Picture: Greg Maxwell/African News Agency (ANA) Archives
Cape Town - The ongoing drought in the Karoo and the devastating economic impact on the region has opened up the debate about economic alternatives, with fracking on the table again.

The government is investigating the shale gas potential in the Karoo. Ayanda Shezi, spokesperson for the Department of Mineral Resources, said the state was looking at the science of fracking and would also be considering water and environment-related issues before coming to any conclusion.

The crippling six-year drought in the area has led to a reported 60000 workers in farming and related activities losing their jobs. The search for alternative economic activities has drawn the debate about fracking into the mix. But the government seems to be cautious about entering the debate.

However, it said that three companies had been granted exploration permits for shale gas in the Karoo in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act.

“No hydraulic fracturing or fracking has been authorised, but holders are permitted to conduct some other forms of exploration, except for hydraulic fracturing/fracking, as the government is still investigating the use of this method,” said Shezi.

Lili Nupen, a director of the Nupen Staude de Vries law firm specialising in mining and environmental law, said: “In order for ‘fracking’ to be legally permissible in South Africa, the regulatory regime regulating fracking would need to be published in draft form by the correct competent authority for purposes of public comment by interested and affected parties, including farmers, landowners, mineral right holders in the area.”

She added: “Shale gas is a hydrocarbon gas (form of natural gas) extracted from shale rock formations, a type of sedimentary rock found in large quantities in the Karoo.

“Fracking describes the process applied in the extraction of shale gas, which involves using a highly pressured mixture of water and chemicals to drill into shale in order to release gas trapped in the rock.”

Tiaan Theron, who farms between Beaufort West and Rietbron, would be directly affected if fracking were to be allowed. He said: “I know there are arguments that the drought is putting a halt to the economy of the area and that we have to look at alternatives.

“However, for the past 100 years and more sheep farming has been the main source of income for the majority of people in this region and it's the backbone of the economy.”

Theron said he still believed sheep farming was viable, as the drought was cyclical: “We still believe that small animal farming is still the best long-term and sustainable economic activity that will provide for the people in the Karoo, and we hope and have faith that we'll get rain in 2020.

“We hope fracking won't not happen, because we have no alternative source of water. If this water is contaminated, it’d mean life in this part of the region would for all practical reasons come to a standstill,” said Theron.

The provincial chairperson of the EFF, Melikhaya Xego, said: “It’s not in dispute that fracking of shale gas will create and bring about many job opportunities and change the lives of many for the better, more especially in the Karoo region. Such a venture would further boost the economy by having a positive impact on the country’s GDP in the long term.”

However, he added: “Fracking of shale gas was not without challenges because it required vast amounts of water supply, trained and skilled labour, and imported infrastructure.

“So on this score alone, fracking of shale gas would not be possible currently in the Karoo It can’t serve as an alternative to job creation away from farming as both require water.”

Black First, Land First’s Zanele Lwana said if the exploration by the three firms led to discovery of gas and or minerals that would benefit the people of the Karoo and South Africa, they would consider lending conditional support to fracking.

@MwangiGithahu

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Cape Argus