What are El Niños and why are they important?
El Niños occur when calm conditions in the Pacific allow tropical winds to concentrate large volumes of warm water in a relatively small area, usually the western Pacific around Indonesia. After several years of calm conditions and warm water build up, that build-up is eventually released and the warm water that was stuck in the west washes to the east.
El Niños are important because they cause a redistribution of rainfall on a global scale. As the warm water that was able to accumulate in the West Pacific washes to the east it brings with it the weather associated with the Indonesian portion of the Pacific, primarily the torrential downpours that come with the monsoon season, to the Western United States. The impact of this is that industries ranging from hydroelectricity generation to agricultural production are left without one of their most important inputs and regions that are not prepared for monsoon like rainfall are forced to handle dangerous levels of flooding.
This impact is exacerbated by situations that climatologists call “Super El Niños.” Super El Niños occur when these warm waters push most strongly eastward and bring more extreme weather shifts with them. Though the previous convention was to expect a Super El Niño once every 20 years, the warming of cool waters off the Pacific Coasts of the Americas (which has historically slowed the warm water) means that we could see that frequency increase. Following Super El Niños in 1982-3, 1997-8 and 2015-6, some experts are now postulating they could become a once in every 10-year occurrence (Yale Environment 360).
What this means for South Africa and Anglo American Platinum?
Southern Africa, including South Africa, is one of the regions that sees rainfall drop during El Niños periods, which has a dual effect on Anglo American Platinum (Amplats). In 2015 Amplats used 33.9 million m3 of water in a wide range of its business-as-usual operations, ranging from hydrating employees to fundamental operations in the mining process. As the majority of Amplats’ mines are located in water-stressed areas, the company is likely to immediately feel the impact of reduced rainfall. The second is that Amplats relies on hydroelectricity as source of power through Eskom, South Africa’s electricity utility provider. Although hydropower supplies less than 5% of South Africa’s power, it is one of the primary sources when demand reaches peak load, which refers to additional demand above the norm of the system (Eskom Fact Sheet 1, Eskom Fact Sheet 2). When Eskom is unable to meet peak demand it imposes rolling blackouts and requires industrial companies, like Amplats, to reduce electricity demand by up to 20%.
What should they do?
Luckily, Amplats has acknowledged the impact of El Niño on its operations and is taking steps to reduce its reliance on water. It decreased water consumption by 15.9% in 2015 and launched a 10-year water strategy in 2010 to impose stricter standards by 2020 that include commitments to:
- Make our operations water-resilient
- Invest in water treatment and relevant technological innovation
- Build water infrastructure for mutual benefit
- Partner proactively with key stakeholders
Additionally, Amplats has taken an active role in becoming a water source to water-stressed villages (Sustainable Development Report 2015). Although this move will go a long way towards making business-as-usual operations more sustainable and to endear itself to the local population, it does not address the impact of reduced hydroelectricity availability. I believe to address this power concern, Anglo American should build solar panels on the large swathes of land it owns and to allow that power to flow into Eskom’s grid. Though windmills provide another viable option, I am concerned that topography could provide a challenge to consistent wind availability. The panels provide Amplats with a long term, sustainable power option, that will benefit the public and give the company the ability to better react to power reduction demands by Eskom. Additionally, by making the power available on the local grid it will build good will with locals and the government at a time when tensions with both South Africans and the South African government have become tense. (718 Words)