Drakensberg and surrounds face fracking threat too

Time of article published Sep 13, 2011

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JOHN YELD

Environment & Science Writer

WHILE proposed fracking for shale gas in the Karoo has drawn most of the local criticism of this controversial extraction method, there is an equally serious threat to the Drakensberg and surrounding mountainous areas in three provinces, conservationists are warning.

And a similar warning about the dangers of mining and oil-and-gas exploration and exploitation elsewhere in Africa has come from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which says one in four of the continent’s “iconic natural areas” are threatened by planned mining and oil-and-gas projects.

The IUCN, which advises the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) on World Heritage Sites in the “natural site” category, recently expressed concern about the “rapidly increasing number of cases” where sites were threatened by such projects, although it acknowledged that some major players had agreed to not exploit these areas.

Barkly East conservationist Kate Nelson, who runs a local guest farm and adventure company, said that while many people knew of the active anti-fracking campaign being run in respect of shale gas prospecting applications there, few were aware that large parts of the Free State, Eastern Cape Highlands and KwaZulu-Natal were under a similar threat.

Prospecting permits had been granted to Anglo Coal and to a three-company consortium consisting of Sasol and foreign energy giants Statoil and Chesapeake Energy, covering an 88 000km2 tract of land right around Lesotho – including the central and southern Drakensberg regions of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Free State and the Eastern Cape Highlands.

The consortium, granted a one-year technical co-operation permit in November last year, was involved in a desktop exploration study which did not involve any drilling at this stage, Nelson said.

“Nevertheless, it is a situation that local residents need to monitor closely.”

The exploration permits had been granted despite the Drakensberg being one of the country’s top tourist attractions and a proclaimed World Heritage Site.

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park was added to the World Heritage List in November 2000, to help conserve both its natural scenic beauty and biodiversity, and its rich cultural heritage in the form of San rock art.

The Berg was also a highly productive agricultural area and a vital source of clean water for large parts of the country.

“The Drakensberg is South Africa’s major watershed, with tributaries supplying both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Any pollution of this region therefore has the potential to impact on very large parts of the country’s water supply,” Nelson said.

“The fact that the Berg does have water potentially makes it more attractive for fracking than the ‘Karoo Heartland’, and so it is potentially more viable for the oil-and-gas exploration companies.”

Nelson said local conservationists had raised their concerns with the IUCN because the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park appears to be within the approved prospecting region. “We are eagerly awaiting their response.”

In June, Tim Badman, director of the IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, described these heritage sites as “exceptional places” covering less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface.

“They have been included on the World Heritage List because they are of outstanding value to all of humanity. It’s the duty of every one of us to co-operate in their protection and conservation.

“That duty includes the extractive industry.”

He acknowledged that some energy companies like Shell and the financial services firm JP Morgan, as well as the International Council on Mining and Metals, which brings together many of the world’s major mining companies, had recognised the importance of conserving World Heritage Sites and had committed themselves to avoiding any activities that would damage them.

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