Pictures by Chris Marais
With all this fuss about fracking in the Karoo, another industry with far greater proven potential is being pushed aside by President Jacob Zuma.
Karoo farming outclasses fracking in every way, from wealth creation and distribution to jobs and food security:
- Its sustainability in the Karoo has been proven over centuries;
- Karoo wool and mohair brings in billions in foreign revenue every year;
- Karoo Lamb is a worldwide brand, on the same level as Champagne and Parma ham.
- Karoo farming is a multibillion dollar industry spread over thousands of microbusinesses (farms);
- Each farm, on average, supports between two and 20 people;
- About 100 000 people – many of them unskilled – are employed full time and part time on Karoo farms, according to Agri-EC;
- Many of these workers are also provided with housing and services like water, electricity and sanitation;
- Farming in the Karoo contributes massively to the South Africa’s food security, supplying over one third of the country’s red meat needs;
- A quarter of the wool in the country, and 100% of the lucrative mohair business comes from the Karoo (not to mention other export products like 15 tons of ostrich feathers, and venison);
- Farming in the Karoo directly or indirectly supports nearly 100 towns, thousands of schools, hundreds of banks and retailers, and about a million people;
- Farming is compatible with tourism, and Karoo farmstays are becoming increasingly popular for South African families;
- It is also compatible with biodiversity conservation, unpolluted groundwater, clean air;
- Farming and renewable energy are easily partnered;
- Farming and multibillion scientific projects like the Square Kilometre Array can happen side by side;
- Karoo farms are centuries old, many of them owned by the same family for five or more generations. These farmers are specialists in generating food under trying conditions of irregular rainfall and extreme temperatures. Many are also innovating with new high nutrition crops like olives, pomegranates, pecan nuts and berries.
None of this could happen without groundwater.
Yet President Jacob Zuma has voiced his keenness for shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, the very industry that most threatens Karoo groundwater and farming.
During exploration, Shell is most likely to try to source water from the deeper brackish layers that underlie the shallower fresh water aquifers. The late Professor Gerrit van Tonder pointed out weeks before his death (at a recent meeting of the National Woolgrowers Association) that this will almost certainly alter the water table and risk disastrous salt contamination.
- Compared to agriculture, fracking is a very short term industry. The most optimistic measure shale gas potential in terms of a few decades at most;
- Once the viable shale gas is gone, the risks of pollution increase every day as shale infrastructure and well casings crumble. These risks will persist and grow over millennia;
- Shale gas is said to have the potential to generate tens of billions of rands. But no one mentions that these billions will likely be extracted from South Africans (payment for electricity) and the profits will go overseas, since the frackers are multinational corporates.
- The Karoo Basin’s unique geology (this would be the only shale play in the world with dolerite) would create very challenging drilling conditions – conducive to high capital expenditure, industrial accidents and pollution;
- Most direct fracking jobs created would be for foreign workers;
- Even its most ardent proponent in South Africa (Shell) is unsure that shale gas will prove to be financially viable;
- Fracking is certain to affect property values. Any property that is fracked is likely to dramatically lose value, as will neighbouring farms, because of the fear that wells will crumble and pollutants will rise into inter-linked aquifers;
- Fracking is largely incompatible with farming because of the disturbance to ground and possible pollution;
- If farmworkers lose their jobs because of fracking, they also lose their homes;
- Fracking is incompatible with tourism;
- Fracking leads to health risks, mostly via air pollution;
- Fracking is incompatible with renewable energy’s solar panels and wind turbines, mostly because of seismic and other disturbances;
- For similar reasons, fracking is incompatible with the multibillion dollar Square Kilometre Array;
- Fracking will generate vast quantities of hazardous waste.
So here it is in a nutshell: Karoo farming adds to national food security, employs 100 000 and generates billions of rands. Shale gas can only be a short-lived enterprise, will extract billions from South Africans, and put food security, drinking water and thousands of jobs at risk.
Which is the logical choice?