Water at QMM

Water

Water is a key part of our operational environmental footprint and a shared resource critical to sustaining biodiversity, people and their economic prosperity. Increasingly disrupted weather patterns and more extreme weather events due to climate change, and a growing world population, mean efficiently managing our water impacts is more important than ever. 

The way we think about water, and manage the risks, reflects the diversity of our operations and geographic locations. Water scarcity is an issue for some of our assets operating in desert locations, while others must remove excess water to allow safe mining operations. Some of our assets are powered by water via hydroelectricity and, in all locations, we carefully manage our use and reuse of water, and consider the potential long-term impacts on water sources. This complexity means we are developing a catchment-level approach to water management and manage our impacts, risks and potential solutions within our operations with the understanding that we share water with surrounding communities and nature. We understand this responsibility extends beyond the life of our operations.

We aim to avoid permanent impacts to water resources, including lakes, streams and groundwater aquifers, by carefully managing the quality and quantity of the water we use and return to the environment. We work to balance our operational needs with those of local communities and local ecosystems and consider the impact of climate change, which is already affecting rainfall and evaporation at many of our sites. We use baseline water stress as determined by the World Resources Institute to identify operational catchments of most concern. 

Reporting against ICMM water stewardship commitments

As ICMM members, we report our practices against the commitments outlined in the ICMM water stewardship statement:

  • To apply strong and transparent water governance
  • To manage water at operations effectively
  • To collaborate to achieve responsible and sustainable water use

We are among the most transparent in the industry regarding our water stewardship. There are a range of water risks, not just water scarcity, so we have set targets – tailored to the specific challenges at each site – and publicly report on progress against each one. We also provide further detail through asset-level disclosures, which show inherent water risk at each site.

Managing water risks

To manage our water impacts well, we first need to understand the specific risks at more than 50 operating sites, as well as our overall Group impacts. To do this, we think about water issues in four ways:

  1. Water resource: Is there enough water available for both environment and community needs, and our operational use?

    The water resource risk at Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia is assessed as moderate even though it is located in the Gobi Desert. Oyu Tolgoi sources its water requirements from a deep water supply, the Gunii Hooloi aquifer, a 150-metre deep resource holding around 6.8 billion cubic metres of non-drinkable saline water. Oyu Tolgoi uses this water source efficiently with water recycling and conservation practices implemented across the operation.

  2. Quantity and quality: Does the way we manage water on site or our off site discharges, cause environmental impacts or operational constraints?

    Our QIT Madagascar Minerals operation in Madagascar operates in a highly sensitive area from a water, broader environment and community perspective. The discharges from our operation have the potential to impact receiving water quality and therefore the water quality risk is assessed as high. We are working to improve management activities on site, including our ability to more accurately measure our water discharge quality, and the deployment of a dedicated water treatment plant to adjust pH.

  3. Dewatering: Does the removal of water from the operational areas of our sites impact regional aquifers or our mine plans?

    Impacts associated with dewatering and water supply activities in the Pilbara are recognised as a very high risk for our business. Returning water to the aquifers impacted by our mining activities in a controlled manner is the focus of a number of studies.

  4. Long-term obligations: Do our operational activities generate long-term or ongoing obligations related to water?

    We may sometimes generate impacts that we are required to manage over the long term.

    Whether they are associated with the management of post closure pit-lakes formed in our mining pits in the Pilbara, or the ongoing management of potential seepage from our waste rock or tailings facilities in our aluminium and copper operations, our systems and standards aim to ensure that the risk is identified early and managed appropriately and responsibly throughout the asset lifecycle.

We use this framework to identify, assess and manage water risks. We use maximum reasonable consequence – the level of risk when no controls are in place – because it presents a clearer picture of the magnitude of the risk our sites must manage. This comprehensive approach extends beyond our mandatory reporting obligations and allows us to have relevant conversations about water risks internally and with stakeholders in the communities where we operate.

Our Group water risk profile shows the level of exposure against each of the four themes, or risks. Most of our water risks sit in the “low” to “moderate” range. There are some in “very high” and “high” categories for each, however, regardless of the level of risk, we apply rigorous standards and processes to manage them.

Water risk profile - asset level risk rankings (2021)

  • Aluminium

    Asset

    WRI Water Risk Atlas
    Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity &
    quality

    Dewatering

    Long-term obligations

    Australia

    Bell Bay Aluminum

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    n/a

    Moderate

    Boyne Smelters

    Low

    High

    Moderate

    n/a

    n/a

    Gove

    Low

    Low

    High

    n/a

    Very high

    QAL (non-managed operation)

    Low

    Low

    Very high

    n/a

    High

    Weipa

    Low

    High

    Moderate

    Low

    Moderate

    Yarwun

    Low

    High

    High

    Low

    High

    Canada

    Alma

    Low

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    Moderate

    AP60

    Low

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    Low

    Arvida

    Low

    Low

    HIgh

    n/a

    High

    BC Works

    Low

    Low

    High

    Low

    High

    Beauharnois

    Low

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    Moderate

    Dubuc/PLS

    Low

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    Low

    Energie Electrique

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    n/a

    Low

    Grand Baie

    Low

    Low

    High

    n/a

    Low

    Laterriere

    Low

    Low

    High

    Moderate

    Low

    Roberval/Port Alfred

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    n/a

    Low

    SPL Treatment Plant

    Low

    Low

    High

    n/a

    Moderate

    Strathcona

    Medium - High

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    Low

    Vaudreuil

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    Very high

    France

    Saint Jean LRF

    Medium - High

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    n/a

    Iceland

    ISAL

    Low

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    Low

    New Zealand

    New Zealand Aluminium

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    Low

  • Copper

    Asset

    WRI Water Risk Atlas
    Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity &
    quality

    Dewatering

    Long-term obligations

    USA

    Kennecott Utah Copper

    Low - Medium

    Moderate

    High

    High

    Very high

    Resolution

    Extremely High

    Low

    Moderate

    Moderate

    High

    Mongolia

    Oyu Tolgoi

    Arid and Low Water Use

    Moderate

    High

    Moderate

    Moderate

    Guinea

    Simandou

    Low

    Moderate

    Moderate

    n/a

    Very high

    Peru

    La Granja

    Low

    Not assessed

    -

    -

    -

  • Closure
     

    Asset

    WRI Water Risk Atlas
    Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity &
    quality

    Dewatering

    Long-term obligations

    Australia

    Argyle

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Moderate

    High

    ERA

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    Very high

  • Iron Ore

    Asset

    WRI Water Risk Atlas
    Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity &
    quality

    Dewatering

    Long-term obligations

    Australia

    Greater Brockman

    Medium - High

    Very high

    High

    Very high

    Very high

    Greater Hope Downs

    Arid and Low Water Use

    Moderate

    High

    Very high

    Very high

    Greater Paraburdoo

    Low

    Very high

    Moderate

    Moderate

    Very high

    Greater Tom Price

    Medium - High

    Moderate

    Moderate

    High

    Very high

    Greater Yandicoogina

    High

    Low

    High

    Very high

    Very high

    Gudai-Darri

    Medium - High

    Very high

    High

    Moderate

    Very high

    Resource Development

    not assessed

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    n/a

    Robe Valley

    Medium - High

    High

    High

    Very high

    High

    West Angelas

    Medium - High

    Moderate

    High

    Very high

    Very high

    Facilities

    not assessed

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    n/a

    Ports Cape Lambert

    Low - Medium

    Very high

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Ports Dampier

    Low - Medium

    High

    Low

    n/a

    Low

    Rail Operations

    not assessed

    Low

    Low

    n/a

    n/a

    Utilities

    not assessed

    Moderate

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    Dampier Salt

    Arid and Low Water Use

    Moderate

    Moderate

    High

    Moderate

  • Minerals

    Asset

    WRI Water Risk Atlas
    Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity &
    quality

    Dewatering

    Long-term obligations

    Canada

    Diavik

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    HSP

    Low

    Moderate

    High

    Low

    High

    Sorel

    Low

    Low

    High

    n/a

    Low

    Iron Ore Company of Canada

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    Low

    China

    Suzhou

    High

    Not assessed

    -

    -

    -

    Europe

    EU Ops ( Coudekerque, Rotterdam, Nules)

    Medium - High

    Moderate

    Low

    n/a

    Moderate

    Madagascar

    QMM

    Low

    Moderate

    High

    Moderate

    Low

    Serbia

    Jadar

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    n/a

    n/a

    South Africa

    Richards Bay

    Low

    Very high

    High

    Low

    Low

    USA

    Boron

    Extremely High

    High

    Moderate

    Moderate

    Moderate

    Owens Lake

    Low - Medium

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Wilmington

    Extremely High

    Moderate

    High

    Low

    Moderate

2021 performance

  • Year in review
  • Year in numbers

Progress against our 2019 – 2023 water targets

Our five-year water targets allow us to be more transparent about our water usage, risk profile, management and specific challenges. These targets, and the data required to measure progress against them, are helping us become better water stewards.

Our water targets were set in 2019 and consist of one Group target and six site-based targets, again reflecting our catchment-based approach and in recognition that we manage vastly different water-related risks across our business. The site-based targets were chosen based on their water risk profile, our International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) commitments, and local community and environmental interdependencies.

We continued to make progress against our Group target in 2021 and remain on track to meet it by 2023. We collected water allocation volume data for all sites and estimated surface water catchment rainfall-runoff volumes for our managed operations. We also implemented the last component of the framework, the Group water control library which describes all controls identified to manage our water risks. In 2022, we will continue embedding our water risk framework and associated controls, across our product groups and focus on delivering our site-based targets.

GROUP TARGET

Rio Tinto Group (Tier 1)

Group target    
By 2023 we will disclose – for all managed operations – permitted surface water allocation volumes, their annual allocation usage and the associated surface water allocation catchment rainfall runoff volume estimate.

Water resource

On track

Context

Water scarcity is defined as the lack of sufficient available water resources to meet usage demands within a region. Rio Tinto draw upon these regional water resources across the globe to supply operational demands.

With the increasing worldwide focus on sustainability and disclosures, the estimation and disclosure of regional catchment rainfall runoff and associated operational extraction provides the platform to respond to transparency and mining disclosure expectations.

With catchments recognised as a proxy for community and environment interdependencies, the target represents an opportunity to expand our foundation of trust with our stakeholders, further develop our understanding of cumulative and indirect catchment impacts and align with our commitment to the ICMM water position statement.

Progress

Progress remains on track against the target schedule. With the additional specialist water expertise added to central team during 2021, we remain confident that the managed operations group target will be attained by 2023.

SITE-BASED TARGETS

  • Pilbara Operations, Iron Ore (Tier 1)
    Pilbara

    Site-Based Target

    Water Risk Theme

    Status

    Our Iron Ore product group will complete six managed aquifer recharge investigations by 2023.

    Dewatering

    (aquifier reinjection)

    On track

    Context

    Impacts associated with dewatering and water supply activities in the Pilbara are recognised as a long-term risk for our business and gaining increasing regulatory interest. Adopting a long-term view as to how we best manage water resources in the Pilbara is key to ensuring we maintain our privilege to operate and our role as industry water stewards.

    Returning water to the aquifer through managed aquifer recharge (MAR) supports this long-term approach. MAR is the process of adding water to aquifers in a controlled manner. It can take on many forms, including infiltration via basins, or galleries or by the use of injection bores. In practice, MAR supports a variety of purposes, including: storage of surplus dewatering for future-use, re-instatement of aquifers to pre-mining conditions, or controlling flow as a barrier to limit migration of saline or contaminated groundwater.

    Application of the method requires a thorough understanding of the hydrogeology in the region and identification of a recharge process that is consistent and aligns with insitu hydrogeological parameters. Field testing of recharge processes provides a body of information that will inform the potential implementation of aquifer managed recharge programs within the business.

    Progress

    Successful completion of three of the proposed six managed aquifer recharge investigations. Despite some delays to the indicative table schedule due to COVID-19 during 2020-21, our Pilbara Iron Ore operations remain on track to complete the remaining three investigations by 2023.

  • Oyu Tolgoi, Copper (Tier 1)
    Oyu Tolgoi

    Site-Based Target

    Water Risk Theme

    Status

    Oyu Tolgoi will maintain average annual water use efficiency at 550 L/tonne of ore to concentrator over the period 2019-2023.

    Water resource

    (intensity and efficiency)

    Achieved for 2019 - 2021

    Context

    Mongolia’s mining sector is a significant contributor to the economy as well as a key water user. Oyo Tolgoi copper and gold mine located in the water scarce South province has recognised the importance of optimising the use of the scarce water resources and taking a stewardship approach to ensure the long-term future of mine, natural environmental systems and local herder livelihoods.

    In response to the situation, Oyu Tolgoi identified the Gunii Hooloi aquifer, a 150 metre deep resource holding around 6.8 billion cubic metres of non-drinkable saline water. The operation goes to great lengths to use its allocation from this water source efficiently with water recycling and conservation practices implemented throughout the operation resulting in Oyu Tolgoi having a design water efficiency of approximately half the industry average.

    Oyu Tolgoi successfully maintained average annual water use efficiency below 550L/tonne of ore to concentrator over the previous water target period 2014-2018. With the operation expansion over the period 2019-2023 including the development and commissioning of the underground, Oyu Tolgoi will aim to maintain average annual water use efficiency below 550L/tonne of ore processing in concentrator over this next target period.

    Progress

    Oyu Tolgoi has continued to maintain average annual water use efficiency below 550 L/tonne for the 2019-2021 period. As such, it continues to maintain its position as one of the world’s most water efficient copper and gold mining and concentrating operations.

  • Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC), Copper (Tier 1)
    Kennecott Utah Copper

    Site-Based Target

    Water Risk Theme

    Status

    Kennecott will reduce average annual imported water per ton of ore milled by 5% over the 2014-18 baseline of 393gal/ton (1,487L/ton) at the Copperton Concentrator by 2023.

    Water resource

    (import reduction)

    At risk, recoverable

    Context

    Kennecott operates the Bingham Canyon Mine, one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world in Bingham Canyon, Salt Lake County, Utah. Operations commenced in 1898 with the mine and associated smelter currently producing around 1% of the world's copper.

    Water scarcity remains an issue in Utah with the region heavily dependent on winter rains and snowfall. Kennecott has recognised the importance of optimizing the use of the scarce water resources and taking a stewardship approach in order to ensure the long-term future of mine, natural environmental systems and local livelihoods.

    In response to the situation, Kennecott proposed water target focusses on improving water recycling within the Copperton Concentrator with an overall aim of reducing the external water import to the operation.

    Progress

    Kennecott has allocated additional budget in 2022 to prioritise the understanding of the conditions that influence water import demands at the concentrator and to determine solutions to mitigate and lower these demands.

  • Ranger Mine*, Energy Resources of Australia Limited (ERA), Minerals  (Tier 1)
    Energy Resources of Australia

    Site-Based Target

    Water Risk Theme

    Status

    ERA will achieve the planned total process water inventory treatment volume by 2023, as assumed in the Ranger water model.

    Quantity/quality

    (inventory reduction)

    At risk

    Context

    ERA operate the Ranger uranium mine in Jabiru, Northern Territory. Operations are undertaken in accordance with the requirements of the Mining Management Act Authorisation 0108. 

    The site has a legislated commitment for rehabilitation activities to be undertaken. To enable this commitment to be achieved, effective depletion of the free process water inventory is required. ERA have developed a pathway by which this commitment can be satisfied through a variety of process water treatment technologies.

    Progress

    Following ERA’s ASX announcement on 19 November 2021, work is continuing on the reforecast of both cost and schedule in relation to the calculation of the rehabilitation provision and timing for completion of the Ranger project area. Given this, the ERA target remains at risk subject to the reforecast of target treatment volumes as part of the Ranger water model update.

    * Ranger Mine is owned and operated by ERA. Rio Tinto is an 86.3% shareholder in ERA.

  • QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), Minerals (Tier 2)
    QIT Madagascar Minerals

    Site-Based Target

    Water Risk Theme

    Status

    QMM will develop and implement an improved integrated site water management approach by 2023.

    Quantity/quality

    (discharge quality)

    On track

    Context

    Rio Tinto operate the QMM mine located in the Anosy region near Fort Dauphin on the south-eastern tip of Madagascar. QMM uses both dredge and dry mining to extract ilmenite (which contains 60% titanium dioxide) and zirsill (which contains zircon) from the resident heavy mineral sands. Operations at QMM commenced in December 2008.

    QMM operates in a highly sensitive area from a water and broader environmental perspective due to its location, the nature of the surrounding environment and the mining process. Given the potential exposure associated with the operations, QMM are committed to reviewing current practices and infrastructure to improve performance through the development of an integrated approach to site water management for implementation during the target period.

    Progress

    Progress remains on track against the target schedule. Tasks completed this year include the development of the water strategy roadmap, improved ability to more accurately measure our water discharge quality and the deployment of a dedicated water treatment plant for our discharges.

  • Queensland Alumina Limited (QAL), Aluminium (non-managed joint venture) (Tier 2)
    Queensland Alumina Limited

    Site-Based Target

    Water Risk Theme

    Status

    QAL will complete the following four water-related improvement projects from the QAL 5-year Environment Strategy by 2023: 

    • Project L1 – integrity of bunds and drains
    • Project W3 – caustic pipe and wasteline 4 integrity
    • Project W6 – residue disposal area surface/ground water impacts
    • Project W7 – residue disposal area release to receiving environment

    Quantity/quality

    (discharge quality)

    JV performance improvement

    On track

    Context

    QAL is an alumina refinery located in Gladstone, Queensland and has been operational for over 50 years. Operations commenced in 1967 and QAL has progressively expanded production to be now one of the world’s largest alumina refineries.

    The environmental improvement program and associated implementation plan has been developed to improve environmental risk management at the QAL refinery. The suite of environmental improvement projects covers air quality, odour, water and land.

    The environmental improvement programme forms part of the QAL business plan, has been prepared in consultation with our employees, joint venture owners, Rio Tinto and Rusal, and informed by feedback from the Gladstone community and government bodies.

    Progress

    Progress of nominated water-related improvement projects is aligned with current project schedules. 

    Read more about QAL’s improvement projects > 

Tier 1 water targets form part of the Rio Tinto external limited assurance programme
Tier 2 water targets do not form part of the Rio Tinto external limited assurance programme

Water balance

The Group water balance for 2021 (below) provides a simplified visual summary of where water was withdrawn from, discharged to, recycled/reused and consumed at our operations.

The reported categories correlate with reporting requirements for International Council of Mining & Metals (ICMM), Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), Global Reporting Initiatives (GRI). See the Sustainability Fact Book for more detailed water balance information.

water balance

1. A gigalitre (GL) is 1,000 megalitres, or 1,000,000,000 litres.

Our Group water withdrawals for 2021 were 1,080 GL, a 4% increase compared with our 2020 withdrawals. Freshwater or category 1 quality withdrawals accounted for 439 GL or 40% of this total. In 2020, our freshwater withdrawals accounted for 35% of our total withdrawals. Freshwater, or category 1 quality, is water that is generally suitable for consumption with minimal treatment required. Where possible, we aim to minimise our extractions from water sources of this quality.

Total Group discharges for 2021 were 661 GL, a 4% reduction compared with our 2020 discharges. Totals recycled/reused for 2021 was 310 GL, which is comparable to our 2020 performance.

 

Baseline water stress

The World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct global water risk mapping tool is a widely used approach for assessing baseline water stress. We applied this tool to our operating portfolio to assess our 2021 baseline water stress profile. Our reporting prior to 2019 was based on the World Business Council Global Water Assessment Tool, which is no longer supported.

WRI Aqueduct baseline water stress profile (% of operations)

A review of the baseline water stress profile shows elevated water stress (ie high risk or above) at 14% of our managed operations. Cumulative operational withdrawals for these managed operations amount to 224 GL, with 18% of this demand sourced from high-quality resources, and the balance drawn from poorer water quality resources. This compares with all managed operations where 54% is sourced from high-quality resources and is a direction reflection of stewardship practices undertaken at our water-stressed operations. See the Sustainability Fact Book for more detailed water balance information on our water-stressed assets.

Herders rely on shallow groundwater springs and wells for their animals

Working with herders to conserve water in the southern Gobi desert

The way we manage water resources at our Oyu Tolgoi copper mine in Mongolia is of great importance to the local Khanbogd herders, whose livelihoods depend on it.

More

Water is precious in the arid South Gobi region, which receives on average 97 mm of rainfall each year. Local herders rely on shallow sources of groundwater from springs and wells for their animals. And we use water to produce copper, which is used in everything from computers and smartphones to solar panels and electric cars.

Our Oyu Tolgoi team goes to great lengths to use its allocated water efficiently, and balance our needs with those of the local community. To find a sustainable source of water, that would not impact local supplies, we surveyed the area seeking a new underground water supply. The work uncovered the Gunii Hooloi aquifer – which was more than 150-metres deep, holding around 6.8 billion cubic metres of non-drinkable saline water.

We also work with herders, local people and the government to protect the water in boreholes, existing wells and other community water supplies. One way we do this is through our community water monitoring programme – we monitor the levels and quality of water in herders’ hand-dug wells, and local herders make their own water records for comparison. The data has shown there has been no negative impact on the wells from the mine’s operations.

We have also invested in recycling and conservation practices that make Oyu Tolgoi one of the most water efficient mines of its kind in the world. More than 80% of the water used in production is recycled, and on average Oyu Tolgoi uses 520 litres of water to process a tonne of ore – around half the industry average.

Water resources in the southern Gobi desert