The demand for lithium — used in rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, electric vehicles and other devices — caused a 13% surge in global production last year (go.nature.com/2guqzc8). In the Salar de Atacama in Chile, part of South America’s vast ‘lithium triangle’ of high-altitude lakes and salt flats, more than 1,700 litres of lithium brines are pumped from the shallow subsurface every second. This intense activity in one of the driest areas in the world is causing serious friction over water rights between local communities and mining companies and is putting huge pressure on a fragile and poorly understood ecosystem.
For example, the region’s isolated wetlands are rich in species that are unique to the area. These are crucial islands of habitat for migratory and resident birds, including the threatened Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus). Harmful cyanobacteria usually eaten by these birds accumulate in the water polluted by lithium extraction, putting human health at risk (T. C. Wanger Conserv. Lett. 4, 202–206; 2011).
A Chilean parliamentary commission has acknowledged that overexploitation of groundwater resources has damaged ecosystems in the Salar de Atacama basin, and that little attention has been paid to threats from mining (see go.nature.com/2mnhuwm; in Spanish). We urge the government to rethink its policies to account for the political, social and ecological impact of huge mining projects.
Nature 557, 492 (2018)