Year in the Wild Blog

Days 62-65 – YITW 2013-14 – Do we really want to frack this?

I have just been to Karoo National Park, located in one of the most beautiful – and driest – regions of our country. The Karoo ecosystem covers almost a third of our land, a semi-arid habitat that defines much of South Africa. It’s also at the centre of a raging controversy.

Karoo National Park near Beaufort West - a place that inspires love for our country

While I was there, I heard on the radio that the SA government is determined to begin fracking for shale gas. The same week, the French government and courts banned fracking. France is not even a water-stressed country, but South Africa is severely water stressed already.

Global warming models by the South African National Biodiversity Institute predict that SA will become even hotter and drier in the next hundred to two hundred years. More than half our rivers are already in poor condition.

The state of our rivers in South Africa. This map is from SANBI

And all the research done on fracking – even that by fracking supporters – indicates that there will always be SOME risk of water contamination. There is no guarantee that water contamination will NOT occur.

Yes, perhaps shale gas may give us energy independence, so we won’t have to import fuel from overseas at huge cost. But at what cost to the Karoo, the communities, the social fabric and the environment? Are we prepared to accept any risk with South Africa’s water supply, especially in an arid region like the Karoo?

Fracking will require huge amounts of water to be trucked into the Karoo from elswhere, to be used to frack for gas, and potentially polluting valuable ground water in our semi-arid country. This seems ludicrous considering the parlous state of South Africa’s fresh-water stocks. Water is the foundation of natural life, the foundation of our survival, and the foundation of any society and economy.

Yes, jobs will be created. But my guess is that most of the fracking jobs will go to highly-paid experts from overseas, or to locals who don’t even live in the Karoo anyway. And my other hunch is that the jobs for local people who need employment aren’t sustainable. Once the infrastructure is built, what then? And the social fabric of the Karoo – the farming society – will be changed forever. Is this what we want?

And even if the government says it will reinvest the money accruing from fracking into uplifting the local Karoo communities and natural environment, I am not sure I trust the politicians to ensure that this happens.

So what do we end up with? A Karoo that is crisscrossed with roads, pipelines and pump stations, with vital groundwater that is toxic, with empty farms devoid of livestock and wildlife, and displaced communities who were promised much but ultimately betrayed.

Fortunately, our national parks are immune to any prospecting, but ground water contamination outside the parks could still pollute the water inside the protected areas. And what about the viewshed of the park? If you stand on the border of a protected area, are you going to see pumps and wells next to the fence?

I remember chatting to world renowned paleontologist Roger Smith, a fossil expert who spends his days figuring out why species go extinct. He has travelled widely for his work, and and he mentioned to me after his trip to Argentina that fracking has ruined the natural landscape of vast areas in that country.

Argentina is now the world’s third biggest producer of natural gas, after the US and China, and Roger also mentioned to me that we modern humans have become far too reliant on technology, that we have forgotten our links with the natural world, and that ultimately this will be our undoing…and the reason for our extinction one day.

There’s little doubt that fracking will go ahead in South Africa. The lure of money and energy independence is too strong for the powers-that-be. South Africans have to be realistic about challenging the government and international energy corporations who have bottomless budgets to fight the battle in courts.

So here’s my suggestion: instead of losing the battle, and probably ending up with nothing, let’s do the following:

– Let’s insist that fracking is done according to the strictest environmental procedures, so that the chances of water contamination is minimised, if not eliminated. And there must be a legal guarantee that ensures environmental restoration once the gas has run out. Appropriate funds must be set aside upfront, so that if the energy companies go bust, these funds are available for environmental restoration.

– Let’s insist that fracking only takes place in areas that are already environmentally-compromised, degraded or damaged. If that means that the energy companies have to spend more to develop their infrastructure, so be it. No fracking must take place in areas that are comparatively pristine, and no fracking must take place within a certain radius of protected areas. 

– Let’s insist that for every hectare impacted by fracking (above and below the ground), another two (or ten, or hundred!) hectares elsewhere is given formal protection status, ensuring immunity from fracking. This could be done in a few ways: using government money to buy land to increase the size of national and provincial parks like Karoo NP, Tankwa Karoo NP or Anysberg Nature Reserve. Or it could simply be ensuring that farms elsewhere are given conservation “stewardship” status, prohibiting any potential fracking in those areas in the future.

– Let’s insist that the energy companies pay upfront a certain percentage of their total capital investment and – once fracking begins – a certain percentage of their fracking revenue (not profit). These funds will be invested by an independent trust for two purposese: for the benefits of the local communities including education, health and the creation of sustainable, eco-friendly industries.  And these funds will be used to enlarge and improve protected areas all around the country, not just in the Karoo.

Conservation in Africa needs all the money it can get. If fracking is inevitable, then let’s ensure that conservation and local communities benefit.

Cape Mountain Zebra in Karoo National Park

A young male Kudu in Karoo NP

Male kudu in Karoo NP

For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

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