Words & photography by Abi Butcher
“This dust storm has been a nightmare," says farmer Karen Luza, as she boils a dusty kettle in her outdoor kitchen and fills a thermos flask, being careful not to waste a drop of energy or water in the process. There’s no tap here, no electricity switches to flick — one thermos keeps water hot for coffee all morning long.
Just watching Karen’s routine, a carefully orchestrated version of my own morning spent showering, teeth brushing, coffee making and even throwing away my dog’s 24-hour old water to replenish it with fresh, makes me feel ashamed.
"There’s no tap here, no electricity switches to flick — one thermos keeps water hot for coffee all morning long."
I’m in middle of the Atacama, the highest and driest desert on earth, where farmers scratch a living among the dry river valleys and dust storms, fighting for the rights to use their own, precious water. The day I arrived, an immense storm was blowing sand across the plains, confining tourists to barracks and me to my bedroom in the Tierra de Atacama hotel, with its glorious views of the Licancabur Volcano on the border with Bolivia.
The hotel, like so many in the area of San Pedro, has its own spa and pool, which seems at odds with the desert, although there are signs in the rooms asking clients to conserve water — and to limit their use of disposable plastic by refilling the tin water bottles provided on arrival. Solar panels provide enough energy for Tierra Atacama’s daytime operations, and waste water from the bathrooms, kitchen and spa is recycled to wash cars, irrigate the gardens and such like.
This hotel is one of the good guys: many are not, and where water is life here in the desert Atacamans have long fought each other over this most precious of commodities, as elsewhere in Chile. This country’s long history with mining — of copper, saltpeter (potassium nitrate, used in gunpowder and agricultural fertilisers) and latterly lithium — all relies heavily on the use of water.
Lithium is supposed to be the solution to all our environmental problems, the ions are used in rechargeable batteries for phones, cameras, laptops and so-called “green cars", but at what cost? This mineral, dubbed ‘white gold’, is evaporated from brine extracted from deep underground, with every tonne of lithium requiring the evaporation of around 500,000 gallons of water.
The mining of this so-called "green" energy source is reaping destruction on the landscape of the Atacama Desert and the local ecosystem. When I visited earlier this year, locals told me flamingos are leaving their breeding grounds, some lagoons have already dried into salt flats and those that remain have altered mineral content, as the mines return some of the water used in the mining process back to the salt flat. The knock-on effects of mining anywhere in the world are startling — in the Atacama they're heartbreaking.
"In the distance, behind where the flamingos filter the water, the lithium mines are booming and belching smoke…"
The Atacama is known for its three species of iconic flamingo — the Andean, Chilean and James, all of which are usually pink in colour and feed on brine shrimp for up to 16 hours a day. The altered mineral content of the water in which these brine shrimp live is removing their colour which is in turn causing the flamingos to turn white. But it’s more than just a visual shift, as white flamingos are ostracised from the colony — and aren’t able to breed.
I went to see this for myself at the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in the Atacama some 55km south of San Pedro, with Juan Fernandez, one of the guides working with Tierra Atacama. Juan is a former Andes high-mountain guide who has lead scientific studies and documentary teams with the BBC and National Geographic. Even with the naked eye, it’s easy to see the number of white flamingos — around one in ten — and when I look through Juan’s telescope the scale of the problem is instantly apparent.
"The altered mineral content of the water in which these brine shrimp live is removing their colour which is in turn causing the flamingos to turn white."
“The James flamingo is the rarest on earth, it has a very small migratory area and that is evaporating so they’re losing their habitat," he says. In the distance, behind where the flamingos filter the water, the lithium mines are booming and belching smoke.
“Look at the smog across the top of the salt flat," says Juan, gesturing into the distance and shaking his head. “If you come here at night the noise and light pollution is horrendous; the flamingos hate this. It’s no good." He adds: “One tenth of the population is now white, which means no reproduction — if you’re not a colourful flamingo you don’t fly with the flock."
The lithium mining companies claim that the brine they extract from deep beneath the desert is from a second, lower water table unconnected the freshwater sources on or close to the surface. It’s a theory Juan disputes with sadness. “You prove to me that the water tables aren’t linked," he says, shaking his head again. “No independent scientific study has yet been conducted on the environmental effects of lithium mining — only studies funded by mining companies. These are not independent. I’ve been trying to get funding for a study but no one is interested."
In their defence, SQM, now the main mining company operating in the Atacama, is financing a flamingo reproduction programme and an annual census in the Salar de Atacama with CONAF, the Corporación Nacional Forestal.
I was twice denied an interview with the programme’s leader, however a spokesman for SQM told me the Atacama flamingo population “has never been damaged".
"SQM, the main mining company in the area, told me the Atacama flamingo population “has never been damaged"."
“SQM, together with CONAF, carries out an exhaustive environmental monitoring plan to take care of the flora and fauna surrounding our operation in the Salar de Atacama… which has all the approvals of the Chilean regulatory authority and is supervised by experts from the best universities in the world," said Carolina Garcia Huidobro. Despite this, I still heard horror stories from locals about low number of chicks hatching and migration patterns being ignored.
Lithium was first discovered in the Atacama in 1962 — followed by discoveries in parts of Bolivia and Argentina, a region today known as “the lithium triangle". In the late 1970s, when the value of this mineral and its usefulness in technology and nuclear power became clear, Augusto Pinochet declared lithium mining to be under state control. He gave carte blanche to US company Foote Mineral to start extracting the mineral as they wished — regardless of the heavy consumption of water needed during the process.
Things have gradually changed since then. While mining companies like SQM were not at first required by law to give anything back to local communities, these days locals increasingly receiving payments for the use of their water and land. Some companies, such as Albemarle (Rockwood Lithium) provide assistance with local community projects and profit share. The mines also, crucially, bring much-needed jobs to the area and offer extremely competitive salaries. And so they should, one could argue, given that Chile holds more than half of the world’s lithium resource.
But is it enough? No says Karen Luza. Ramón M Balcázar, the spokesperson for the “Mouvement Defendamos el Salar" agrees. In April, the group released a statement on behalf of the inhabitants, both indigenous and non-indigenous, of the Atacama salt flat basin, imploring the Chilean government to conduct proper, independent scientific research into the effect this dramatic water use is having on the ecosystem. The statement said: “Lithium batteries are not ecologically sustainable and their ecological footprint has for too long been ignored.
“As long as we continue to obtain lithium by extracting huge quantities of water from the aquifers of the Atacama Salt Flat — as brine, lost by evaporation — it is our conviction that over-exploitation of these aquifers constitutes a direct threat to the variety of life forms that develop in this ecosystem."
“We have seen SQM actively expanding their activities for two decades without ever being audited and … recently the Chilean Government decided to authorise Albemarle, a US company that operates under the name of Rockwood Lithium, to increase operations. Now a new company, Canadian Wealth Minerals is joining the competition for reaping profits in the salt flats."
It’s difficult to get up close and personal with the mines, but fly into Calama airport (the closest to San Pedro) from Santiago, and you pass overhead. From the air the azure blue rectangular evaporation pools look beautiful. The reality on the ground near these closed and closely guarded pools is not so attractive — SQM alone is extracting approximately 2,000 litres of water per second.
“According to the government and mines, water in the salt flats is brine and it’s not the same as water, which is ridiculous. They convince people it’s not water! Can you believe it?" snorts Karen, over our thermos of coffee, in contempt.
Karen is secretary of the “Association Indigena de Regantes Agricultores del Rio San Pedro", a group of indigenous Atacaman farmers fighting to wrestle their water rights away from the tourists and mines. She's hoping that this month (October), things may be about to improve. The water rights code is set to be modified by the Chilean government in an attempt to change the conditions inherited from the dictatorship which privatised water all over the country.
“The problem is that people are often not aware of the impact of water being taken from the lithium mines is causing — over the years local people have got tired and abandoned their fights, selling their farmland to build hotels and houses to rent to tourists."
Karen conceded that the mines are open to discussion (unlike most hotels). And she believes the scrutiny will only get stricter as our thirst for lithium-powered batteries increases (our use of the mineral is due to triple by 2025).
SQM has been vehement in defending its operation, saying the brine used in lithium production is from the depths of the Salar de Atacama, and is of no use as drinking water or for agriculture due to its highly saline composition.
Their spokesperson told me the process of lithium mining (to clean the minerals) was less fresh-water intensive than other mining processes and that SQM operations in the Atacama use only around four per cent of the total fresh water made available by the water authorities for all users.
“Moreover," she added, "In our lithium plants in Antofagasta we developed a new process for recycling water, and for the past five years 100% of the water needed for our lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide production comes from recycling city waste water."
"I was making notes on my laptop and taking pictures with my camera and phone — the lithium for their batteries potentially coming from the Atacama…"
These are small steps, but so much more is needed — and not just from the mining companies. While investigating this story, I felt utterly conflicted. I was making notes on my laptop and taking pictures with my camera and phone — the lithium for their batteries potentially coming from the Atacama — and have for months toyed with trading in my diesel car. In the grip of a worldwide energy and environmental crisis, lower fuel emissions, and more efficient modern devices, seem the obvious option. No one has the time to look deeper.
If they did they'd see that this desire to stay constantly up to date can come at a cost, even if the latest technologies seem green.
“Capitalism isn’t working," says Ramón, angrily. “It’s destroying society. Sustainable development is an oxymoron – we need to change our way of living and teach our children a new way. It’s a myth that diesel cars must be replaced, that everything has to be new and replaced — we’re forced by the system to replace everything immediately. We have too much."
He adds: “We are all responsible for saving the Atacama Salt Flat from disappearing, and we need to do what it takes."