Water at QMM

Water

Water is a key part of our operational environmental footprint and a critical, shared resource for wildlife, the environment and people and their economic prosperity. From the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to the Arctic environment of our Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada, we use water to access and process ore, manage dust and promote rehabilitation. At some sites, most notably at our aluminium operations, we also use water to produce hydropower.

We take a catchment-level approach to water management at each site, meaning that we manage our impacts, risks and potential solutions not only within our operations but with the understanding that we share water with host and downstream communities and ecosystems. We consider the catchment landscape, the local communities’ needs and the impacts of dewatering on nearby communities and the environment now and over the long term, including beyond the life of our operations.

We aim to avoid permanent impacts to water resources like lakes, streams and groundwater aquifers, and carefully manage the quality and quantity of the water we use and return to the environment. We also strive to balance our operational needs with those of local communities, First Nations and Traditional Owners, and local ecosystems. And we consider the impact of climate change, which is already affecting rainfall and water security at many of our sites. This requires a proactive, collaborative approach with a broad range of local stakeholders, including domestic water users and other industries.

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.

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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.

We aim to use water as efficiently as possible in the design and operation of our sites, and our risk assessment process is fundamental to this. We consider water risk against the following four themes:

  1. Water resource: is there sufficient water for operational and broader catchment needs?
  2. Quantity and quality: does site water inventory or its management cause operational constraints or environmental impacts?
  3. Dewatering: do dewatering or depressurisation activities impact the mine plan or regional aquifers?
  4. Long-term obligations: do our activities generate long-term or ongoing obligations?

We use this framework to identify, assess, manage and communicate water risk – both internally and to the communities where we operate.

Our Group water risk profile (below) provides an indication of the distribution of inherent water risk across our portfolio. We use inherent risk – the level of risk when no controls are in place – because it presents a clearer picture of the magnitude of risk our sites must manage. While we have sites that sit in the very high and high categories for each of the risks – and appropriately rigorous standards, processes, controls and capabilities to effectively manage them – the majority of our portfolio sits in the low to moderate range. We apply the same approach across our entire portfolio.

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. This year, we are also providing further detail through asset-level disclosures, which show inherent water risk at each site.

Water risk profile - asset level risk rankings (2020)

  • Aluminium

    Asset

    WRI Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity & quality

    De-watering

    Long-term obligations

    Australia

    Bell Bay Aluminum

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N?A

    Medium

    Boyne Smelters

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    Medium

    Gove

    Low

    Low

    Very High

    Low

    Very High

    QAL

    Low

    Low

    Very High

    N/A

    High

    Weipa

    Low

    High

    Medium

    Medium

    Medium

    Yarwun

    Low

    High

    High

    N/A

    High

    Canada

    Alma

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    High

    AP60

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    Low

    Arvida

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    High

    BC Works

    Low

    High

    Medium

    N/A

    Low

    Beauharnois

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    Medium

    Dubuc/PLS

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    Low

    Energie Electrique

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    Low

    Grand Baie

    Low

    Low

    High

    N/A

    Low

    Laterriere

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    Low

    Roberval/Port Alfred

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    Low

    SPL Treatment Plant

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    High

    Strathcona

    Medium to High

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    Low

    Vaudreuil

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    Very High

    Iceland

    ISAL

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    Low

    New Zealand

    NZAS

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    Medium

  • Iron Ore

    Asset

    WRI Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity & quality

    De-watering

    Long-term obligations

    Australia

    Greater Brockman

    Medium to High

    Low

    Medium

    Very High

    Very High

    Greater Hope Downs

    Arid and Low Water Use

    Medium

    High

    High

    Very High

    Greater Paraburdoo

    Low

    Medium

    Medium

    High

    High

    Greater Tom Price

    Medium to High

    Medium

    Medium

    High

    High

    Greater Yandicoogina

    High

    Low

    High

    Very High

    Very High

    Infrastructure

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    Low

    Iron Ore Ports

    Low to Medium

    Very High

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Resource Development

    n/a

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    N/A

    Robe Valley

    High

    Very High

    High

    Very High

    High

    West Angelas

    Medium to High

    Medium

    Medium

    High

    High

  • Copper & Diamonds

    Asset

    WRI Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity & quality

    De-watering

    Long-term obligations

    Australia

    Argyle Low Low Medium Medium High

    Canada

    Diavik Low Low Medium Low Medium

    Mongolia

    Oyu Tolgoi Arid and Low Water Use High Low Low Medium

    Peru

    La Granja Low Low Low N/A Low

    US

    Kennecott Low to Medium Medium High High Very High
    Resolution Extremely High High Medium Low High
  • Energy & Minerals

    Asset

    WRI Baseline Water Stress

    Water resource

    Quantity & quality

    De-watering

    Long-term obligations

    Australia

    Dampier Salt

    Arid and Low Water Use

    Low

    Medium

    High

    High

    ERA

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    N/A

    Very High

    Canada

    RTFT Havre-Saint-Pierre

    Low

    Low

    Medium

    Low

    Very High

    IOC Labrador City

    Low

    Low

    High

    Low

    Medium

    IOC Sept Iles

    Low

    Low

    High

    N/A

    Low

    RTFT Sorel-Tracy

    Low to Medium

    Low

    High

    N/A

    Medium

    China

    Suzhou

    High

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    Low

    Guinea

    Simandou Low Medium High High Very High

    Madagascar

    QMM

    Low

    Low

    High

    Very High

    Low

    The Netherlands

    Rotterdam

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    N/A

    Serbia

    Jadar Low Medium Medium Medium Medium

    South Africa

    Richards Bay

    Low

    Very High

    Medium

    Low

    Low

    Spain

    Nules

    Low to Medium

    Low

    Low

    Low

    N/A

    US

    Boron

    Extremely High

    Medium

    Low

    Medium

    Low

    Owens Lake

    Low to Medium

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Wilmington

    Extremely High

    Medium

    Medium

    Medium

    Medium

Our 2019-23 water targets

In 2020, we set new water targets which allow us to be more transparent about our water usage, risk profile, management and challenges. These targets, and the data required to measure progress against them, will help us become better water stewards today and for future generations – whether in water-scarce regions or where water is plentiful. They will also help us improve our performance over the next five years.

Our water targets consist of one Group target and six site-based targets (below); the site targets were chosen based on their water risk profile, our ICMM commitments, and local community and environmental interdependencies.

2020 performance

  • Year in Review
  • Year in Numbers

This year we continued to progress against our Group target and remain on track for meeting it by 2023. We have collected water allocation volume data for all our Australian assets and will complete this for our remaining operations during 2021. We will also focus on estimating the surface water catchment rainfall runoff volumes for our managed operations.

Progress Against Our Targets

GROUP TARGET

Rio Tinto Group (Tier 1)

Group Target

Water Risk Theme

Status

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

Achievable, plan in place

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

This year we continued to progress against our Group target and remain on track for achieving it by 2023. We have collected water allocation volume data for all our Australia-based assets and will complete this for our remaining operations during 2021 with an increasing focus on estimating the surface water catchment rainfall runoff volumes for our managed operations.

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)

    Achievable, plan in place

    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 two of the proposed six managed aquifer recharge investigations. Despite some delays to the indicative program schedule due to COVID-19 during 2020, RTIO remain on track to complete the remaining four investigations by 2023

  • Oyu Tolgoi, Copper & Diamonds (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 2020

    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 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 herder livelihoods.

    In response to the situation, Oyu Tolgoi identified the Gunii Hooloi aquifer, a 150 meter 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 have continued to maintain average annual water use efficiency below 550L/tonne for the 2019-2020 period. As such, they continue to maintain their position as one of the world’s most efficient copper and gold mining and concentrating operations.

  • Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC), Copper & Diamonds (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 resourcing

    (import reduction)

    In progress, options being investigated

    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 remain committed to achieving their 2023 target through the ongoing improvement and effectiveness of imported water reduction measures. A number of improvement projects have been identified and are scheduled for implementation over the remaining target period timeframe.

  • Ranger Mine*, Energy Resources of Australia Limited (ERA), Energy & 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)

    Achievable, plan in place

    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 practically complete by January 2026. 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

    ERA remain confident of their ability to meet the target of total process water inventory treatment volume. Process water treatment options at ERA include a combination of brine concentration, high density sludge treatment and membrane treatment plants. During 2020, only the brine concentrator treatment option was functional, with the other two water treatment options in permitting and process design phases. The high density sludge plant was successfully commissioned in January 2021 and the membrane treatment plant is expected to be available for process water treatment in the second half of 2021.

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

  • QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), Energy & 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)

    Achievable, plan in place

    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 during 2020 included completion of the current site practices and infrastructure gap analysis and the identification of water management improvement areas including: process water quality management, potable and waste water management, hydrogeology and mine planning and monitoring and data management.

    Scoping and implementation studies for the improvement projects in the above areas have also commenced and will be the focus during 2021.

  • 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

    Achievable, plan in place

    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 program 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

    Despite COVID-19 delays, progress for the nominated water-related improvement projects is aligned with current project schedules and QAL remains on track to achieve its stated target.

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 aggregated group water balance for 2020 (below) provides a visual overview 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).

Water balance

Our Group water withdrawals for 2020 were 1,159 GL, a 5 % reduction compared with our 2019 withdrawals. Freshwater or type 1 quality withdrawals accounted for 457 GL or 39% of this total. In 2019, our freshwater withdrawals accounted for 66% of our total withdrawals. Group discharges for 2020 were 635 GL, a 10% increase compared with our 2019 discharges. Totals recycled/reused for 2020 was 335 GL, which is comparable to our 2019 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 2020 baseline water stress profile. Our previous reporting 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 17% of our managed operations. Cumulative withdrawals for these managed operations amount to 322 GL, with 39% of the demand sourced from freshwater or type 1 quality resources, and the balance drawn from poorer water quality resources.

Withdrawals (by source)

Withdrawals (by quality)

Discharges (by source)

Discharges (by quality)

Recycled/reused

Junior Anchetta, Boron

Going with the Flow

Cresencio Anchetta – known to his colleagues as "Junior" – has worked at our Boron operations in California for many years. After joining as an analyst in the laboratory at Boron, Junior moved into the engineering department, and today works as a senior environmental technician.

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One of Junior's favourite things to do is monitor groundwater. After packing his kit in the flat bed of his truck, Junior drives out into the Mojave Desert, and begins his tour of the 120 evaluation wells in the arid landscape.

"I like it because water is important to us, and to me personally. It also gives me an excuse to enjoy the view of the beautiful desert," he says.

Junior takes samples of water from deep underground and analyses them for properties like pH, conductivity and temperature. He also measures soil moisture content. The samples are sent to the laboratory for further analysis, and the results added to our environmental database.

The work is an important part of our approach to protecting water quality, and provides assurance to stakeholders that this valuable resource is being properly managed.

Water resources in the southern Gobi desert