Governments, communities and industries are experiencing unprecedented concern about water resources as a result of increasing demand from fast-growing populations, unsustainable water practices and climate variation. Stakeholders have growing expectations about how large water users, such as the mining industry, manage water.
The Pacific Institute (n.d.) defines corporate water stewardship as:
An approach that allows companies to identify and manage water-related business risks, understand and mitigate their adverse impacts on ecosystems and communities, and contribute to and help enable more sustainable management of shared freshwater resources. Stewardship is rooted in the concept that robust and effective public water governance is critical to the long-term business viability of water-intensive industries and that companies can play a role in helping to achieve this end. As such, stewardship approaches result in companies improving water efficiency within their own operations, encouraging good practice throughout their supply chain, and collaborating with others to advance sustainable water management.
The aim of this updated handbook is to share with operational and corporate personnel practical approaches to improving mine water management and reducing water risk by practising water stewardship. The handbook provides guidance on taking a risk-based approach and developing practical, fit-for-purpose solutions to mitigating risks. Water stewardship is a broad topic that covers operational, strategic and organisational aspects. The complexities associated with managing water can exist above the level of a single operation and may be important across a region, the whole of a company or even the industry in the national or global context.
Since the handbook was last revised in 2008, the mining industry has continued to experience challenges associated with water management, such as scarce water supplies, managing the impacts of flooding and dewatering, and water quality concerns. In some cases, these issues have resulted in financial exposure for companies arising from delayed project approvals, regulatory uncertainty, constraints on production, property damage and reputational impacts.
Stakeholders expect mining companies to have a better understanding of the interaction of mining with catchment-wide water resource management and to adopt measures that have neutral or positive cumulative impacts. Access to water is recognised as a basic human right and a fundamental ecosystem requirement. At the state and national levels, recent regulatory changes now require comprehensive assessment of the impact of new mines on water resources. At the global level, shareholder representatives, non-government organisations and financial institutions are encouraging the development of standards for businesses to recognise that water is a shared resource with high social, cultural, environmental and economic value. Those standards include greater disclosure and transparency by businesses about water risks, including operational, catchment and supply-chain risks.
In many cases, the Australian mining industry has responded positively to these challenges. The industry has focused on operational water management and has made recent commitments to key national and international water initiatives that are designed to promote improved performance in water management. However, further work is needed to support continued implementation of best practice water stewardship, including strategy, management and operations.