World’s largest salt flat in danger from lithium

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world. However, it enjoys the largest salt desert on the planet. In addition to representing an important tourist activity, this desert has a lot of lithium, a rare and widely used commodity today. Nevertheless, its exploitation is not without consequence on the region.

What is lithium used for?

These salt fields are used today for the extraction of lithium. Many mines are already installed there and the Bolivian government intends to open others. This desert currently contains approximately 17% of planetary lithium, a huge number. However, in the past, oil, hydrocarbons, gas or mining resources have been plundered by multinationals like Total. In order not to repeat his same mistakes, the Bolivian Head of State has therefore decided to reject offers from foreign private groups. However, why is Bolivia making all the effort to extract and sell so much lithium?

Today, lithium is of paramount importance in society. In effect, it is used for creating cell phone batteries, computers or other electronic devices. Moreover, with the purchase of smartphones becoming more and more regular, the fact that this metal will become even more valuable in the future is beyond doubt. Some scientists even think that this component will have more interests than oil in the years to come. And when we know that its price has tripled in three years, everything leads us to believe that this will turn out to be correct. In addition, the popularization of the electric car is likely to further increase the use of lithium. Indeed, a Tesla Model S needs about 63 kg of lithium compounds. However, this is the quantity needed to produce 10,000 smartphones. However, even if this lithium represents an excellent economic opportunity for Bolivia, this massive extraction of lithium could have harmful consequences.

Lithium cell button Credits: cebbi/Pixabay

The negative aspects

First of all, its extraction requires a lot of water. The already very arid Bolivian areas then become completely dry, which represents a problem for the inhabitants. Farmers are the first victims of these droughts. Indeed, the culture of quinoa, the main plant of the region, requires a lot of water. In addition, the pumping of groundwater risks to have an impact on the fauna in the surroundings. For example, the flamingo, an animal very present in these fields, can be threatened by this potential lack of resources.

Moreover, this salt desert is now an important tourist activity in the territory. In effect, 90% of the inhabitants of this region live thanks to this activity. Mining extraction, which is accelerating on these salt fields, can therefore decrease the influx of visitorswhich would be a tragedy for most locals.

To sum up, this strong presence of lithium represents a good opportunity for the government, but also a great danger for this famous place. Indeed, a decline in tourism and a depletion of water are feared by most inhabitants. Hoping that this fear does not become reality.

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