Fracking: Groundwater Threats to Karoo Towns

Rietbron

The town of Rietbron relies entirely on groundwater.

Words by Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

Although most of the furore over potential fracking has revolved around Karoo landowners, it is Karoo towns that are the most vulnerable to groundwater contamination if well casings should fail thanks to shale gas exploration or production, placing hundreds of thousands of people at risk.

Of the 34 sizable towns within or close to the Karoo Basin’s shale gas exploration concessions, 31 depend wholly or partially on underground aquifers for drinking water. Only Cradock, Cookhouse and Adelaide draw solely from rivers for drinking water.

In Shell’s exploration concessions which add up to 90 000 square kilometres of Karoo, there are 16 sizable towns – that depend partially or wholly on groundwater as their primary watersources.

Shell Shale Gas

Royal Dutch Shell’s concessions cover 90 000 square kilometres of Karoo.

Those that depend wholly on groundwater include Noupoort, Middelburg, Hofmeyr, Tarkastad, Sterkstroom, Richmond, Nieu Bethesda, Murraysburg, Victoria West, Loxton, Fraserburg and Williston.

Towns that draw from a combination of groundwater and rivers include Steynsburg, Somerset East, Bedford and Nelspoort.

Aberdeen

Aberdeen depends entirely on groundwater.

In Falcon and Chevron’s concession of 30 000 square kilometres, Aberdeen, Jansenville, Rietbron and Leeu-Gamka depend solely on groundwater, with Merweville able to access a combination on the few occasions when the  Van der Bylstroom is flowing.

In Bundu and Challenger Energy’s 3 200 square kilometre concession, Graaff-Reinet draws from a combination of surface water from Nqweba Dam, fed by the Sundays River, and groundwater. Pearston relies solely on groundwater.

In addition, there are also dozens of villages and hamlets that might be affected, as could thousands of farmers and farmworkers (Falcon’s concession alone has 2 500 farms) who rely entirely on groundwater for drinking.

During their public participation meeting in Cradock in March 2011, Shell representatives assured the people present that they would not drill shale gas wells within five kilometres of any town. But they were startled when a representative from the Department of Water Affairs stood up to point out that Hofmeyr, for example, obtains its groundwater 20 kilometres away from the town.

Hofmeyr

Hofmeyr depends on groundwater obtained 20km away.

Other large towns that fall close to the boundaries of the various shale gas concessions include Beaufort West, Klipplaat, Venterstad, Prince Albert and Laingsburg (which depend on a combination of ground and surface water) as well as Hanover, Sutherland and Carnarvon, which depend completely on groundwater.

The late Professor Gerrit van Tonder of the Institute for Groundwater Studies at the University of the Free State said the fact that the Karoo Basin is under pressure, has many artesian wells (where water rises from great depth to the surface within days) and is riddled with dolerite faults, dykes and sills makes it uniquely vulnerable to groundwater contamination from drilling.

Prof Gerrit van Tonder

Professor Gerrit van Tonder, speaking at an anti-fracking rally in Nieu Bethesda.

During 2012 Professor Van Tonder interviewed Andre Els, who used to work with Soekor in the 1960s. Els recounted an incident where the drill bit and drilling fluid with a very particular chemical signature was lost during about 4000 metres underground in a blowout on the farm Skietfontein near Aberdeen.

Six weeks later the same fluid was found to have polluted a farm borehole near Klipplaat, travelling nearly four kilometres upwards and more than 30 km along, probably along a dolerite fault. Dolerite is a known preferential pathway for liquids – farmers seek it out when drilling boreholes. (Find out more about dolerite and fracking here.)

It is uncertain what recourse residents and municipalities would have if their towns’ groundwater was contaminated during or after the shale gas drilling process.

  • The areas that could be fracked in the Karoo Basin and Kalahari. SALT refers to the Southern African Large Telescope at Sutherland. SKA is the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope at Carnarvon.

    The areas that could be fracked in the Karoo Basin and Kalahari. SALT refers to the Southern African Large Telescope at Sutherland. SKA is the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope at Carnarvon.


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6 Responses to Fracking: Groundwater Threats to Karoo Towns

  1. Ian August 29, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    How much of Port Elizabeth and Cape Town’s water comes from the Karoo?

    • Julienne du Toit August 31, 2013 at 8:52 am #

      I’ve asked some scientists, and will post something as soon as I hear back from them. Thanks, Ian!

    • dirk van Rensburg December 12, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

      thanx great work

  2. Colin September 8, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    After hearing many sides to the issue of ‘Fracking’, I have decided that I will not be supporting the action. South Africa, its government and the various parties involved must find alternatives to its dire requirement to energy sources and/or enterprise. In order to employ its people and thereby turn its economy, I believe we must look elsewhere…like investments in Wind and Solar Energy initiatives. I am yet to be convinced otherwise for the need to initiate any exploration whatsoever in the Karoo or anywhere else at the expense of ruining the Earth and its water and the life that is derived thereof.

  3. Sam March 31, 2017 at 9:39 pm #

    There are now 30-40 dead dolphins on the shores of the Sundays River mouth. Is fracking to blame? What gives these foreign companies the right to destroy our fragile ecosystems and underground water?

    • Julienne du Toit April 6, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      There is no fracking happening in the Karoo at present so that wouldn’t be it. But your other question is completely on point.

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