Significant lithium reserves are found in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. But mining threatens ecosystems.
The little farmer Blanca Cruz stands on the Salar de Atacama, a salt lake in northern Chile the size of Ticino, in one of the driest regions in the world. “There is fresh water in the ground, but we can’t drink it,” says Cruz. “Companies can use it to produce lithium. For the rest of the world to evolve. What about us? ”
Legend: Salar de Atacama is a salt lake in Chile. Karen Naundorf
One thing is for sure: the lack of water has several causes, including climate change, tourism and copper mining. But: the water-absorbing lithium extraction takes place in the immediate vicinity. Many residents are not fundamentally against mining. But they are demanding more respect – for people and the environment.
The largest reserves of lithium are found in South America
Australia is currently the largest producer of lithium where the mineral is mined from rocks. But the world’s largest reserves are in the triangle between Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. In order to extract the lithium, brine is pumped there and the water is evaporated in the open pools.
Funding is already being done on a large scale in Chile, with neighboring countries in the starting blocks. German automotive groups have developed sustainable development studies, and Elon Musk has already sent emissaries to the region.
“20,000 liters of water for a car battery”
But: There is a lack of independent research, says Francisco Mondaca, Atacama Indigenous Community Environmental Specialist: “For the average car battery, we assume that approximately 20,000 liters of water evaporate. It’s not green.
Concern: the pumping out of the brine may affect the groundwater level. The state is also criticized. This is not enough, the limits are too loose. “The companies say we followed the rules by taking no more water than allowed. But that’s too much for a lagoon or micro-organisms. ”
Legend: Lithium pool from SQM. Here the water in the brine evaporates. Karen Naundorf
Corporations reject criticism
SQM lithium producer dismisses the concerns. Invest in research and save resources. Roadmap for 2030: Get more lithium and halve your water use at the same time. The energy for evaporation is provided by the sun, which is neutral in terms of CO2 emissions. The company draws less brine than allowed and additional fresh water when water is not taken from local residents.
Group hydrogeologist Corrado Torre says: “There is no evidence of harm to the environment. The company is not claiming there is no potential risk. But that is why there is a monitoring network with constant water level control, brine, fauna and flora deposits. »
Does the new constitution introduce stricter provisions?
But engineer Ingrid Garcés of Antofagasta University agrees with environmentalists: “It is often said that the CO2 footprint is low, which is good for climate change. But what about water consumption? “
I am not against the industry, but we need greater environmental awareness.
The state must require companies to invest in evaporative water harvesting technologies: “I’m not against the industry, but we need greater environmental awareness.” Chile will vote on the new constitution in September. It should become “greener”. It also means that it should contain stricter mining rules.