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Monitoring Karoo ecology in view of possible shale gas developments

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Some impacts of shale gas mining will be immediate and at a local level at gas fields (Picture courtesy of Scitizen)

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A criss-crossing of new roads, gas pipes, water pipes and unprecedented heavy traffic volumes will fragment the vast, open Karoo (Picture: Malachite Media)

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Of major concern is the consumption by fracking of water - the ever-scarce commodity in this part of the world - as is the management of water contaminated by fracking (Picture: Malachite Media)

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Professor Yunus Ballim, interim head of Sol Plaatje University, invited SAEON’s Dr Joh Henschel to give a public lecture at the William Humphreys Gallery on SAEON’s plans for environmental monitoring in view of potential shale gas mining, or fracking (hydraulic fracturing). The turnout comprised academics, students, the media, government officials, and the general public. Among a flurry of questions and comments following the lecture, a member of the audience suggested that Sol Plaatje University offer Arid Land Studies as a subject, thus ensuring future capacity for SAEON and other environmental practitioners in the Karoo.

By Dr Joh Henschel, Manager, SAEON Arid Lands Node

 

SAEON’s Arid Lands Node is mandated to monitor the environment in the driest half of South Africa.

SAEON’s involvement with the issue of shale gas mining becomes obvious when overlaying the maps of the Karoo Basin and the Nama-Karoo Biome. Most of the exploration license areas for shale gas are situated in the Nama-Karoo.

As both industry and government are moving closer towards the initiation of shale gas exploration activities, questions arise about the possible effects of this industry on people and society, groundwater availability and quality, as well as on the natural capital.

The latter is defined as natural stocks and processes that underlie flows of ecosystem goods and services and biodiversity conservation, as well as enhance human well-being.

Ecosystem goods include air, water, food, medicines, minerals and biofuel, while the services can either be regulating, such as purification and decomposition, or supporting, such as pollination, nutrient cycling and erosion prevention, or they can be cultural, for instance recreational, spiritual or potential technological innovations. The Karoo is full of these.

Impacts of shale gas mining

For SAEON to monitor changes in Karoo natural capital, the question is, of course, what the possible impacts of shale gas mining would be. What will be affected, how, and at which spatial and time scales?

Some impacts will be immediate and at a local level at gas fields. Others will be longer-term and more extensive across the Karoo. Of major concern is the consumption by fracking of water - the ever-scarce commodity in this part of the world - as is the management of water contaminated by fracking.

A busy criss-crossing of new roads, gas pipes, water pipes and unprecedented heavy traffic volumes will fragment the vast, open Karoo. Migrant labour will also impact the environment and the social functioning of this sparsely populated area. Landscape fragmentation would be especially dire in an environment where rainfall events are very unpredictable and patchy and where populations of many animals and plants evolved with vast space at their disposal to shift to wherever conditions are right.

So, what can SAEON do?

To develop an effective environmental monitoring programme, it is first necessary to review and synthesise existing data and knowledge from published and unpublished sources, screen dusty shelves, and pick brains of scientists, farmers and other Karoo boffins. This will also reveal the existing gaps in knowledge and inform research institutions and funding agencies accordingly.

Baseline studies of future gas fields will be based on measurements, data which can be compared to similar reference areas without gas fields. Over time, SAEON intends to develop data time-series of environmental indicators from these areas. Throughout, it will involve many different collaborators, as is typical for SAEON’s way of operation.

A burning question at this stage is: What does South Africa need to get ready for shale gas mining? What SAEON and its collaborators are focusing on - natural capital - is only one of many facets. Besides the gas and energy industries, these also include water availability and quality, air and soil quality, waste management, public health, societal conditions, sense of place, heritage, future land use options, restoration and rehabilitation following exploration and/or mining, reliable infrastructure, functioning institutions, education and skills development, economic conditions and the legal framework. The bottom line is South Africa’s reputation.

With the proposed monitoring programme, SAEON intends to contribute significantly towards enhancing the knowledge, capacity and governance to manage the risks, benefits and uncertainties concerning potential shale gas exploration and extraction.

Irrespective of the future of the gas industry in South Africa, the SAEON programme will go a long way towards tracking the development trajectory of the Karoo into the future. This will help guide decisions and practice concerning the environment.

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Questions arise about the possible effects of shale gas mining on people and society, groundwater availability and quality, as well as on the natural capital (Picture: Malachite Media)

 

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