The challenge of sustainable mining in Africa

My research interest is in the area of sustainable development and management of the water environment in mining districts. Water is life and therefore its sustainable management is important to the continuous presence and well-being of all living organisms on earth.

Mining disturbs the land where it is undertaken and affects both the surface and ground water environment. As an important component of the mine environment and in order to deal holistically with environmental issues associated with mining, sustainable water resources management has[EB1] to be given detailed and sustained attention. It is defined by Mudd (2008) as “the maintenance of the available water resources and the services they provide (human and environmental) while ensuring no long-term compromise in its quality”.

Indeed, it has been observed that local communities and the mine environment bear significant impacts as a result of current patterns of mining and minerals production. This is because the demand for metals the world-over is increasing; leading to increasing ore production although ore grades are declining. Therefore, more ore is being mined to deliver the tonnage of metal required. Consequently, more waste rock is generated and more greenhouse gas impacts per tonne of product is produced (Giurco and Cooper, 2012; Mudd, 2009; Amezaga et al., 2011; etc). It is from this perspective that Petrie (2007) intimated that much of the “unsustainability” associated with the minerals sector is most apparent at the mine site.

The Global Mining Initiative which represents one of the largest global sustainable development efforts in the industry brought about the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) project which published the “Breaking New Ground” document in 2002 (Anon. 2002a). This document on the section “Mining, Minerals and the Environment” (p. 248) states that “…..The need for EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) [EB2] is well established, and they are now mandatory for most large-scale development projects. However, their implementation is often poor. One of the core problems is that the international community has yet to set firm technical standards on, for example, gathering baseline hydrological data, assessing archaeological remains, predicting acid drainage, or identifying key flora and fauna. This uncertainty allows EIAs to drift down to the lowest common denominator. It also discourages professional excellence…..”(emphasis mine)”.

While researching in 2000, I examined Ghana’s Mining and Environmental Guidelines and observed that the hydrological content required for baseline assessment in the document was inadequate and therefore needed more input (Kuma et al., 2002). I also observed that quantification of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) was required in order to assess the severity of acid drainage at impacted mine sites so that remediation can be put into proper perspective.

Water indeed represents a long-term liability in mining districts and the impacts can last for millennia after mine closure. In order to assess and minimise the impact of mining during its extractive and post-closure phases on the water environment, hydrological defensive planning is required (Younger and Robins, 2002). The planning should begin before the exploration phase, taking all reasonable steps to minimize negative long-term water legacies through holistic EIA of the water regime (Amezaga et al., 2011).

A holistic EIA of the water regime during the exploration phase has five broad areas of investigation from which data can be gathered to build a conceptual hydrogeological model of the mine concession and continuously updated through the extraction phases to post-closure if consciously acknowledged. These areas are the physiography, pedology, geology, hydrology and hydrochemistry of the concession (Kuma et al., 2002). However, at the beginning of exploration when the risk of finding the economic deposit is very high, the challenge is how to motivate explorationists to gather hydrological data which appears to have no direct link to finding the deposit. However, it is possible to gather these types of data alongside the exploration process at no real extra cost compared to conducting pumping tests and the total exploration budget!

The MMSD North America document states among others that “at the heart of the concept of sustainability there is a fundamental, immutable value set that is best stated as ‘parallel care and respect for the ecosystem and for the people within’. From this value set emerges the goal of sustainability: to achieve human and ecosystem well-being together. It follows that the “result” against which the success of a mine (or any human activity) should be judged is the achievement of, or the contribution to, human and ecosystem well-being together”. In other words “the need is to achieve a net environmental and human benefit; to maintain or improve human and ecosystem well-being if mining is to be considered as contributing positively to sustainability. Conversely, if a given mining/mineral project or operation leads to a net degradation of human and ecosystem well-being; it must be described as reducing the potential for sustainability. In such cases, if the decision to proceed is made, decision-makers, other interests and the public should understand the implications from a sustainability perspective” (Anon, 2002b).

Many EIA studies lack hydrogeological detail, probably because of the high cost of conducting pumping tests, and since mineral exploration is such a high-risk undertaking, one can do without a hydrogeological budget because it has no link with estimating the mineral resource. It is also true that not all exploration activities lead to the finding of economic deposits. But from the above and in the current dispensation, the question: “how will my activities affect the environment and for that matter in this discussion, the water environment?” should be at the heart of all activities that will eventually impact the earth. This question should bother investors and should form part of their obligation in order to get access and license to operate if the duality of sustainability (human and ecosystem well-being) is to be maintained.

Amezaga, J. M., Rottting, T., Younger, P. L., Nairn, R. W., Noles, J., Oyarzun, R., and Quitanilla, J. (2011), A Rich Vein? Mining and the Pursuit of Sustainability, Environmental Science and Technology, 45, pp. 21-26.

Anon. (2002a), Breaking New ground. The Report of the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Project, International Institute for Environment and Development, Earthscan Publications Ltd London,, accessed 4 April 2012, 476 p.

Anon. (2002b), Seven Questions to Sustainability, How to Assess the Contribution of
Mining and Minerals Activities, Task 2 Work Group, MMSD North America,, accessed 4 April 2012, 66p.

Giurco, D. and Cooper, C. (2012), Mining and Sustainability: Asking the Right Questions, Minerals Engineering, 29, pp. 3 – 12.

Kuma, J. S., Younger, P. L. and Bowell, R. J. (2002), “Hydrogeological framework for assessing the possible environmental impact of large-scale gold mines”, In: Younger, P. L. and Robins, N. S. (editors), Mine water hydrogeology and geochemistry, The Geological Society Special Publication 198, London: The Geological Society, pp. 121-136.

Mudd, G. M. (2008), Sustainability Reporting and Water Resources: a Preliminary Assessment of Embodied Water and Sustainable Mining, Mine Water Environment, 27, pp. 136–144.

Mudd, G. M. (2009), The Sustainability of Mining in Australia: Key production Trends and their Environmental Implications for the Future, Research Report, MPI, Monash University, 269 p.

Petrie, J. (2007), New Models of Sustainability for the Resources Sector: a Focus on Minerals and Metals, Trans IChemE, Part B, Process Safety and Environmental Protection, 85, (B1), pp. 88-98.

Younger, P. L. and Robins, N. S. (2002), “Challenges in the Characterization and prediction of the Hydrogeology and Geochemistry of Mined Ground”, In: Younger, P. L. and Robins, N. S. (editors), Mine water hydrogeology and geochemistry, The Geological Society Special Publication 198, London: The Geological Society, pp. 1-16.

[EB1]I changed the order of the sentences here slightly, as one part of the sentence seemed to be hanging off the end.
[EB2]I have added for the benefit of our readers

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