Huge amounts of water used in lithium mining… South American people suffering
Mr. Clemente lives in Salta Province, located in northern Argentina. As the head of the village, he goes once a week to check the well where the villagers get their drinking water. The well is almost dry. I open the cover completely and go into the well, but the remaining water is barely enough to wet my wrist. Not only the groundwater but also the river that flowed around the village dried up. The villagers open the communal faucet all the way, but not a single drop of water comes out.
The village of El Moreno , which appears in the documentary <In the Name of Lithium ( En el nombre del litio )> (2021) , is full of white dust. In recent years, there has been a shortage of drinking water for residents. Originally, it was not an area with abundant water due to its dry climate, but what was the reason that this place, which had sufficient land to pump groundwater to raise livestock and grow necessary crops, became so dry and cracked? Mr. Clemente, who appeared in this documentary covering the political and social aspects of lithium, said in a phone interview with the author on October 2, “We are drawing in a huge amount of groundwater while mining lithium in the salt flat area near the village.” reported. As a result, groundwater and river water have dried up, and there has been a shortage of drinking water for residents. He also said, “Companies that mine lithium are evicting residents from their homes and blocking salt production that has been passed down for generations. People who are pushed out of their homes often become urban poor. Those who remain are lithium lithium producers.” “Even our health is being threatened by pollutants generated from mining,” he testified.
Lithium, used in battery manufacturing, is now a very familiar name to us. Lithium is widely used in electronic devices that are essential for everyday life, such as electric vehicles, mobile phones, and drones. There are people who are suffering so much damage from this lithium, which is called ‘white oil’ or ‘white gold’. On the other side of the world, in South America, there are people who lost their homes for thousands of years to produce lithium for electric vehicles used in the northern hemisphere, including Europe, the United States, and Asia.
Lithium-ion batteries, an essential material for energy conversion
Lithium is one of the metals that exists in relatively large amounts in minerals and salt water. Although it exists in abundant amounts, the process of producing pure lithium is not that simple. The method of separating lithium by evaporating and concentrating brine is preferred because it is the most accessible and economical. Bolivia, where the world’s largest salt lake Uyuni is located, Argentina’s Salta and Catamarca regions, and the Atacama Desert, a high mountain area in northern Chile, have salt water with high lithium content and are attracting the attention of battery companies around the world. .
The lithium production areas of these three countries, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, are called the ‘Lithium Triangle.’ According to a report by <CNN> , there are 21 million tons of lithium in Bolivia, 19 million tons in Argentina, and 9.8 million tons in Chile. Although it falls short of the production of Australia, the largest producer, due to a lack of technology and investment, it holds more than 60% of the world’s lithium (reference article), so the ‘Lithium Triangle’ region is expected to become a lithium factory responsible for global demand in the not-too-distant future. do.
The development of electric vehicles and explosive demand spurred the production of lithium batteries, and the international price of lithium, which was around $6,000 per ton in 2020, soared to $80,000 in 2023 (reference article). The attention of investors around the world was focused on South America, and the Korean government also moved quickly, discussing lithium development with Bolivia due to concerns that lithium might be depleted. The story that lithium will soon be depleted may have been an exaggerated rumor, but the movements of companies and various countries seeking to profit through lithium development are not only exchanging gunfire and missiles, but seem to be fierce, like a war.
China, a resource hegemony, obtained the rights to develop lithium in Bolivia, and companies from the United States, Australia, and Japan have already entered Argentina and Chile and are producing lithium. South Korea’s POSCO Holdings has also entered lithium production in the Salta region of Argentina. According to a report by the Spanish media <El Pais>, “close to 500,000 tons of lithium are buried in eastern Ukraine, in the area currently occupied by Russia,” so the power struggle taking place there seems unusual (reference article).
With the popularity of lithium increasing day by day, some people may feel envious of the abundance of resources. Wouldn’t it be better to work hard to produce and sell at a high price to repay the country’s debt and increase social welfare? However, as the saying goes, ‘the curse of resources’, the reality of resource-rich countries is not so smooth. Argentina Institute of Science and Technology
uses 2 million liters of water to produce 1 ton of lithium ( Conicet)
), Dr. Bruno Fornillo, who has been researching lithium development issues for a long time, said in a video call with the author on September 25th, “The biggest problem in the process of extracting lithium from brine is that it uses a huge amount of water. “The surrounding water resources will completely dry up,” he pointed out. In addition, Dr. Fornillo said, “To extract lithium, brine is extracted from an underground salt layer and placed in a large pond
that is thousands of times the size of a soccer field. When this brine is evaporated and concentrated to a certain concentration, lithium is extracted from the concentrated solution. “It can be separated, but a big problem is that the various chemicals used in this process later remain as by-products and pollute the surrounding environment,” he said. The problem is that in the process of extracting salt water from underground, a hole is drilled in the ground, and fresh water flowing underground moves to the place where the salt water was extracted, and eventually fresh water and salt water mix, breaking the balance of ground water. Lithium production areas in Chile and Argentina are places where water is scarce because they have a desert climate and do not receive much rain. In this situation, because all the groundwater accumulated in the ground is drawn out and used, biodiversity is destroyed and people living there lose their homes due to water shortage. How much water is used in lithium production to cause these problems? According to a report by Argentine media Perfil, 2 million liters of water are needed to produce 1 ton of lithium. One example is Livent , which produces lithium in Argentina.
) It is said that the amount of water the company uses in 15 days is the same as the amount of water that local residents can use in a year, so you can get an idea of how much water they consume (reference article).
Due to a shortage of drinking water, an increasing number of villages are having to source drinking water from other cities, and poor people who used to make a living by raising livestock are being forced to give up their family businesses. When a multinational company wins the rights to develop lithium, people living in the area may be kicked out without adequate compensation, and people who were making a living by producing salt in salt lakes in the traditional way may lose their jobs overnight.
Anyone planning a trip to South America has probably put Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats on their itinerary. The endless white salt desert turns into a huge mirror during the rainy season. This is a place where the sky sinks when the light of the water reflects, creating a scenery that makes you feel like you are walking on clouds.
Salt flats and salt lakes play an important role not only as tourist destinations. According to Dr. Fornillo, this is “a place where hundreds of millions of years of salt layers have been piled up, and it is also a place where stromatolites, known as traces of primitive microorganisms, are discovered.” In addition, salt lake water, which is highly concentrated in various minerals, plays an important role in the Earth’s water cycle and climate control.
If we stop at energy conversion and not using fossil fuels,
humanity has a common goal of reducing carbon emissions to solve the climate crisis. We are currently carrying out humanity’s common task of curbing the use of fossil fuels and switching to sustainable energy. Lithium-ion batteries have become an essential element for the commercialization of green energy due to their very high energy density relative to mass and volume. In particular, as demand for electric vehicles continues to increase, demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to continue to increase. Accordingly, the production of lithium, the main raw material, will naturally increase.
However, the transition to sustainable energy presents various issues that need to be considered. What if we had to use more energy and destroy the environment to extract the metals that go into batteries? What if by-products and chemicals from mines contaminate water and land, and batteries that have reached the end of their life become trash and pollute the Earth? What if numerous carbon footprints are generated in the process of producing electric vehicles? What if many poor people lose the basic necessities of life so that a few wealthy people can enjoy the convenience of driving an electric car? Can we really say that the transition is sustainable?
According to Mr. Clemente, who appeared in the documentary <In the Name of Lithium> and exposed various problems in lithium development, “Multinational companies developing lithium use various methods to subdue or subjugate레고토토 local residents in order to measure reserves and proceed with the development stage.” “There is.” It is claimed that he promises welfare facilities such as schools and parks or recruits local leaders through bribery. Mr. Clemente testified that “currently, residents are in this situation where public opinion is dispersed and they are unable to come to a unified opinion.”
For the people who live here, the salt lake is like themselves. Even now, indigenous people in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia are fighting with their lives to prevent lithium mining. If a hole is created in the salt lake and biodiversity is destroyed, they will not be free from the pain. Who is to blame for this harsh situation given to those who have lived humbly in this land for thousands of years, coexisting with nature inherited from their ancestors?
Historically, energy and resources have rarely been benefits given equally to all of humanity. It is the Northern Hemisphere that still enjoys energy and resources, and the Southern Hemisphere that bleeds for it. As a solution to the urgent challenge of the climate crisis, we dream of transitioning to green energy. However, if someone’s sacrifice has to be guaranteed for the energy transition, it will be difficult to see it as hope for everyone. Is a more just energy transition impossible? A difficult task remains before us.