Ingrid Putkonen PhD
Managing Director
Metals4Humanity
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Mining Is Part of the Water Solution

By Alejandro Ehrenberg | Tue, 09/29/2020 - 09:11

Q: What is the Pure Silver Initiative?

A: The Pure Silver Initiative is the inaugural project of Metals for Humanity, whose goal is to connect the products of mining to humanitarian ventures that contribute to the resilience of communities, both in mining and in non-mining areas. Metals for Humanity aims to increase mining’s contribution to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Mining is often seen as contributing to the world’s problems. Our platform is designed to rebalance this perception by showing that mining can and must be part of the solution.

The Pure Silver Initiative centers on SDG 6: to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. In Mexico, roughly 35 million people lack access to safely managed water. Given the inherent antibacterial properties of silver, we saw an opportunity to work with the silver mining industry – specifically, Fresnillo plc., the world’s largest primary silver producer – to launch an initiative that uses silver to increase access to clean water.

The Initiative focuses on schools and health clinics in mining and non-mining communities, where access to clean water is an issue. In addition to placing point-of-use water-disinfection systems in schools and clinics, we work with teachers, parents, and students to create awareness of the important role silver plays in our society, especially in relation to clean water.

Q: What is the initiative’s background?

A: One inspiration was a program by Teck Resources Limited called Zinc Saves Kids. Teck is one of the largest zinc producers in the world.  When the company learned that around ¾ of a million children die each year due to zinc deficiency, they undertook to be part of the solution by ensuring that the product Teck mines reaches those most in need.

With our sponsor, Fresnillo plc, our initial work revealed water to be one of the greatest concerns of their stakeholders. It made sense, therefore, to build a program that would address water challenges and that would use the very product Fresnillo plc mines to tackle this issue.

It is important to be clear in this context on the objectives of the Pure Silver Initiative.  It is, fundamentally, a social development project.  As such, it does not directly deal with issues of industrial water management from the mining projects themselves.  The Initiative’s aspirations are indirect, longer-term, and community focused.  Research shows that the adoption of humanitarian projects can lead to broader changes in corporate culture, evolving the way companies think about their impact potential. The Pure Silver Initiative seeks to catalyze these broader changes that will lead to further benefits across its partner organizations and beyond.

Q: What does the Pure Silver Initiative look like in action?

A: We implement CSR programs in mining communities and humanitarian projects in non-mining communities, to reduce operational risk and increase reputational value. One example is a project in Durango. After an extended in-depth dialogue with the mining community of La Cienaga, in Durango, one of the school directors proposed rainwater harvesting as a way of tackling water issues. We enlisted an organization called Isla Urbana that helped us install rain harvesting systems, through a participatory method engaging the schools and the community.

The Pure Silver Initiative goes beyond ensuring access to clean water. The project has an educational component that informs participants about the health benefits of silver in relation to water. Community members learn first-hand about the value to them of what is being extracted from the ground. A direct connection is forged. The information we provide is coupled with the lived experiences of communities that already have the silver-based water disinfection systems in their clinics and households. Community members create a connection with the benefits of silver and link it to the mining activities of Fresnillo plc.

Fundamentally, our work in mining communities is about building trust between the community and the company. Trust is based on dialogue. We designed a special photography program to engender trust. We paired engineers from the mine with people from the community and we asked them to walk together, shoulder to shoulder, converse and take photographs of something that captures the role of water in their community. They start looking at the world through the lens of the other person. As a result, a nonthreatening, dialogue-conducive relationship is formed. This is based on the conviction that the only way to find solutions to social issues is through cooperation.

Q: Why is the Pure Silver Initiative’s approach different from other CSR approaches?

A: The most obvious difference is that the Pure Silver Initiative includes non-mining communities. CSR programs typically are conceived quite narrowly and rarely extend beyond the sites where a company has operations. Even then, CSR programs are often developed from the company’s perspective, without sufficient community engagement. Companies typically focus on obtaining a social license to operate. When companies fixate on acquiring social license, it can actually become more elusive. In fact, companies are more successful when they do not fixate directly on social license. Rather, they ought to focus on implementing programs that resonate with the community’s needs to establish a lasting, trust-generating relationship. Social license emerges spontaneously as a byproduct of that.  Building on that relationship, the strategic social investment by a company should contribute to addressing a community’s basic needs, ideally, by connecting it to its core business.

Q: How successful has the Pure Silver Initiative been?

A: At this point, we have done pilot projects in both mining and non-mining communities. Beyond projects in Durango and Chihuahua, we carried out a humanitarian project in several non-mining communities in Hidalgo, where we refined our implementation method to facilitate subsequently scaling out. A key component of this method is its educational focus on science and the health benefits of silver. Community members themselves took water samples and performed tests at the state university.  

Regarding impact assessments, the first was a qualitative valuation study based on interviews done by an independent third party, where the projects in mining communities were evaluated. As to the humanitarian program, an independent, comprehensive, qualitative and quantitative assessment of the Hidalgo project was carried out. The results of that independent report were extremely encouraging: 98 percent of participants found the program to be outstanding and knowledge of silver was increased by over 400 percent. Other important findings included a reduction in the consumption of sugary drinks, a primary cause of obesity and diabetes in Mexico, which are major public health concerns. 

Perhaps the greatest measure of the project’s success is that, along with our sponsor, Fresnillo plc, we have set an example that helps companies see that they must go beyond traditional CSR programs in order to contribute meaningfully to sustainable development and work towards the achievement of the UN SDGs.

In the current context, marked by COVID-19, the Pure Silver Initiative is broadening its focus to include handwashing in addition to clean drinking water. In a report on reopening schools, UNICEF and the WHO emphasized that children require access to hygiene and safe drinking water. Before the pandemic, two in five schools around the world lacked basic handwashing facilities, and two out of five healthcare facilities worldwide had no soap and clean water. In Mexico today, at least 30 percent of schools still lack adequate hygiene facilities. The Pure Silver Initiative seeks to further contribute by helping to address this problem.

The Pure Silver Initiative brings together the silver industry and civil society organizations to tackle the global water crisis.

Alejandro Ehrenberg Alejandro Ehrenberg Journalist and Industry Analyst