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Drought, not lithium mining, is drying out Chile’s largest salt flat

Lithium mining has been blamed for the drying out of a region in the Andes where the metal is naturally found – but drought may be the culprit instead

Environment 4 November 2022

An aerial view shows the brine pools and processing areas of the Soquimich (SQM) lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat, the world's second largest salt flat and the largest lithium deposit currently in production, with over a quarter of the world's known reserves, in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, January 10, 2013. SQM fertilizer company has fired its chief executive after it became embroiled in an election campaign financing scandal that has rocked the Chilean establishment, tainting business leaders and politicians with close links to the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Picture taken January 10, 2013. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado (CHILE - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT POLITICS) - GM1EB3I04EU01

An aerial view of the brine pools and processing areas of the SQM lithium mine in Chile

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Lithium production is often blamed for drying up freshwater in South America’s “Lithium Triangle” – a region of the Andes mountains in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia which contains most of the world’s lithium reserves. But a prolonged drought is probably behind most of the drying.

As a key component in batteries, lithium is critical to transitioning away from fossil fuels. Demand for the soft white metal is projected to increase 40 times by …