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Effective water management for miners
Water issues vary between mines but all can impact on the bottom line.

Rio Tinto is overhauling water management tells Dennis Gibson in this edited paper to Water in Mining.

A recent financial analyst's report identified the exposure of mining companies to the recent drought, with several east-coast operations experiencing a real threat of production restrictions. Paradoxically, elsewhere in the industry too much water can be a problem.

In other cases mines can incur significant liabilities when they cease operations by, for example, being forced to imple-ment expensive groundwater remediation measures as a consequence of ill-considered water management.

Effective water management can directly impact on a company's profitability and thus its share value. Furthermore, within Rio Tinto, cost pressures and corporate sustainable development drives, including the impending roll-out of new global environmental standards and targets, now make it imperative that business units devote their energy to improving the efficiency of water management.

Although the writing is clearly on the wall - for those few who are astute enough to read it - what has been dubbed the "hydro-illogical cycle" continues to be a typically reactive management style and one that is familiar to many mine operators. The onset of a drought increases awareness, concerns are voiced and suddenly panic sets in. Previously unpalatable solutions suddenly become appetising. Until the drought breaks and within days the panic is forgotten and innovative projects are shelved.

Rio Tinto initiated a high-priority program in 2002, aimed at improving water management practices. This led to the creation of the Rio Tinto Technical Services "Excellence in Water Management" initiative, which focuses on the significant water-related business risks and on entrenching a culture of responsible management of water resources. By doing so, Rio Tinto believes it will honour its commitments to governments and local communities while delivering superior performance to shareholders.

Different Rio Tinto operations worldwide are facing their own individual challenges in water resource management. These include such issues as drought; securing water licences; tailings management improvement; curbing high evaporation losses; and creating a conservation culture.

For all of them, it is vital that the targets for improving water management remain within realistic capital and operating budgets and are matched to available resources.

Traditionally, water management in mining and minerals operations has been fragmented and applied in an ad hoc manner.

This new approach is a systematic process to assess each element of water management on the basis of risk. The Excellence in Water Management Toolkit is based on a set of four modules:

  • 1. Best Practice Diagnostic Module to assess present practices and risks;
  • 2. Opportunity Prioritisation Module to identify and rank opportunities;
  • 3. Opportunity Scheduling Module to develop plans, allocate resources, set targets and forecast improvements; and
  • 4. Action Implementation and Tracking Module to ensure the results are delivered and good practice is institutionalised.

    The first step is to run a diagnostic to produce a picture of a mine's management objectives, measure current performance against those objectives and, where needed, produce a prioritised list to help drive down the cost/risk profile.

    The knowledge of site-based personnel is a key input to the approach, which aims to keep control in the hands of the site team. Typical outputs include a performance rating on a scale of one to five against best practice for several key performance areas covering technical, management and corporate arenas.

    The second phase consists of a series of workshops with selected operating personnel and technical specialists, which focus on the highest-risk elements and related opportunities to drive down cost risk. For each opportunity the scale of benefit in cost, risk or water use is assessed, together with initial estimates of the implementation cost.

    A final workshop focuses on significant opportunities and applies the Opportunity Scheduling Module to review targets for sustainability indicators such as specific water use (m3 /tonne processed), a review of budgetary constraints, scheduling the implementation of opportunities and defining the tasks and resources required.

    The low-hanging fruit will generally emerge with the highest priority and change is likely to be initiated immediately. Actions to ensure other high-yield opportunities requiring capital and other resources progress through five stages, from development to implementation.

    Finally, the Action Implementation and Tracking Module is set up for use by operations personnel.

    A complete overview can also be gained through a re-run of the diagnostic one to two years after the start of the process. In today's dynamic environment it is likely that other issues, risks and opportunities will emerge, or that existing issues may become more significant.

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