241109 Water hyacinth drifts down the Umgeni River in Durban after last week’s storm. Hyacinth is a highly invasive water weed from South America, which reduces the amount of light available for aquatic life. Authorities find it virtually impossible and expensive to control once plants take hold. Picture: Gail Else

Umgeni Water says it is concerned about the potential damage to KwaZulu-Natal’s water resources as a result of fracking and will become more involved in the debate on new gas and petroleum exploration projects in large parts of the province.

This follows recent plans by Texas-based Rhino Resources and the locally based Sungu Sungu group to begin extensive exploration for underground gas, oil and petroleum reserves.

Rhino and Sungu Sungu have sought to play down the likelihood of fracking in KZN if commercially viable reservoirs of methane and other gases are found, but several local watchdog groups have intensified their efforts to raise public awareness about the potential risks of fracking to water resources, the natural environment and agriculture.

Fracking is a term that describes the artificial fracturing and shattering of underground rock to extract methane and other gases by pumping a high-pressure mixture of water, toxic chemicals and sand to depths of 6km below ground level.

Responding to questions at a media briefing last week, Umgeni Water chief executive Cyril Gamede said: “We have not been formally approached as Umgeni Water. We have watched this debate in the Western and Northern Cape, but now it is coming closer to our shores, so we are going to look at avenues to be part of this debate because there is a potential (for fracking) to contaminate groundwater.

“Theoretically, this is a sealed process, but we know there can be risks of contamination. So while we have not been invited, we will have to find ways of involving ourselves in that debate. We will invite ourselves.”

Earlier this month, Rhino Resources’ local subsidiary company announced plans to begin gas and oil exploration in an area covering nearly 10 000 farms, or roughly 16% of the total land surface area of KZN.

Towns falling within or just on the border of the exploration area include Pietermaritzburg, Mooi River, Estcourt, Greytown, Ladysmith, Ulundi, Nkandla, Dundee, Richmond and Camperdown.

It also has a technical co-operation agreement with Petro SA that could lead to further exploration in an even larger tract of land in the north of the province.

Several public meetings on the Rhino gas-exploration plan are due to begin early next month in towns and regions affected by it.

So far, more than 1 300 people have signed an Avaaz online petition against fracking in the Midlands and Drakensberg catchment areas.

Avaaz, launched in 2007, is a crowd-sourcing internet platform that allows people to combine their concerns on a variety of global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change.

The petition text can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/ frackingecapekzn.