic Republic of Congo face challenges operating in a country with few worker protections.
"[About] 20% of cobalt supplied from the DRC comes from artisanal mines where child labour and human rights abuses have been reported. Up to 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions in the mines for meagre income," write the report’s authors.
Cobalt mining can also be highly toxic. Mechanical excavation, digging and breaking of rocks leads to dust and the release of toxic metals, such as uranium, potentially causing respiration issues and birth defects.
Heavy water usage is a concern for lithium miners.
"[Nearly] 65% of the water in the country's Salar de Atamaca region, one of the driest desert areas in the world, to pump out brines from drilled wells. This has caused groundwater depletion and pollution, forcing local quinoa farmers and llama herders to migrate and abandon ancestral settlements. It has also contributed to environment degradation, landscape damage and soil contamination."
The concentration of major reserves in a few select countries is disruptive. The author's note that nearly 50% of world cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 58% of lithium reserves are in Chile, 80% of natural graphite reserves are in China, Brazil and Turkey, while 75% of manganese reserves are in Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Ukraine.
"The highly concentrated production, susceptible to disruption by political instability and adverse environmental impacts, raises concerns about the security of the supply of the raw materials to battery manufacturers."
Most of the materials value is flowing to developed countries where the bulk of the processing occurs, such as Belgium, China, Finland, Norway and Zambia.
"The DRC, which accounts for over two-thirds of global cobalt production, has not maximized the economic benefits of the mineral due to limited infrastructure, technology, logistical capacity, financing and lack of appropriate policies to encourage local value addition."