The Threat of Fracking Looms Large Over Southern Africas Deserts
Cape Town, South Africa – “The development of petroleum, especially shale gas, will be a game-changer for the Karoo region and the South African economy,” said South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma in his State of the Nation address at the opening of parliament in Cape Town last week. This was not the first time he used the phrase ‘game changer’ to refer to the possible implementation of shale gas fracking in the country’s semi-arid and largely pristine Karoo environment. Last year, following the lifting of a moratorium on fracking, he made a similar announcement, which was repeated earlier this month by his minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, who added: “We will move ahead decisively, yet responsibly, with the exploration of shale gas, and to unleash its potential contribution to, among others, cost-competitive energy security, employment creation and a range of other latent benefits to the country.” The Karoo is one of the least developed areas of South Africa and the prospect of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is set to change that for good.
In a separate development, rumours have again surfaced that neighbouring Botswana have issued licenses for fracking prospecting and extraction in the vast unspoilt swathes of Central Kalahari, Chobe and Kgalagadi Game Reserves. Scott Ramsay, a photojournalist who recently visited the latter, a wildlife reserve bigger than Belgium, said that the Kgalagadi “is now in danger of losing its natural lustre and wilderness atmosphere.” He goes on to say that “the process of hydraulic fracturing is not only unsightly, with pipelines, drill towers and access roads scarring the land, it can also pollute ground water sources. In a place like the semi-arid Kgalagadi, where the average 150 mm annual rainfall is highly variable and droughts are common, it could prove destructive to the natural environment.”
Last year a South African investigative TV station, Carte Blanche, confirmed that fracking for coal bed methane gas had already begun in the 53,000 square kilometre Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The documentary reported that the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), a human rights and good governance monitoring agency, maintains that Botswana had already granted concessions to frack over vast tracts of land while keeping the public in the dark about the developments. OSISA have also published the official Mineral Concession Map which shows no fewer than seven licenses have already been issued for prospecting in Chobe, home to one of the largest populations of elephants on the continent.
This was rigorously denied by a spokesperson from the Botswana Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources, Jeff Ramsay. He admitted there is currently coal bed methane prospecting in the reserves “but there are no commercial operations now or in the near future.” He cited that Botswana is “guided by environmental regulations that [they] adhere to.”
Meanwhile the Cape Town based Centre for Environmental Rights published a report stating that given South Africa’s dismal track record that the impact on mining has had on the environment one can expect that fracking will be no different. The report goes on to argue that the South African regulations “rely solely on industry standards published by the American Petroleum Institute (API)”, who have practically written the rulebook on fracking with little regard for environmental concerns. In other words, Zuma and minister Shabangu are simply saying that “we’ll let the companies who will be doing the fracking decide what the best practices and standards are.”
So, whether or not fracking may bring economic upliftment to the small isolated human communities of the Karoo and the Kalahari, or to the general economies of South Africa or Botswana, is it worth destroying Africa’s last great wildernesses for?