People streamed into the central square in Celendin, a small city in the Peruvian Andes, the morning of July 3, 2012. They were protesting the government’s support for Newmont Mining’s plan to take control of four lakes to make way for a new gold and copper mine. By midday, there were 3 000. Some hurled rocks at police and brandished clubs. Then assailants shot two officers and an army soldier in the leg.

Blocks away, construction worker Paulino Garcia left home on foot to buy groceries. As he approached the central square, he encountered chaos. People ran for cover as federal troops fired their weapons. One bullet struck Garcia as he watched the mayhem. It ripped open his chest and exited through his back. The 43-year-old father of two fell to the ground and died.

Another three people were shot and killed, and more than 20 were wounded. It was the deadliest clash in 18 months of protests in Peru’s Cajamarca region, where many residents say Newmont’s $5 billion (R44bn) Conga mine will take water their villages and farms need to survive.

Adelaida Tabaco, Garcia’s widow, 38, said: “The only thing the people want is water for families, but the mining companies want to take it. And soldiers will kill if you get in the way.“

The injured and dead in Celendin, 800km north of Lima, are victims in a continent-wide conflict that pits South American governments and big, often foreign-based companies against people who stand to lose their homes as water is diverted to industrial uses.

Leaders across the region, elected on promises to fuel economic growth and lift their populations out of poverty, are fast tracking water-use approvals for projects like the Conga mine.

Helped by mining and agriculture exports, Brazil’s gross domestic product increased 43 percent from 2002 to 2012, after adjusting for inflation, while Chile’s economy grew 58 percent. Peru is on target to expand 6 percent this year, the fastest pace in South America, driven by investments in gold, silver and copper.

South America has more water than any other region on earth, with 29 percent of the world’s reserves, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The rub is that the water isn’t always where the best mineral or agricultural resources are located.

Short supply

Mines consume huge amounts of water to separate minerals from rock. It takes 28 litres of water to make 0.5kg of copper in Chile. After processing, the water at some mines is so toxic that it can’t be reused.

Peru’s biggest mines, such as Conga, are high in the Andes, where there’s almost no rain from May to October. In Chile deposits of copper, gold and silver lie under the Atacama Desert, which is so dry that rainfall has never been recorded in some places. And higher demand means there’s less water to go around.

Growing populations have pushed the amount of usable water per person down by more than one-fifth since 1992 in Brazil, Chile and Peru, according to the UN group.

National leaders in Latin America are weighing short-term economic growth against the public’s future needs for water, and the consequences can be deadly.

In Chile, the nation’s drinking supply was threatened by past policies of allotting too much water to companies to spur the economy, Public Works Minister Loreto Silva said. Water was already running out in places like Copiapó, a city of 158 438 people in the Atacama Desert, 800km north of Santiago, because of mining and agricultural expansion, she added.

Silva said: “If we don’t make decisions today, we’ll be short of water in about a decade. That forces us to take a long-term, strategic view in terms of water.”

Peru faced similar long-term needs because water was in short supply in areas where mines were expanding, said Hugo Jara, the head of the National Water Authority. The government needed to build $394 million of reservoirs and canals by 2016 for annual water shortages in the dry season in the Andes, he said.

Governments were making the right decision in providing water to industries that benefited the majority of their populations, even if that meant displacing some people, said John Briscoe, a Harvard University professor who specialises in water policy. “It’s of transcendental importance to the economy,” the former senior water adviser at the World Bank said. “The value of the water in the mining industry is very high.”

Drought is making water even scarcer. In Chile, precipitation was 75 percent below the historical average in 2012 in the mineral-rich Coquimbo region, while rainfall decreased 70 percent in the Atacama Desert, according to Chile’s General Water Agency. In Peru, the government said rain had been below average for two years in the highland mining regions because of El Niño weather phenomena.

Global warming has likely increased and prolonged droughts in some regions of the world, according to a March 2012 study by the 62-nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The conflicts in South America are part of an intensifying global struggle for water. Two of the mightiest rivers on earth – the Yellow River in China and the Colorado in the US and Mexico – have been so depleted by cities, factories and farms that they rarely reach the sea, as they had for eons.


Increased mining in Chile has already cost families, farms and villages the water they need to survive. Near Caimanes, a town in a semi-arid valley 250km north of Santiago, farmhand Daniel Tapia rests at a rock-strewn stretch of flat ground where the Pupio Creek once flowed.

It emptied in 2008, he said, after the nation’s richest family, the Luksics, built a 500m-wide waste dump, known as a tailings dam, for the Los Pelambres copper mine.

Antofagasta constructed the dam atop springs that supplied water for the town. The company is 65 percent held by the Luksics, a family with a net worth of $20.7bn, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.

Tapia, 40, says there’s not enough water for him, his wife and three kids to wash, drink and cook. They survive on about 180l a day, delivered by truck to their small home by the almond grove. That’s one-eighth of what the average US family uses.

The Los Pelambres mine ran out of space to store the ground-up, chemical-laden rock created from extracting copper ore, said Sergio Valdebenito, who runs the tailings dam. The Luksics won government approval for a second dam in 2004 and defeated legal challenges by area residents during the next four years.

Valdebenito said drought, not the mining, was drying up the valley.

Juan Villalobos, a construction worker who has lived in Caimanes since he was born, said the drought explanation wasn’t true. The water that fed the creek didn’t disappear; it was being held behind the tailings dam and pumped back to the mine, Villalobos, 38, said. He and 10 others went on an 81-day hunger strike in 2011 to protest construction of the tailing dam.

Mining companies are planning to spend $100bn in Chile by 2025 to increase production.

President Sebastián Piñera said investment in mines would drive economic growth in his nation of 16.6 million people, helping it to gain developed-nation status.

In Peru, the conflict over water has turned deadly. Fifteen people have been killed since 2010 in protests against government decisions allowing mining companies to expand and use more water. Those firms are planning to invest $53bn in the next decade for mines that will require water.

In San Antonio de Pachachaca, 54km south of Celendin, the lake the village depends on started to disappear four years ago. That’s when Newmont expanded its Yanacocha mine, Claudio Garcia, the president of the local irrigation authority, said.

Luis Cabrera, Newmont’s environmental specialist at Yanacocha, said the weather caused the lake to lose water. About 40 percent of the lake’s water naturally evaporates during the dry season, he said.

“When it rains, it will fill back up.“

Peru’s environmental ministry disputed that explanation. From January 31 to February 2, 2011, ministry inspectors examined the lake and part of the Yanacocha mine. After the inspection, they concluded in a report that water levels in the lake had plummeted because explosions to open access to the minerals at the mine had diverted a major spring that feeds the lake.

Across the developing world, governments are choosing to allot water for economic growth – sometimes making a short-term decision at the expense of future needs.

The decisions countries like Peru and Chile make now on water allocation may eventually help them reach developed-nation status – although the costs, measured in human dislocation and human blood, could lead some to question whether the path to prosperity will have been worth the price. – Michael Smith from Bloomberg