Water vital in fracking equation

AS South Africa looks all set to go with fracking, the ban on this activity in the US state of New York remains in place. It's a relevant comparison because arguably more than anywhere else globally where fracking is proposed or under way, the water pollution concern in both these cases is pivotal.

In both cases, the proposed frack zone overlaps a flagship water resource. While in the Karoo this is a vast network of groundwater fractures, in the state of New York it's a catchment in the Catskill Mountains.

In a landmark article in April 2005, The Economist focused on this New York supply line as an example of ecosystem services, and their huge economic importance in terms of policy and infrastructure decision-making.

In 1997, the report noted, the New York City government realised that changing agricultural practices meant it would need to act to preserve the quality of the city's drinking water. One way to have done this would have been to install new water filtration plants, but that would have cost $4-billion to $6-billion (now R40-billion to R60-billion) up front, together with annual running costs of $250-million (now R2.5-billion).

Instead the government elected to pay to preserve the rural nature of the Catskills from where its water came. It spent $250-million (now R2.5-billion) on buying land to prevent development and paid farmers $100-million (now R999-million) a year to minimise pollution.

Today, in line with this approach, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo has just extended the five year moratorium on fracking, citing the need for further scientific analysis and study of the potential negative impacts on water and human health.

Meanwhile, on the back of several bullish statements by our government that "fracking is coming", Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has made a revealing move.

Last week, she gazetted a notice in terms of the Water Act of intention to declare fracking a controlled activity. If the notice is finalised after the 60-day public comment period, it will mean that approval for any proposed fracking operation must include a water licence.

In considering an application for such a licence, Molewa's department must now directly and specifically scrutinise "the possible impact of fracking on our water".

The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa says it considers this announcement to be "a portent of the risk fracking poses to our water resources in the Karoo".

The society goes on to call on Molewa to exercise the precautionary principle, the golden thread in our environment law which obligates the proponents of an activity – before they are allowed to proceed – to provide proof that their activity will not cause harm to the natural environment or people.

Many alarm bells ring here. As the government's own study says, "there is very little information about the hydrogeology of the Karoo at depths greater than 500m". But the shale the drillers want to frack lies between 1500m and 4000m down.

In a recent debate about fracking and water pollution, former Shell president John Hofmeister criticised arrogance and lack of transparency in the gas and oil industry, and admitted "everyone knows some fracking wells go bad".

Is this a premise we can accept considering our lack of clarity on the hydrogeology of the Karoo? What will happen to the communities and the environment in the area of a well that "goes bad" and how big an area will be affected?

How can the requisite proof of no harm be obtained from a situation like this?

Besides the potential threat to water quality, there is the quantity required – 24 million litres of water per well. Where will this water come from?

The study suggests seawater is a possibility "although it would introduce the risk of sterilising soil in the event of escape from containment systems".

The society argues finally that if fracking is allowed to proceed without a holistic strategic assessment it will diminish our possibilities on the broader energy front, as we enter an already perilous future of climate change.

"Opting for continued reliance on finite energy sources like gas distracts the country from the commitment to renewables which would create more sustainable jobs with fewer externalised costs," the society says.

Clarity comes in mysterious ways. When I was young I read a book called My Side Of The Mountain

about a boy called Sam Gribley who ran away from home with "a penknife, a ball of string and $40" to hole up in a mountain wilderness.

I kept the book and six months ago I put it on my oldest son's bedside table with a stack of others I thought he might like to read. Coming home late the other night after writing this column, unsure if I was on the right track, I lay on his bed (he and his brothers were at their mum's).

I was paging through the book when I realised what I had long ago forgotten. Sam's home which he escaped from was in New York and his mountains were the Catskills.