DATE: June 11, 2019
SNIP: The oases that once interrupted the dusty slopes of the Atacama desert in northern Chile allowed humans and animals to survive for thousands of years in the world’s driest climate. That was before the mining started.
Sara Plaza, 67 years old, can still remember guiding her family’s sheep along an ancient Inca trail running between wells and pastures. Today she is watching an engine pump fresh water from beneath the mostly dry Tilopozo meadow. “Now mining companies are taking the water,” she says, pointing to dead grass around stone ruins that once provided a nighttime refuge for shepherds.
“No one comes here anymore, because there’s not enough grass for the animals,” Plaza says. “But when I was a kid, there was so much water you could mistake this whole area for the sea.”
Atacama has become one of the busiest mining districts on the planet in the intervening decades, following discoveries of massive deposits of copper and lithium. In recent years that mining has intensified, thanks to booming demand for lithium, which is indispensable in the production of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles. Chile exported nearly $1 billion of lithium last year, almost quadruple the export value from four years ago.
Pursuit of the soft mineral is often seen as something that’s good for the environment. Electric automakers such as Tesla Inc. want to make it easier and cheaper for drivers to adopt clean, battery-powered replacements for dirty combustion engines. Batteries are by far the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, so mining more lithium to meet rising demand helps lower prices.
But extracting Atacama’s lithium means pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine—and that’s having an irreversible impact on the local environment. Here, in this remote part of the Andes, the hopeful mission of saving the planet through electric cars is destroying a fragile ecosystem and depleting stores of drinking water.
“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” says Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist who studies microbial life in the Atacama desert. “The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.”
The huge increase in lithium demand is drawing additional mining companies into the Atacama and other salt flats in the Andes. About 40% of Chile’s salt flats are now being explored for lithium, according to Dorador, the scientist. If the current way of mining continues, she warns, there’s a risk that the salt flats will run out of water.
This could be the ultimate irony of the green revolution spurring demand for electric vehicles and batteries made from lithium.
[NOTE: We cannot “save” the planet with electric cars!]