Chile lives under the constant threat of spillage from tailings ponds, which became even more marked in late March after heavy rains fell in the desert region of Atacama leaving over two dozen people dead and missing and thousands without a home.
Declining mineral content, the need to preserve the environment, and technological advances are causing big mining companies to turn back to underground mining in what is a rising trend in Chile and around the world, experts say.
Ochir Damchaa chuckles as he drives his second-hand Toyota sedan through the alleyways of Nalaikh, a ramshackle town 35 kilometres east of Ulaanbaatar: “There’re just two kinds of jobs here: drive a taxi, or dig coal.”
The arid climate in northern Chile has forced mining companies to seek out new sources of water. The main source is seawater from the Pacific Ocean, whose use is expected to increase significantly in the coming decade despite the high costs of extraction and transport.
Chile's position as the world's top producer of copper is not under threat, but the country faces the challenge of transforming its copper mining industry into social capital for the long term, and addressing high energy costs, which have grown seven-fold over the last decade, experts told IPS.
El Teniente, the world’s largest underground copper mine, has already been in operation since 1905, but the state-owned National Copper Corporation of Chile (CODELCO) wants to keep it running for another 50 years.
The Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine in the southern Gobi desert in Mongolia has become a symbol of a looming crisis: a limited water supply that could be exhausted within a decade, seriously threatening the lives and livelihoods of the local population.