Deserts, Water and Lithium: Indigenous Rights in the Energy Transition Op-Ed Explainer

By Verónica Morelli and Luke Danielson

Lithium-evaporation ponds are located in the Atacama salt flat.

Lithium-evaporation ponds are located in the Atacama salt flat. (Credit: Tom Hegen)

Lithium is an element that historically was not produced industrially in large quantities. As recently as 2000, total world production was under 20,000 tons. It is now several times that and increasing rapidly.

The conversion to electric grids powered by intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar and the conversion of vehicle fleets to electric power will require unprecedented volumes of rechargeable batteries, many of them quite large. Currently available batteries that can be deployed at this kind of scale are mostly based on lithium.

Lithium resources are largely located in remote, fragile ecosystems, many of them quite short of water. Water consumption for lithium production has the potential to divert water needed by populations, many of them very poor, who inhabit these regions.

Over 80% of lithium supplies are in lands that belong to or are important to indigenous peoples.

Without a change in the paradigm under which mineral development occurs and much more attention to indigenous rights, lithium development threatens to further marginalize these populations. Trying to force lithium development on unwilling people will delay rather than accelerate the energy transition.

We cannot afford to have the transition to renewable energy delayed by the kinds of conflicts that have been so frequent in the mining and minerals industries.

Some of the people who stand to be affected the most are in low-income indigenous communities. According to the World Bank, there are an estimated 476 million indigenous people worldwide and they account for about 19% of the extreme poor.1

These communities by and large have very low carbon emissions and have contributed very little to the climate crisis. In fact, the World Bank notes that indigenous peoples live near 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. They hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt to, mitigate and reduce climate and disaster risks.2

Uncontrolled lithium development can easily undermine indigenous peoples’ subsistence livelihoods.

More than four-fifths of the lithium needed for the transition to renewable energy is in land important to or controlled by indigenous peoples.

Batteries and Sources of Lithium

Building batteries today represents 74% of global lithium demand. This percentage is expected to increase as the energy transition accelerates. One Tesla Model S 70-kWh battery contains 138.89 pounds (63 kg) of lithium.3 On a utility grid, a battery capable of storing one GW/hour of energy requires, according to Bloomberg, 729 tons of lithium.4

The EU projects that for electric vehicle batteries and energy storage, EU members would need up to 18 times more lithium by 2030 and almost 60 times more lithium by 2050 than the total current supply to the entire EU economy.5

Add Japan, North America and China to the picture and future demand is almost certain to skyrocket. The faster we make the energy transition, the faster lithium demand will climb.

There are three main types of lithium deposits, in order of their global quantities: (1) continental brines, (2) pegmatites, and (3) hydrothermally altered clays.6

Continental Brines

Brines are essentially liquid deposits with high concentrations of lithium. They are mostly in groundwater and have high concentrations of inorganic salts (in this case, chlorides).7 They are the most substantial potential source of lithium, accounting for nearly 70% of all global reserves.8

Lithium is extracted from brines not by traditional mining methods, but by pumping the brines from these deep reservoirs and producing the liquid in giant evaporation ponds.

The largest brine resources are gigantic saline lakes in the deserts of the “lithium triangle” countries (Bolivia, Argentina and Chile).

These deserts are among the most water-short areas on our planet and have delicate and poorly understood ecosystems. Even without a lithium boom, there is little water to spare for humans, wildlife, the environment or anything else. Producing lithium with evaporation ponds requires an estimated 400,000 liters of water per ton of lithium.9

It is expected that evaporating massive quantities of water will have an enormous impact on ecosystems and on the subsistence of human populations.

In Argentina’s Salinas Grandes salt flat, as one example, local people live by raising llamas as a source for meat, textiles and crafts. They have already seen lush regions become barren and fear that soon there will not be enough water for their llamas.

Nearby communities live on artisanal salt harvesting and from producing food such as peas and potatoes — all of which require water.

And the lithium boom is just getting started.

Lithium-rich brines are the breeding ground of some of the world’s largest and most vulnerable populations of flamingos. Pumping lithium from these brines is already impacting water levels, and if water levels in the lakes drop, flamingos will have less secure nesting sites and their food supplies will shrink. There is already some evidence of declines in the flamingo population even at the current levels of production, which are minimal compared to what is to come.10

Lithium Development in Argentina and Chile

Argentina is moving full-throttle to develop its lithium deposits. While there are currently only two lithium projects in production, there are many more in the pipeline. The existing producers are Fenix, operated by the U.S. company Livent, which started production in 1997, and Olaroz in Jujuy province, controlled and operated by the Australian mining company Allkem, which first exported lithium in 2015.

Both companies are planning to double their production from 20,000 tons to around 40,000 tons in the next few years. The next project to enter commercial production will be operated by Minera Exar and is expected to produce 40,000 tons annually at full production. Each of these projects will be producing more lithium than the entire world produced in 2010.11

There are five more projects in different stages of development that could take the total Argentine production to more than 200,000 tons per year.

Almost two-thirds of brine lithium reserves are in Chile, which has just announced a new national lithium policy based on a leading role for government.

The Salar de Atacama in Chile is the world’s largest operating continental brine deposit and accounts for over 90% of total Chilean reserves. It has the best conditions in the world for lithium exploitation due to the high levels of lithium concentration (an average of approximately 2,000 ppm), a low lithium/magnesium ratio, high evaporation rates due to intense solar radiation, and low rainfall.

As a result, the Salar de Atacama is a low-cost and very competitive extraction site.12  However, due to its great biodiversity and delicate hydrogeological balance, it also has a high risk of environmental loss and damage and impacts on local populations. So it must be carefully managed.

Lithium in Rock

The second most important major type of lithium deposit is pegmatite, a rock from which lithium is mined using more traditional mining methods. This type of deposit is the mainstay of the Australian lithium industry, which is currently the leading world producer of lithium.

Pegmatite deposits are also being developed in Canada, Finland and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Such mining involves digging rock out of the ground, crushing it and processing it.

Mining from pegmatite deposits is thus similar to many other types of mining operations (except for the absence of massive use of explosives). The adverse impacts on the environment are very real, but more familiar.

Indigenous Concerns

Lithium mining areas in Australia are frequently in or near traditional aboriginal lands. This is true elsewhere, including the South American Lithium Triangle countries.

Indigenous people have constantly raised concerns about proper consultation and participation in the decision-making process and the mitigation of the possible negative impacts of the activity.

Indigenous peoples have rights to autonomy and self-determination that must be respected. There is no way to meet lithium demand without consulting and cooperating with indigenous peoples, and in most of the relevant countries and regions, that process has barely started. There is also an observable tendency to try to cut the consultation process short because of the urgent need to obtain more lithium.

Indigenous concerns are at the center of the litigation that seeks to block the Thacker Pass project in Nevada, one of the principal potential lithium projects in the United States.

Many of the countries from which lithium can be produced are signatories to international agreements requiring them to observe indigenous rights and to consult indigenous peoples before taking actions that affect them and their territories.

Chilean indigenous peoples in the Salar de Maricunga region have sued to stop lithium production until they are properly consulted and have won their case in the Chilean Supreme Court.13

There is deep concern among some aboriginal groups in Australia over lithium development in the Cape York Peninsula.14 There is also considerable political activism among indigenous peoples in Argentina about lithium development.

It is not going to be easy to resolve these concerns. A few inexpensive handouts are not going to suffice. There is a long history of dispossession of indigenous peoples by mining operations, and many indigenous people are deeply distrustful of glib promises by miners.

An attempt to solve the climate problem by ignoring the rights of indigenous communities would be a terrible mistake. There is a crying need for a new and better model of how mining development is done.

Moving Forward

All of the principal countries involved in the lithium rush are already under increasing pressure from both national and international courts to improve their practices in consultation with indigenous peoples. There are already very real conflicts. A series of nasty disputes between lithium miners and their indigenous neighbors is the last thing we want in the energy transition.

A booming demand for lithium might, in the right circumstances, produce some semblance of prosperity for poor regions and bring the benefits of employment, housing, better public health and improved education to people who badly need these things.

But this will require a very new way of operating. The question is: Will a world focused on producing the things the rich think they need to cope with the climate crisis take the time to think this through?

A final key question relates to our ability to recover and recycle lithium. Because lithium historically has not been produced very extensively, there is just not much lithium out there in products waiting to be reused. The World Bank in 2017 projected a 965% increase in the global demand for lithium by 2050.15 But the bank’s 2020 report predicts an increase of “only” 500%.16

The difference is that the bank became more optimistic about the potential for recycling and reuse of lithium. We are still very far from developing a robust system to collect, process and reuse or recycle lithium. Our ability to do so will play an important role in the energy transition.

Lithium production will be an expanding activity. The key issue can be narrowed down to how to produce batteries in a way consistent with principles of sustainability. This means finding a way to ensure that affected populations feel fairly treated, are adequately consulted, and benefit from development.


  2. Ibid.

About the Authors

Verónica Morelli is a Peruvian lawyer specializing in natural resources and environmental law and policy. She has worked in hydrocarbons and mining both in the private and public sectors in Peru and is currently the leader of Sustainable Development Strategies Group’s (SDSG) work in the area of lithium supply.

Luke Danielson is the president of SDSG, a nonprofit research institution. He was director of the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Project. He has been a faculty member at several universities and was inducted into the International Mining Technology Hall of Fame. He is a former American Solar Energy Society member.

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