New energy, new water crisis
If the battle over coal seems already destined for a lengthy conflict, two new challenges are emerging to further complicate the confrontation between water security and national energy development. The affected area is southern Karoo, a desert area in the heart of the country – the mining provinces. According to prospectors, under the rocks of the sunburned Karoo are significant uranium mines, which are essential to support the renewed and controversial South African nuclear program. There are also important shale gas resources, an unconventional natural gas extracted by fracking, which means fracturing the rock under the surface using water and chemical agents at high pressure. According to think tank Transnational Institute, fracking is considered “a system that is seriously jeopardizing the community and causing a troubling diversion of water use in favor of mining companies.”
At present, an environmental campaign begun in 2011, Unearthed, by Jolynn Mynnaar, has put a temporary stop to developing shale gas extraction. The prospect of nuclear energy and uranium mining, however, continues. The government is set to invest more than 70 billion with Russia’s Rosatom for a new nuclear power plant. The plan is the daughter of an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his African counterpart, Jacob Zuma. The project has stirred up mining companies to file mining claims related to uranium, including in the Southern Karoo.
“It’s madness,” said Bill Steenkamp, while parked in a desert valley just outside Beaufort West, in the heart of Karoo. The temperature rises to 37 degrees Celsius, the heat blurring the horizon, altering the light’s trajectory. “There is no water in Karoo. You can see it with your own eyes. To extract uranium water will be imported by train from the coast, while taking advantage of every drop that we have here now. The companies interested have already done their numbers. In the region the population uses 7 billion gallons of water a year. The uranium operations alone would require 14 billion liters. Maybe the water is coming from the coast, but what happens if they contaminate the few reserves of fresh water we have here with radioactive elements?” Climate change has already made its mark. Precipitation has been dangerously low for the past few years, and for years many basins around Beaufort West, one of the main urban centers of southern Karoo, have remained dry.
In Beaufort West unemployment exceeds 40 percent. For many, the new mining boom could be an opportunity to get out of poverty. “They should be investing in solar and wind energy. There’s plenty of wind and sun here,” says Bill kicking the dust with his shoe to emphasize the northern breeze. “As long as they stop continuing to dig in this poor country.”