Imminent fracking in the Karoo is pitted against climate change
On August 8, the special report on Land and Climate Change was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), citing that the consequences of the climate crisis on land and food systems will be dire, and the most vulnerable will be hardest hit unless fossil fuels are phased out immediately.
Communities in the Karoo are already experiencing the brunt of climate change. The Karoo is experiencing the most severe drought ever recorded – it has been described as the worst drought in a thousand years.
Most dams have already run completely dry, leaving communities dependent on underground water.
Existing borehole levels are dropping at an alarming rate, and some are already completely depleted.
The agricultural sector is the biggest employer in the Karoo and the impact of climate change, in particular the persistent drought and disturbed weather patterns, has disrupted production to such an extent that women and small-scale producers are no longer able to yield crops successfully, contributing to the inability of farmworker communities to sustain their families.
In January 2019, the loss for commercial agriculture was estimated at R7billion, and the situation has taken a turn for the worst since with some farmers reported to having lost more than 90% of their livestock and massive job losses as farmers can simply no longer afford to pay workers.
The total number of farmworkers who have lost their jobs as a direct result of climate change was last estimated at 32000 in January 2019 - presumably this number has increased since.
Small-scale farmers and producers are hit even harder - the absence of adequate access to land and natural resources, and the lack of necessary infrastructure support, makes them more vulnerable.
They are also largely overlooked whenever any form of drought relief is available.
Despite the science clearly indicating that South Africa, like the rest of the continent, cannot afford the exploration and consumption of even more fossil fuels, the then mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane announced in April that the government had given the go-ahead for shale gas development in the Karoo region.
The July ruling of the Supreme Court of Appeal to set aside the regulations on petroleum exploration and production as promulgated in 2015, does not safeguard the Karoo against fracking.
In the appeal, Judge Christiaan van der Merwe clearly stated that exploration for petroleum by hydraulic fracturing should not take place before it is lawfully regulated.
While we celebrate the victory, the process still leaves the door wide open for the fracking industry, as it requires the environmental regulations and the regulations for exploration and extraction to be promulgated separately.
Subsequent to the ruling, the Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa) conducted limited public consultations earlier this year and has since reviewed feedback from these consultations and scientific reports on shale gas.
Pasa is on the verge of making recommendations on granting exploration licences, which means that fracking in the Karoo is imminent.
This will affect the region adversely and the impact would create economic mayhem for communities already struck by social issues, compounded by the drought.
Water-intense extractive activities, such as fracking, can never be justified in a region without adequate water resources for the immediate communities.
Most communities in the Karoo are already totally reliant on underground water, qualifying the risk of fracking fluids leaking into the underground water table as a high-risk threat to life in the Karoo.
Water and air contamination will also put soil quality at risk, potentially taking agricultural land completely out of production, destroying the agricultural sector, and in effect the little that is left of the economy of the Karoo.
The unemployment rate in the Karoo is exceptionally high. With promises of significant job creation by the fracking industry, the anti-fracking movement in the Karoo has been labelled as anti-economic development.
It is evident that the extractive industry generally creates unsustainable, low-paid occupation with hazardous working conditions, and environmental and health impacts as a consequence. To be clear, the anti-fracking movement is in favour of economic development but it must be sustainable, transformative and just.
As the impact of drought in the Karoo intensifies, the question of climate change, land and water hangs heavily in the air. Once again, the poor are the most vulnerable and are at the centre of an unfolding crisis.
Communities in the Karoo are engaged in a fierce struggle to #BanFracking, and are calling on the government to transition rapidly to a just energy future. It would be irresponsible to simply let a potential resource of renewable energy to go untapped.
It is the only way, and action must be taken before it’s too late.
Janse van Vuuren is an activist and programme manager at Support Centre for Land Change in the Karoo involved in the #BanFracking campaign.