The peaceful Karoo, where everyone respects and appreciates the earth, has come in the international spotlight over the past few years. At first it was the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope in the Carnarvon district, where some farmers felt cheated by vague promises. Shortly thereafter it was the possible exploration of shale gas, which should take place in parts of the Western, Northern and Eastern Cape.

Local communities have been opposed to the fracking project from the onset, as it threatens their water sources. Jonathan Deal of the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) says they have been fighting the project for seven years and last year it was announced that the project was put on ice.

However, in April this year, the minister of mineral resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, announced that government had given the green light for the exploration of shale gas in the Karoo. He informed the Richmond community that the project forms part of the National Development Plan (NDP) and that many job opportunities will be available to the communities.

Threatened water sources

Jonathan regards this as sheer nonsense. In his view, the announcement by Minister Zwane amounts to thoughtless political talks. “Water sources in the Karoo are threatened, with severe consequences for the communities and agriculture in South Africa. It serves no purpose that the government wants to create job opportunities and relieve poverty, but that the peoples’ drinking water is taken away in the same process,” he says.

In the past, communities were told that such a borehole for gas extraction from the ground can be actively managed for 15 years, but his research in the United States (US) indicates that where similar exploration is underway, the best boreholes are depleted within two to three years. “Then the soil has been damaged, the infrastructure of the community destroyed and the water polluted. Even if the boreholes can be utilised for 15 years, what happens afterwards?”

Jonathan says a miracle will be needed to restore the water in the Karoo if it has been polluted. Roads are also not properly maintained. “If the trucks used in the project damage the roads even further, the entire Karoo infrastructure will suffer.”

Fracking in the US

Among others, he refers to areas such as Maryland and the state of New York in the US, where applications have also been made for fracking. Inhabitants of these areas, however, insist that the process should not take place, as it is threatening their water sources. In the US, 27 000 complaints have been lodged against the companies involved, of which thousands will end up in court as a result of concern over the process.

Gregory Smith, a representative of Agri SA who is also keeping track of the fracking project, says the announcement by the minister can at most be an indication that government believes that exploration for shale gas should go ahead, subject to the granting of the necessary licences and permits (which are currently still outstanding).

According to Jonathan, this however is not a possibility. “Many High Court cases must be completed first and if the government wants to continue the process, it will have to start all over with proper scientific research, impact studies, consultations with communities and new regulations on the project. The study and research that have been done so far are not enough.”

Impact on small-scale farmers

In a document compiled for Agri SA, ‘Fracking and farms: It there a future?’, it is noted that this project will have a significant effect on small-scale farmers as they do not necessarily have the cash flow to handle the unnecessary pollution and bring court cases against companies harming the environment. The total income of the agricultural area affected by the fracking project is R5 billion per annum. It offers job opportunities to 38 000 people and maintains 133 000 individuals (CSIR, 2016).

Because sheep farming is a great source of income in these parts of the Karoo, known for supplying some of the best mutton, as well as vegetables and fruit, it is understandable the Karoo farmers have to protect their water sources and that the local agriculture cannot afford to take chances.

Potential pollution can have a negative effect on the agriculture and health of rural areas. There are concerns that poorer quality water will negatively affect the quality of products. Producer income could decline drastically, because a lot of agricultural land will be in jeopardy and production will not be possible on this land. The income from ecotourism in the Karoo may also drop drastically. The Karoo region’s income from tourism is an estimated R2 billion per annum.

Environmental and social damage

Jonathan says that while shale gas is being explored in different parts of the world, there is sufficient proof that chemical companies have caused more environmental and social damage in these areas than they care to admit, and it has a very negative long-term effect on the community. “The compensation offered by these companies is not nearly enough to compensate for the damage caused.

“Foreign countries where shale gas is explored have infrastructure in place for the communities to use gas, and the gas is taken to households through pipelines. That is not the case in South Africa: All gas that is explored must be transported by road.

“Research shows that South Africa can import gas much more cost-effectively from other African countries such as Mozambique, Tanzania and Angola. Even imported gas from the United Kingdom (UK) will be cheaper than locally explored gas. Eskom is not yet geared to use this gas cost-effectively in the local energy system. Regardless of how the project is approached, it all comes back to the water sources of the Karoo that are under threat.”

Water security

Another document compiled by Agri SA, ‘Fracking and water: Is there enough to go around?’, explains that water security in the Karoo is an important factor to its sustainability and that shale gas exploration uses huge amounts of water. According to information from the Department of Mineral Resources, each borehole will probably need between 10 000 and 25 000m3 of water. This begs the question whether the Karoo’s water sources will be able to handle the amounts required for fracking.

There is also concern over the handling and management of water flowing back during the fracking process and mixing with fracking fluid, which has a high salt concentration and includes harmful chemical substances. South Africa does not necessarily have the facilities, capacity or expertise to manage such wastewater and to safely keep it away from water sources.

Jonathan furthermore highlights his concern about the threat of fracking to groundwater. The Karoo communities depend on groundwater and cannot be exposed to this risk. Water is a valuable resource and its value cannot be expressed in monetary terms. “The Karoo community will continue to resist the project until all role-players play open cards with them and there is enough proof that it is safe for man and beast. At present, this does not seem to be the case. Therefore, the community will continue to protect their interests,” he concludes. -Koos du Pisanie, Farmbiz

For more information, phone Jonathan Deal on 076 838 5150.

Fracking: Concerns regarding water and hydraulic fracturing