World Water Day 2019: Leaving No-one Behind

This year’s World Water Day theme is “leaving no-one behind”. Sustainable Development Goal 6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water for all by 2030. Many of Wardell Armstrong’s international mining clients have the opportunity to do this through their Environmental and Social Action Plans. Here we present one such example where a mine in Mauritania has examined how it can sustainably manage its use of freshwater and seek to improve the reliability of clean water to the regional population including groups who are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures such as climate change.

Mauritania is one of the hottest countries in the world with average annual temperatures of 27.8 degrees Celsius; it also experiences one of the lowest average annual rainfalls of less than 150mm. In context, on average the UK will have received this much rainfall by mid-February each year.

Mauritania does however have plentiful supplies of natural resources such as copper and iron. Since the early 1950’s copper has been extracted from the Guelb Moghrein mine located in the Inchiri region of Mauritania. Copper processing methodologies require large volumes of water which are not readily available in the region. Groundwater is present but has high concentrations of arsenic making it unsuitable for human consumption.

The region’s only source of good quality water is the Benichab aquifer; a sandstone aquifer located approximately 110km from the mine and 100m below ground level, and thus inaccessible to the vast majority of the region’s population. In the 1970’s, the Guelb Moghrein mine constructed a 130km pipeline to link this aquifer with the mine and provide a reliable source of process and freshwater. As well as supplying the mine itself the pipeline continues beyond the mine and supplies the 8,000+ residents of the city of Akjoujt.

Recognising the need for reliable, clean water within the region the Guelb Moghrein operators, Mauritania Copper Mines (MCM), have installed water offtake points along the length of the pipeline to support settled and nomadic communities. The water supply afforded to these communities provides 2 million litres of safe drinking water to local people within this region every day.

Recognising the value of the groundwater within the Benichab aquifer, MCM are committed to sustainable levels of abstraction from this freshwater reserve. In 2008, an alternative saline water aquifer system was identified and in 2010 a new pipeline was installed to supply saline water to the mine processing plant. Now 65% of the mine’s process water is sourced from this saline aquifer, reducing the mine’s dependency on freshwater and its demands on the Benichab aquifer.

To promote a sustainable water supply independent from the mine, MCM has drilled and equipped 18 boreholes and wells with solar units-for the benefit of the local communities allowing agriculture and breeding activities which generates incomes for Bedouins in remote areas of the region. A team from residents of the local area will be trained to maintain and repair the solar units and solar powered pumps.

But what will happen to the Benichab freshwater pipeline when the mine closes? Will this supply of freshwater vanish? The answer is no! As part of its mine closure plan, MCM will prepare for a smooth handover of the pipeline to a local entity (private or government) and make sure its operators are trained to run the pumping stations and related installations.

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