The High Cost of Lithium Extraction in Chile

Chile has the largest deposits of lithium in the world. While mining companies race to gain rights of extraction to Chile’s Atacama desert’s rich lithium, the environment around the sites, as well as the people living there, suffer. As the demand for lithium grows, so do the concerns about the extraction’s impact on the country. 

As the world debates the severity of climate change and how best to combat its effects, Chile’s northern desert, the Atacama, sees its environment deteriorating as a result of the lithium industry as well. At present, Chile is supplying 40% of the world’s demand for lithium, which is used to power many technologies, including lithium-ion batteries for phones and electric vehicles. The physical cost to the desert and its people, however, is enormous.

Water Consumption of Lithium

In Chile, lithium is found in pools of briny water. The liquid from these ponds is pumped out and then dried in the sun to collect the sediment that remains. Currently, the mining companies are extracting 8,842 liters of brine per second, according to government figures by The Nonmetallic Mining Committee. 

Chile is already experiencing record-breaking droughts, which are contributing to the scarcity of water nationwide. Despite the harsh conditions of the Atacama desert, it is still home to a variety of plants and animals that have adapted to this harsh life. It can, however, be a fine balance. As mining companies extract lithium from water sources, they are leaving these plants and animals, as well as people who live there, with even less water. The Atacama’s famous flamingos are evidence of the impacts: they used to gather at these pools; now they are leaving in droves. 

Those working in the industry claim that the majority of the water used for the lithium-extraction process, is salt water and thus, cannot negatively impact agriculture in the area. Ramón Morales Balcázar from the Plurinational Observatory Of Andean Salt Flats, an NGO in the area, however, points out the brine water is typically 70% fresh water

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The Community

Much of what is seen happening in the Atacama desert directly impacts the native people living on the land. For these individuals, their main source of income relates directly to agriculture. Not surprisingly, the exploitation of lithium is occurring without the cooperation and agreement of the people living in the area. Hugo Díaz, in an interview with BioBioChile, says that before the companies arrived, there was plenty of water to irrigate his fields. Now, Díaz says, farmers must wait their turn for water.

He speaks of how the mining is “affecting the underground layers,” of the earth and that despite what the companies’ claims, they draw a lot of water from the rivers. According to a study by Arizona State University, lithium mining has a strong negative relationship with the nearby plant life because it affects the soil moisture, which is essential for desert plants to thrive. 

Díaz is also a part of the Likan-antai indigenous community. He laments the miners’ use of water not only for agriculture reasons, but for spiritual ones as well. Díaz explains that water also has a holy significance to the native people of the desert and that the mining companies are violating the flow of nature. So not only are the farmers losing their ability to grow plants on their land and suffering loss livelihood as an extension, they feel that the mining is affecting their right to practice their religion. 

Additionally, the Chilean government is now giving permission to explore land in national parks such as the Nevado Tres Cruces. 

The Atacama is not the only area being mined for lithium. Just south of the desert is the Maricunga Salt Flats. Though these flats are smaller than those located in the Atacama, they still have the second largest deposits of lithium in the country. Solutions For Human Progress, an Australian company that gained rights to Chilean land during the dictatorship, is already developing extraction points—a big problem for the Colla Pai-Ote people who have ancestral ties to the land but know from Chilean history that they will likely lose the battle to maintain rights to the land. 

Meanwhile, the demand for lithium will only increase in the coming years as the metal becomes essential to more and more modern-day technologies. In fact, companies predict that the demand for lithium will triple in the coming years. This poses an ever-increasing threat to the Atacama and its inhabitants, as there is no way to replenish the water once it is extracted.

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