In Chile’s Atacama, lithium mining stirs fight over flamingos

Flamingos are seen in the Atacama Salar salt flats, in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, on May 9.

ATACAMA DESERT, Chile (Reuters) — On the white plains of Chile’s lithium-rich Atacama desert, bright pink flamingos enliven the sprawling salt flats where sporadic blue pools provide much needed hydration.

But flamingo numbers are falling, with a new study linking this to the water extracted by mining firms to pump up brine filled with lithium, the metal used to make batteries for mobile phones, laptop computers and electric vehicles.

Miners contended their operations do not affect flamingo herds and said the studies are based on unreliable data.

The standoff underscores growing tensions in the Andean nation over water use and mining’s impact on local communities and the environment. Tougher regulation is a risk for firms in the world’s No. 2 lithium producer and No. 1 copper producer.

“You can explain the effects specifically from lithium extraction,” said Cristina Dorador, coauthor of the study in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B journal, referring to findings that flamingo numbers dropped as more water was used up.

The scientists examined salt flats throughout Chile to measure the effects of other variables on water levels. Satellite imagery of mining ponds on the Atacama, home to most of Chile’s lithium, was used to calculate how much water was extracted.

Flamingos reproduce less with less water, which over time could impact herd numbers, said coauthor Nathan Senner, a researcher of ecosystems and environmental change.

“It’s not like they all die at once, but if you’re not reproducing all of a sudden, even things that live as long as flamingos start to die. And that’s where numbers really start to tumble quite rapidly.”

In other salt flats without mining, flamingo populations remained steady over the last decade despite natural water variations linked to rainfall and climate shifts. In the Atacama, though, James and Andean flamingos declined 10% to 12%.

Chile’s National Mining Society declined to comment. Albemarle Corp., one of the main two lithium miners in Chile, did not respond to a request for comment.

SQM, the other main lithium miner, disagreed with key parts of the study, saying in a statement that its own monitoring indicated that “flamingo populations have remained stable.”

SQM said satellite analysis could considerably over- or under-estimate water use, and called for more research on the ground.

Dorador, a scientist from the region and an elected official working on Chile’s new Constitution, said locals have noticed a decline in flamingos in the salt flats affected by mining for years.

“They are incredibly important because they’re one of the big tourist attractions of San Pedro de Atacama,” said Dorador.

Dorador said indigenous elders collect flamingo eggs on the flats for their regular diet, while the birds regulate the ecosystem eating plankton, crustaceans and microorganisms, helping avoid damaging bacterial blooms on the water.

Chile’s flamingo numbers overall have held up, thanks to herds on other flats not affected by mining. But the consequences could be severe as demand spikes for lithium batteries powering electric vehicles, Dorador warned.

“We have to think where these materials come from, because we’re not always aware. We buy all these things but we often don’t know what had to happen to make that product.”