Salar de Atacama

Integrating socio-hydrology, participatory, telecoupling, and exploratory modelling frameworks to address the paradox between global decarbonisation, lithium fever, and local sustainability in the Atacama Desert.

One of the most effective ways to decrease climate-warming gas emissions is to replace internal combustion vehicles with electric cars powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Lithium batteries also grease the wheels of modern life by powering our smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Economic projections indicate that by 2025, 45% of the world’s appetite for lithium will be fed by water-intensive mining operations adjacent to fragile eco-hydrological systems in the Atacama—the world’s driest desert and one of the busiest mining districts on the planet. In the remote Salar de Atacama Basin, where infrequent rains and the highest solar radiation in the planet allows miners to produce high-quality lithium at a low cost, lithium-rich brines are being unsustainably pumped from underneath the salty plains. These pressures are raising concerns about the long-term environmental, ecological, economic, and social viability of the system, and the potential (negative) effects on technology development and global decarbonisation that could unfold from its collapse. Fragile wetlands and lagoons are drying, protected Andean flamingo populations are declining, and drinking water sources that have sustained local communities for millennia are dwindling. Whether and how the Chilean state and its water authority DGA will manage negative public sentiment, impose harsher regulatory measures, and simultaneously vindicate its economic development, environmental protection, and climate change mitigation ambitions without pushing global battery supply intro turmoil will be put to the test in front of a global audience at the upcoming COP25.

This project aims to inform and guide Chile’s public policy towards a more effective and sustainable management of the Salar de Atacama’s natural capital (i.e. its natural resources, ecosystems, biodiversity, and the services they provide) by integrating leading-edge thinking and tools from the field of environmental modelling. Our focus will be on water resources— the Salar’s key natural capital assets—which sustain local economic activities and biodiversity. The project will glean insight into leverage points and means to embark on sustainable pathways by combining (1) socio-hydrology, (2) participatory, (3) telecoupled, and (4) exploratory modelling frameworks to develop an integrated model representing the various components (biophysical, social, regulatory, economic, etc.) of the Salar de Atacama system.

The key components of the Salar de Atacama system will be elicited and conceptualised through a participatory process (funded by the Chilean Department of Primary Industries, CORFO) that will congregate Chilean government agencies involved in the oversight of lithium extraction operations. We contemplate two participatory modelling workshops, designed to garner the scientific and practical knowledge needed to (1) implement an agent-based model (ABM) of the system, (2) identify qualitative and quantitative thresholds of concern, and (3) co-design a portfolio of viable strategies (management, planning, and regulatory; with local and global scope) that could be implemented going forward. Understanding about the robustness of these strategies and the eco-hydrological impacts that could accrue under different climate change scenarios will be gained by coupling the ABM with a regional (calibrated) groundwater model.

More broadly, and importantly, the integration of the four frameworks (socio-hydrology, participatory modelling, telecoupled systems, exploratory modelling) that will be proposed and tested during this project may provide a new theoretical and practical ground from which to better understand and address the paradoxes between local and global sustainability that many socio-environmental systems around the world are currently facing, and that will continue to emerge in the Anthropocene.

Juan Carlos Castilla-Rho
(Environmental Modelling and Decision Intelligence)

My research interests include socio-hydrology, participatory modelling, and computational social science.