A senior government official has spoken out strongly about the high risks of water pollution from gas fracking in one of the driest countries in the world.
Namisha Muthraparsad, acting deputy director for water use in the national Department of Water and Sanitation, warned yesterday that South Africa, as the 30th-driest country in the world, could not allow petroleum companies to pump contaminated water back underground during the gas fracking process.
“It is too risky, there are too many uncertainties, so we will not allow underground disposal of wastewater and other water produced in the fracking process,” Muthraparsad told a seminar on fracking and unconventional gas production at Cedara agricultural college near Pietermaritzburg.
She stressed that her department was neither for nor against hydraulic fracturing, a technology developed in the US to release natural gases such as methane by fracturing (fracking) deep underground rock formations using a combination of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals.
However, as the government regulator charged with ensuring wise use and protection of South Africa’s dwindling water resources, her department was already saddled with the legacy of underground water pollution from other mining industries.
Because of the shortage of clean surface water in rivers, dams and lakes, it was becoming more essential to protect underground water resources from further contamination. Noting that fracking often involved “mini-explosions” as deep as 5km underground, Muthraparsad said unconventional gas recovery processes led to the release of large volumes of saline water which could be contaminated with radioactive minerals and potentially toxic fracking fluids.
The importance of protecting South Africa’s dwindling supplies of clean water had been underlined by a recent CSIR study that showed that 50% of the country’s water was produced on just 8% of the land surface, in areas such as the uKhlahlamba-Drakensberg mountains and other high-lying “water towers”.
Muthraparsad said she and other officials had travelled to the US, Australia and other nations to gain a better understanding of the potential risks from fracking and other unconventional technologies and she urged local communities to also arm themselves with knowledge.
Her comments come amid recent applications by a Texas-based exploration company, Rhino Resources, for oil and gas exploration rights over nearly 40% of the land surface of KwaZulu-Natal.
Speaking at the same seminar, organised by the conservation group WWF and Frack-Free South Africa, anti-fracking campaigner Francois du Toit said farmers in KZN and other parts of the country were facing a “relentless juggernaut” and communities should lobby their political leaders, including King Goodwill Zwelithini, to slow down the gas exploration process.
Saliem Fakier, an economist and head of WWF-South Africa’s policy and futures unit, said fracking had been presented by the government as a potential economic “game-changer”. He challenged this “simplistic message about fracking being an economic miracle”, noting that each fracking well could cost as much as US$20 million (R307 million). As it was difficult to try to “see into underground rock”, up to 90% of wells might not yield economically viable quantities of gas.
With high royalty fees demanded by the government and critical water shortages, the economic viability of gas fracking in South Africa was likely to be marginal.