With some 23 million people already suffering globally from the impacts of existing toxic water contamination as a result of mine tailings and wastewater, and this number likely to increase with the exponential increase of mineral extraction for the energy transition, it’s time for Rio Tinto to get serious about water!

For years, local communities, traditional owners and civil society organisations have been pressing Rio Tinto to address issues related to water, water contamination, water management, and related mine tailings management around their mine operations, but they have been repeatedly shrugged off. 

From the research and development stage through to closure and legacy, Rio Tinto’s mines lack transparency and accountability around water use and water quality.  Case studies (see the PDF below) of proposed and actual Rio Tinto mines shared by civil society from around the world demonstrate that water governance is a struggle for communities from before mines even begin. Whether its drought risks and tailings dam design as in Resolution Copper Arizona, tailings dam failures as at QMM in Madagascar, leaking tailings facilities as in Oyo Tolgoi in Mongolia, pollution around QMM in Madagascar and Oyo Tolgoi in Mongolia, toxic legacies as in Bougainville, and threats to water quality in rivers and lakes for Jadar in Serbia and Simandou in Guinea, no community is free from risks to their precious natural water resources, and to the biodiversity that depends upon it.

Communities living around these mines can provide examples of how Rio Tinto has failed them. Failed to communicate, to provide information, to engage openly and equitably, to listen to their concerns, to clean up contamination, to adequately compensate for their impact. The struggle for transparency and accountability for clean water can take decades, as highlighted at Panguna where, after more than two decades of asking, the community still waits for the company to commit to clean up its toxic legacy. Meanwhile, as is also the case in Madagascar and Mongolia, local people are expected to tolerate living daily with toxic exposure in drinking and domestic water.

Water is vital for life. 

Taking water from communities facing drought, especially as climate change accelerates, and polluting water supplies leads to food insecurity, lost livelihoods and inevitable conflict.  Lack of clean water is a health problem throughout the world. Costs associated with contaminated water and accompanying health risks are catastrophic for communities, who have to carry the burden of these costs, unseen.  

The costs of poor water management are also high for the company and its investors. Rio Tinto must take action to clean up its water governance, be more transparent about risks and it must implement independent water impact assessments (IWIA) before their mines begin. For those communities already complaining about degradation and contamination of their water sources, the company must execute these IWIA immediately. Investors are already asking for independent water impact assessments. 

Rio Tinto must listen. Future lives depend on clean water. Biodiversity depends on clean water. 

While Rio Tinto deprives the people around their mines of access to clean water, affecting lives, livelihoods and the environment, it continues to take the moral high ground. It claims to be the saviour of the planet. It positions the company to lead the advance of mineral extraction for the energy transition, while it has still not addressed conflicts and contamination around its existing mines.  

If Rio Tinto is shaping the future, whose future is it?