A cold, gusty wind whistles through the branches of hundreds of thousands of dust-weary and bone-dry four-inch high scrub. This is the Karoo, South Africa’s desert, which has changed little in 250 million years. The valley creaks to its own song, carried on the wind through rusted windmills and crags of prehistoric rock.
This new tune is fracking. A thousand kilometers away, big business rubs its hands at the prospect of drawing R1 trillion ($100 billion) revenue, over 30 years, out of this land. On the other side, 3,000 landowners are pledging millions to stop them.
They call it hydraulic fracturing. The process requires horizontal drilling to create fissures deep within the earth. Pressurized water, sand and fracking fluids are then forced into the well to release the gas buried in porous rock. Extracting shale gas requires a high-volume hydraulic pressure, which uses around 20 million liters of water per fracking incident.
An estimated 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas could be buried 4.5km below the Karoo, according to Econometrix, South Africa’s largest independent macro-economic consulting firm. The only way to get at it is via an invasive mining method, which has been used for no more than 15 years. Farmers in the Karoo say this will destroy their livelihood.
Derek Light is a small-town lawyer from Graaff-Reinet who sees himself as a defender of his birthplace. When Light first took on the court battle in 2008, he represented one farmer. Five years later, he represents thousands, including Johann Rupert, the second richest man in Africa, who lives on a farm nearby.
“It’s not a debate just in the Karoo. It’s a worldwide debate about a new method targeting unconventional resources in an unconventional way. It’s moving as quickly as the oil and gas companies are allowed to move. And we’ve said no. We didn’t make the same mistake that the United States made. They allowed it to happen and then tried to regulate it,” he says.
Most people in the cities do not understand the impact this will have on the countryside.
“I remember around two years ago, of all the people interviewed in the urban areas, 50% knew about fracking and of them, 15% knew what fracking really was. So ,I think it’s a question of if it doesn’t affect you, nobody cares.”
According to Light, fracking will change the face of the country. It will leave huge well pads every 5km connected by a patchwork of roads.
“The mining industry in the country has a shocking track record. There is a lack of observance of the laws as they are. There is inadequate financial provision made for rehabilitation. Inevitably for this country, the taxpayer has cleaned up the mess. The mining companies will spend money on what earns them money. They are not inclined to spend money on something that doesn’t generate income… No one can really give an answer as to whether we need this resource and if that cost is justified,” he says.
Born in Aberdeen, 50km south-west of Graaff-Reinet, Marlin De-Jager grew up in a colored township under apartheid.
He was raised by a single parent after his father abandoned him at the age of three. After a brawl at a rugby game, while in grade eight, he decided to skip town. He found himself struggling in the Western Cape province digging a train tunnel along the Hex River.
Last year, after 20 years of saving, he bought his own farm—a 3,000 hectare plot—for R4.2 million ($420,000).
“As an emerging farmer, I want to become a commercial farmer. One day, I want to see my son and his children also becoming commercial farmers,” he says.
“I’m only a drop in the ocean. I am trying to convince the colored community about my concerns with fracking. Our people are mostly small farmers. I sat and asked them about fracking. They said ‘we haven’t got land so why must we worry?’ That is their view. I don’t think they understand what will happen,” he laments.
Jean and John Watermeyer were children playing in the dirt of Graaff-Reinet when World War II was declared. Since then they have lived to see their children and grandchildren farm in the Karoo.
“I have been here all my life, it’s a wonderful part of the world to live in. From an agriculture point of view, from a stock point of view, it’s a magnificent resource. You can breed you own stock, you don’t have to go and buy. It’s the perfect environment for farming,” says John.
“We depend entirely upon rain, and we don’t get much of it. If we have a five- or six-year drought after they leave it will be disastrous… If something comes to disturb all the growth, it’s going to break the spirit of an awful lot of farmers… If it’s just going to be used in another country, then why are we destroying this country to support them,” Jean protests.
Doug Stern’s family has lived on their farm, Rietpoort, since 1948. The third-generation famer, who is also chairman of AGRI East Cape, represents 3,000 farmers in the Karoo. Stern has seen the damage of fracking in Pennsylvania, United States.
“You are not only dealing with a water-scarce country, but a particularly water-scarce area. The Karoo is dependent on boreholes for our very existence. If you are going to contaminate the water it’s going to be devastating to our communities. You can do without gas, you can do without electricity but you cannot do without water. It’s the stuff of life,” he says
Stern believes that 20 million liters of water is needed to bore one hole for fracking. One well can drill up to 32 holes, he says.
“The industry to date has not revealed where they are going to access this water. They keep telling us they are going to use sea water, they keep telling us they are going to drill for gas well below the water’s surface. I don’t trust them.”
“I was rather surprised about the lack of knowledge in the cities, such as Johannesburg. What shocked me the most was when people from the corporate world didn’t even know where the Karoo was. That’s a fact. I was horrified. Most of the businessmen I talked to asked why they should care. They were told the value of getting this energy game-breaker was far more important than the value of the Karoo,” claims Stern.
“The amount of energy and effort that has to go into this particular resource, given the estimated lifespan, is disproportionate… we’ve already used up the gold reserves in this country. To take something that has spent millions of years to form and then to extract it in the space of 15-20 years, with no guarantee of leaving the environment in a decent state, is an uneconomical gamble,” says farmer Jeremy Harper. He worked for six years as an exploration geophysicist before moving back to his mother’s farm, SandKraal, 30 years ago.
“One of the aspects in mineral exploration that I was glad to leave behind was the sense that, while one is involved, you are party to the pillaging of the planet. My sense of reality says it ultimately will happen. It would be a sad day and the people in authority of this country should be indicted if they enable it to happen before there are cast iron guarantees,” he declares.
Sandkraal is within the explorative fracking zone targeted by Shell.