Water as the primary “victim” of the mining industry

Impacts of metal mining on water highlight the extreme nature of these projects, especially open-pit extraction. Water contamination results in consequences that affect human life and the environment in various ways. It is not without reason that the peoples opposed to mining megaprojects relentlessly remind us that water is worth more than gold.20

Mineral mining uses a flotation or leaching process that uses highly toxic solvents and large quantities of water. Not only do the solvents remain in that water, but as the water migrates, these toxic solvents are also carried into the agricultural soils and other streams that are vital for human populations and livestock. Occasionally, some water sources are completely drained. Open-pit mines also use vast retention basins that hold water contaminated with heavy metals, which can be subject to accidental leaks or spills.

In Guatemala, water pollution due to mining projects is a major problem, particularly around Goldcorp’s Marlin mine. A report from the Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE)21 revealed that surrounding that mine, the concentration of aluminum, nitrates, arsenic and manganese in the people’s drinking water largely exceeded acceptable limits. The dangerous concentration of heavy metals was also seen in the blood and urine of inhabitants,22 and can be associated with several consequences on human health that have also been documented, including poisoning, renal failure and skin cancer.23.

Aside from the environmental damage, the communities’ right to water is being ignored. Closely tied to the right to life, the right to water is a basic human right recognized by several legal instruments and by the United Nations. It is a right that governments are obligated to protect.24 In the case of Guatemala, the tremendous pressure that mining projects exert on water endangers the life of thousands of people and contributes to a major environmental deterioration.

  1. James Lyon, interview, Mineral Policy Center, Washington DC 

  2. Comisión Pastoral Paz y Ecología (COPAE), Tercer informe anual de monitoreo y análisis de la calidad del agua, pp. 37-38, Guatemala, août 2010. 

  3. Guatemalans who live near a controversial gold and silver mine in the country’s western highlands have higherlevels of potentially toxic heavy metals in their urine and blood than a sample of residents who live farther from the mine. – See more at: http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/press/press-releases/news-2010-05-18-english.html#sthash.gBXkAfSj.dpuf 

  4. Silvia Gonzalez, Impactos ambientales y en la salud humana de la minería a cielo abierto para la extracción de oro utilizando lixiviación con soluciones de cianuro, online: conflictosmineros.net 

  5. Human Rights Council http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/ESCR/Pages/Water.aspx