Public jetty at Inverell Bay, Nhulunbuy, Gove

Water

Water is a shared resource critical to sustaining biodiversity, people and economic prosperity. Increasingly disrupted weather patterns and more extreme weather events due to climate change, and a growing world population, mean efficiently managing water is more important than ever.

The way we think about water, and manage associated risks, reflects the diversity of our operations and geographic locations. A small proportion of our assets operate in water-scarce regions, while others must remove excess water to allow safe mining operations. These are examples of the many potential risks we manage across the life cycle of our diverse operations.

We share water with the communities and nature surrounding our operations, so we aim to avoid permanent impacts on 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. This means balancing the needs of our operations with those of local communities and local ecosystems. We do this while considering the impact of climate change, already felt in the level of rainfall and water security at some of our operations. To address this complexity, we adopt a catchment-level approach to developing potential solutions and managing our risks and impacts within our operations. We use 2030 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.

  • wave

A new level of transparency

On 22 March 2023 we disclosed our operations' surface water allocation, latest annual water usage and the associated average catchment rainfall runoff, as well as a 5-year view on historical annual water usage. This disclosure aligns with our Group water target for 2019-2023. The information is available through an interactive platform, searchable by location, operation or project

Managing water risks

To manage our water impacts, 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 have developed a water risk framework that considers:

  • Water resource

    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.

  • Quantity and quality

    Our QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM) 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 the discharge pH.

  • Dewatering

    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. We are working with Traditional Owners on water management.

  • Long-term obligations

    We may sometimes generate impacts that we are required to manage over the long term, such as post-closure pit lakes in the Pilbara, or potential seepage from our waste rock or tailings facilities in our aluminium and copper sites. Our systems and standards aim to ensure that risks are identified early and managed appropriately and responsibly throughout the asset lifecycle.

In the above we give examples of how the risk framework has been applied across some of our assets with site-based targets.

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 4 risk categories. 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 (2023)

  • Aluminium

    Asset
    WRI Risk Atlas 2030 water stress
    Water resource
    Quantity and quality
    Dewatering
    Long-term obligations
    Australia

     

     

     

     

     

    Bell Bay Aluminium

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Not applicable

    Moderate

    Boyne Smelters

    Low

    High

    Moderate

    Not applicable

    Not applicable

    Gove

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    Very high

    QAL (non-managed operation)

    Low

    Low

    Very high

    Not applicable

    High

    Weipa

    Low

    High

    High

    Moderate

    Moderate

    Yarwun

    Low

    High

    High

    Low

    High

    Canada

     

     

     

     

     

    Alma

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    Moderate

    AP60

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    Low

    Arvida

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    High

    BC Works

    Low

    Low

    High

    Low

    High

    Beauharnois

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Not applicable

    Moderate

    Dubuc/PLS

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Not applicable

    Low

    Energie Electrique

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Not applicable

    Low

    Grand Baie

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    Low

    Laterriere

    Low

    Low

    High

    Moderate

    Low

    Roberval/Port Alfred

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    Low

    SPL Treatment Plant

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    Moderate

    Strathcona

    High

    Low

    Low

    Not applicable

    Low

    Vaudreuil

    Low

    Low

    High

    Low

    Very high

    France

     

     

     

     

     

    Saint Jean LRF

    Low medium

    Low

    Low

    Not applicable

    Not applicable

    Iceland

     

     

     

     

     

    ISAL

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Not applicable

    Low

    New Zealand
             
    New Zealand Aluminium  Low

    High

    Moderate

    Low Low
  • Closure

    Asset
    WRI Risk Atlas 2030 water stress
    Water resource
    Quantity and quality
    Dewatering
    Long-term obligations
    Australia

     

     

     

     

     

    Argyle

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Moderate

    Moderate

    ERA

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    Very high

  • Copper

    Asset
    WRI Risk Atlas 2030 water stress
    Water resource
    Quantity and quality
    Dewatering
    Long-term obligations
    Australia
             

    Winu (project)

    Arid and low water use

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Guinea
             

    Simandou (project)

    Low

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Mongolia
             

    Oyu Tolgoi

    Arid and low water use

    Moderate

    High

    Moderate

    Moderate

    US
             

    Kennecott Utah Copper

    High

    Moderate

    High

    High

    Very high

    Resolution (project)

    Arid and low water use

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

  • Iron Ore

    Asset
    WRI Risk Atlas 2030 water stress
    Water resource
    Quantity and quality
    Dewatering
    Long-term obligations
    Australia
             

    Greater Brockman

    Low

    Very high

    Moderate

    Very high

    Very high

    Greater Hope Downs

    Arid and low water use

    Moderate

    High

    Very high

    Very high

    Greater Paraburdoo

    Low

    Very high

    High

    High

    Very high

    Greater Tom Price

    Low

    Moderate

    Moderate

    High

    Very high

    Yandicoogina

    Low medium

    Moderate

    High

    Very high

    Very high

    Gudai-Darri

    Low

    High

    High

    High

    Very high

    Robe Valley

    Low

    High

    High

    Very high

    High

    Rhodes Ridge (project)

    Arid and low water use

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    West Angelas

    Low

    High

    High

    High

    High

    Dampier Salt

    Arid and low water use

    Low

    Moderate

    High

    Moderate

    Ports Cape Lambert

    Low medium

    High

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Ports Dampier

    Low medium

    High

    Low

    Not applicable

    Low

  • Minerals

    Asset
    WRI Risk Atlas 2030 water stress
    Water resource
    Quantity and quality
    Dewatering
    Long-term obligations
    Europe
             

    EU Ops ( Coudekerque, Rotterdam, Nules)

    High

    Moderate

    Low

    Not applicable

    Moderate

    US
             

    Boron

    Extremely high

    High

    Moderate

    Moderate

    High

    Owens Lake

    Medium high

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Wilmington

    Extremely high

    Moderate

    High

    Low

    Moderate

    Australia
             

    Burra (project)

    Arid and low water use

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

     
    Argentina
             
     Rincon (project)  Low  Not assessed  Not assessed Not assessed  Not assessed 
    Canada
             

    Diavik

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    HSP

    Low

    Low

    High

    Moderate

    High

    Sorel

    Low

    Low

    High

    Not applicable

    Low

    Iron Ore Company of Canada

    Low

    Low

    Moderate

    Low

    Low

    China
             

    Suzhou

    Extremely high

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Madagascar
             

    QMM

    Low

    Moderate

    High

    Moderate

    Moderate

    Serbia
             

    Jadar (project)

    Low

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Africa
             

    Richards Bay

    Low medium

    High

    High

    Low

    Low

    Mutamba (project)

    Low

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

    Not assessed

Progress in 2023

  • Year in review
  • Year in numbers

Progress against our 2019–23 water targets

Our 5-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 6 site-based targets, reflecting our catchment-based approach and recognising that we manage vastly different water-related risks across our business. The site-based targets were chosen based on their water risk profile, our ICMM commitments, and local community and environmental interdependencies.

We successfully achieved our Group target in 2023. A disclosure platform was developed and released, making public detailed information about annual surface water usage across our global network of managed sites in 35 countries, a first for the mining industry. We attained 4 of our 6 site-based water targets with improved understanding of our responsibilities for water stewardship evident throughout the business. Refer to the table below for further details.

Throughout 2023, we continued embedding our water risk framework and associated controls across our product groups, and commenced the development and socialisation of our next round of nature-related targets. Further details on the new target program will be released during 2024.

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

Attained

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

A disclosure platform was developed and released in 2023, making public detailed information about annual surface water usage across our global network of managed sites in 35 countries.

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
    (aquifer reinjection)

    Attained

    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.

    In 2024, subject to Commonwealth and State Government approvals, we will also begin constructing the Dampier Seawater Desalination Plant in the Pilbara. With an initial nominal capacity of 4 gigalitres, the plant should become operational in 2026, and will support future water supply for our coastal operations and communities in the region.

    Progress

    Successful completion of 6 managed aquifer recharge investigations with another three investigations underway. Two of the investigations resulted in ongoing recharge programs

  • 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)

    Attained

    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 maintained its average annual water use efficiency below 550L/ tonne for the period 2019-23. Oyu Tolgoi remains one of the most efficient copper operations in the industry

  • 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)

    Not attained

    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 focuses on improving water recycling within the Copperton Concentrator with an overall aim of reducing the external water import to the operation.

    Progress

    With the exception of 2019, annual concentrator water intensity has remained above the 2014-2018 target baseline. Required changes to the concentrator process during 2020 resulted in increased water usage compared to the initial target baseline. Kennecott’s water usage has trended down since the implementation of these changes. Kennecott’s commitment to improve water efficiency through the concentrator successfully reduced intensity in 2022 and 2023 to approximately 10% lower than the period peak recorded in 2021.

  • 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)

    Not attained

    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

    Since the commencement of the Water Target in 2019, ERA has implemented the process water treatment capacity upgrades that were envisaged in the Ranger closure plan of the time, including an upgrade to the capacity of its Brine Concentrator and the construction and subsequent upgrade of a Brine Squeezer. Despite these upgrades, process water treatment rates have not met expectations. Other changes in project schedule mean that the assumptions behind the Ranger water model used to set the Water Target are no longer valid.

    A feasibility study refresh completed in 2023 identified that ERA should move to a program management approach to the rehabilitation of Ranger, with additional studies required for the later stages of the project. The outcome of these additional studies will ultimately lead to an updated Ranger water model and a revised plan for process water treatment. * Ranger Mine is owned and operated by ERA. Rio Tinto is an 86.3% shareholder in ERA.

    * 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)

    Attained

    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

    Actions committed to and in-progress as part of delivery of the site-based water target include:

    • updated water management strategy and vision
    • host community engagement in water management activities
    • establishing a water treatment plant
    • improvements in data integrity and capability in testing controls
    • improved transparency and disclosure of water information
    • improvements in host community access to potable water.
  • 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)
    Joint Venture performance improvement

    Attained

    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. Refer to the 5-Year Environment Strategy on QAL’s website for further details.

    Read more about QAL’s improvement projects →

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

Water balance

The Group water balance for 2023 (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 of the 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 operational water withdrawals for 2023 were 1,170 GL (compared to 1,173 GL in 2022). Freshwater or category 1 quality withdrawals accounted for 424 GL or 36% of this total (compared to 432 GL and 37% in 2022). Freshwater 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 2023 were 692 GL (compared to 694 GL in 2022). Total water recycled or reused for 2023 was 303 GL (compared to 312 GL in 2022).

Catchment water stress

The World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas mapping tool is a widely used approach for assessing catchment water stress. We applied this tool to our portfolio to assess our 2030 water stress profile. Our reporting prior to 2023 was informed by the World Resource Institute’s baseline water stress mapping.

A review of the 2030 water stress profile shows elevated water stress (ie high risk or above) at 23% of our managed operations (including projects). Cumulative operational withdrawals for these managed operations amount to 270 GL, with 4% of this demand sourced from freshwater resources, and the balance drawn from poorer water quality resources. This compares with all managed operations where 36% is sourced from freshwater resources and is a direct 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 less than 500 litres of water to process a tonne of ore – around half the industry average.

Water downloads

Water Quality Protection & Water Management Standard
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