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.
Atacama has become one of the busiest mining districts on the planet, after discoveries of massive deposits of copper and lithium. In recent years, the mining has intensified, thanks to booming demand for lithium, which is needed to produce rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles.
Sara Plaza, who’s 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 meadow. “Now mining companies are taking the water,” she says. “No one comes here anymore, because there’s not enough grass for the animals.”
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. Putting more electric cars on the road is one of the most powerful ways to decrease the effects of climate change.
But extracting Atacama’s lithium involves pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine, and that is having an irreversible impact on the local environment. Here, in this remote part of the Andes Mountains, the hopeful mission of saving the planet through electric cars is destroying a fragile ecosystem and depleting 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.”
Meadows and lagoons in the southern part of the salt flat have shrunk over the past few years, and the flamingo population has declined, according to the Atacama People’s Council, the umbrella group representing the 18 indigenous communities living around the salt flat.
Atacama’s infrequent rains and the highest solar radiation in the world — 30 percent higher on average than in the Mojave Desert — result in fast evaporation and allow miners to produce high-quality lithium at a low cost. Millions of years ago, the salt flat was a lake that has been slowly drying up, a process similar to what could happen elsewhere around the planet as temperatures rise.