Many South Africans are hot under the collar about Shell’s plans to drill for gas in the ecologically sensitive Karoo.
Although Shell claims its ‘fracking’ activities aren’t a threat to the environment and the search for gas won’t imperil drinking water in this arid region, Karoo residents (and others) are horrified enough to have mounted an active resistance. And when high flyers of the likes of Johann Rupert, Princess Irene of the Netherlands and environmental activist Lewis Pugh are involved, you’d better believe they’re serious.
So what’s all the fracking fuss about? ‘Fracking’ is a snappier way of saying ‘hydraulic fracturing’. I’m no expert but as I understand it, a shaft is drilled through the water table to the natural gas deposits in shale, up to 4 000 metres deep, then horizontally into the shale. A mixture of water, chemicals and sand or clay is pumped into the well at high pressure. The water and chemicals make fractures (cracks) in the shale and the sand keeps the cracks open so the gas can flow up to the surface, where it’s captured and stored.
Why should we care? Well, the Karoo is special. At first sight it may appear barren, but that would be to ignore the rich animal, reptile and bird life, and especially the amazing plant life of the region. From fynbos to succulent Karoo, it’s home to more than a dozen different veld types. Succulent Karoo is one of only eight biodiversity hotspots in Africa, with a host of plants that occur nowhere else on the planet. That alone would make it special, but it’s not only botanists who get fired up about the Karoo; ecologists, geologists, archaeologists, palaeontologists and plain old travellers like me are equally enthusiastic.
Opponents of fracking are bothered by the use of chemicals in this sensitive area, and the chance that they may end up in water resources. They maintain that 30% to 40% of the chemical-laden water mix remains below the surface, while the rest is pumped out and has to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
Shell has yet to reveal exactly which chemicals will be used in the Karoo, but if those used for fracking in Australia are anything to go by, there do appear to be risks to water sources, not to mention human health risks ranging from mild (irritants to skin, eyes, throat and respiratory system) to severe (liver, kidney, brain and vascular problems).
Another concern is that fracking needs water – lots of it. And that’s not in ready supply in the Karoo where rainfall is just 20 to 290 millimetres a year. ‘Fracking will deplete the scarce water resources of the Karoo and lead to contamination of the groundwater table,’ argues Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) spokesman Jonathan Deal. Although Shell claims it won’t compete with residents for fresh water you have to wonder where, then, they will get it from.
In the next post: Is fracking really necessary? And why is it being considered in South Africa when it has been put on hold in the United States?
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