Fracking in the Sonic Spaces of the Karoo

In this blog entry, Sonic Spaces of the Karoo author Marie Jorritsma considers the issue of fracking and the dangers it poses to the South African lanscape and culture she studied.

In Graaff-Reinet as well as many Karoo farming towns, much has stayed the same in the period between submitting the manuscript and its appearance in print. The descriptions I give in Chapter One remain relevant today and the misgivings I express about the change from livestock farming to game farms in the area are also still valid.

However, a new challenge is facing the Karoo landscape, one which has recently come to the fore since the completion of Sonic Spaces of the Karoo.

This blog thus affords me the opportunity to mention this very disturbing development to potential readers. A major oil company is seeking permission to use a vast area of the Karoo landscape (90 000 km) for Hydraulic Fracturing (or “fracking”), a process used to obtain natural shale gas from rock formations situated deep underground. Water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is pumped down a drilled hole into the rock at high pressure. This causes the rock to crack, therefore releasing the gas. Sites are usually active for between 5 and 8 years, after which productivity declines rapidly.

 There are several serious environmental concerns regarding fracking in the Karoo. First, there are suspicions that some of the chemicals used are carcinogenic and therefore harmful to humans and the environment. These chemicals remain in the soil and can pollute the underground water table in the area and ultimately threaten the quality of drinking water (for some time there has been concern about this at fracking sites in the United States and much debate has been generated in the U.S. media as a result). Second, the fact that the Karoo and South Africa generally are already water-deprived areas raises questions of where the millions of liters of water required for fracking will come from. The word “Karoo” derives from an indigenous Khoisan word meaning “dry” or “thirstland;” South Africa receives only 464mm of rain per year in comparison to the world average of 860mm; water is thus already a scarce resource.

As I mention in Sonic Spaces of the Karoo, water is an incredibly precious commodity in this area. It allows town communities to thrive, farming to be sustainable and for the Karoo landscape to yield meat and crops which feed many in the rest of the country. The organic nature of many of these products is much sought after in the urban areas and internationally.

Practically speaking, these arguments in themselves should be sufficient to sow severe doubts about the feasibility of fracking in the area. I expect that water shortages and contamination in the Karoo may lead to some people leaving the area and for those who remain, life will become more difficult. Food security for the rest of the country in turn may be severely affected.

Although I am intensely concerned about these environmental aspects, I am also very aware of what the introduction of fracking will do to the sounds of the Karoo. Will the rural church singing I studied survive? Where will these communities go and how will their music be changed by this dispersal? The Karoo as we know it will change irrevocably; this may be one change that the landscape and its people will not overcome. For those of us whose lives are intertwined with the landscape, its potential destruction is unthinkable.

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