What the (s)hell is going on in the Karoo?

The Karoo is a large landlocked region making up 25% of the land surface of South Africa. The region is generally exposed and windy, hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Temperature extremes range from -5°C in winter to 43°C in summer. A wide variety of life-forms co-exist in the Karoo. Small trees occur along drainage lines and on rocky hillsides. Plains are dominated by low shrubs (generally less than 1 m in height) intermixed with grasses, succulents, geophytes and annual forbs. The grassiness of the vegetation varies over time, increasing in periods of above average summer rainfall and decreasing in periods when summers are drier than winters.  It is a very beautiful part of South Africa and water is a very precious commodity in this region.

Tanqua Karoo, South Africa
Photo: Claire Spottiswoode

Shell has applied for a license to explore for shale gas in the ecologically sensitive Karoo region.

The exploration involves a controversial process called  ‘hydraulic fracturing’, or, ‘fracking’ in which water and sand are pumped into a well in order to get the gas that is contained in soft rock to flow freely. While the prospect of exploiting such a resource may go some way in securing the country’s energy supplies, it can lead to pollution of the underground water system and may impact land use for years.

The following speech was given by Lewis Pugh at a public hearing regarding this subject.  It’s long but REALLY well worth the read.

Cape Town – 25 March 2011


Ladies and gentlemen, thank for the opportunity to address you.  My name is
Lewis Pugh.

This evening, I want to take you back to the early 1990’s in this country.
You may remember them well.

Nelson Mandela had been released.  There was euphoria in the air. However,
there was also widespread violence and deep fear. This country teetered on
the brink of a civil war.  But somehow, somehow, we averted it.  It was a

And it happened because we had incredible leaders.  Leaders who sought calm.
Leaders who had vision.  So in spite of all the violence, they sat down and
negotiated a New Constitution.

I will never forget holding the Constitution in my hands for the first time.
I was a young law student at the University of Cape Town.  This was the
cement that brought peace to our land.  This was the document, which held
our country together.  The rights contained herein, made us one.

I remember thinking to myself – never again will the Rights of South
Africans be trampled upon.

Now every one of us – every man and every women – black, white, coloured,
Indian, believer and non believer – has the right to vote.  We all have the
Right to Life.  And our children have the right to a basic education. These
rights are enshrined in our Constitution.

These rights were the dreams of Oliver Tambo.  These rights were the dreams
of Nelson Mandela. These rights were the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, of
Desmond Tutu and of Molly Blackburn.  These rights were our dreams.

People fought – and died – so that we could enjoy these rights today.

Also enshrined in our Constitution, is the Right to a Healthy Environment
and the Right to Water. Our Constitution states that we have

“the Right to have our environment protected for the benefit of our
generation and for the benefit of future generations..”

Fellow South Africans, let us not dishonour these rights.   Let us not
dishonour those men and women who fought and died for these rights.  Let us
not allow corporate greed to disrespect our Constitution and desecrate our

Never, ever did I think that there would be a debate in this arid country
about which was more important – gas or water.  We can survive without gas.
We cannot live without water.

If we damage our limited water supply – and fracking will do just that – we
will have conflict again here in South Africa.  Look around the world.
Wherever you damage the environment you have conflict.

Fellow South Africans, we have had enough conflict in this land – now is the
time for peace.

A few months ago I gave a speech with former President of Costa Rica.
Afterwards I asked him

“Mr President, how do you balance the demands of development against the
need to protect the environment?”

He looked at me and said

“It is not a balancing act.  It is a simple business decision.  If we cut
down our forests in Costa Rica to satisfy a timber company, what will be
left for our future?”

But he pointed out

“It is also a moral decision.  It would be morally wrong to chop down our
forests and leave nothing for my children and my grandchildren.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that is what is at stake here today: Our children’s
future.  And that of our children’s children.

There may be gas beneath our ground in the Karoo.  But are we prepared to
destroy our environment for 5 to 10 years worth of fossil fuel and further
damage our climate?

Yes, people will be employed – but for a short while.  And when the drilling
is over, and Shell have packed their bags and disappeared, then what?  Who
will be there to clean up?  And what jobs will our children be able to etch

Now Shell will tell you that their intentions are honourable.  That fracking
in the Karoo will not damage our environment.  That they will not
contaminate our precious water.  That they will bring jobs to South Africa.
That gas is clean and green.  And that they will help secure our energy

When I hear this – I have one burning question.  Why should we trust them?
Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP.

Shell, you have a shocking record here in Africa.  Just look at your
operations in Nigeria.  You have spilt more than 9 million barrels of crude
oil into the Niger Delta.  That’s twice the amount of oil that BP spilt into
the Gulf of Mexico.

You were found guilty of bribing Nigerian officials – and to make the case
go away in America – you paid an admission of guilt fine of US$48 million.

And to top it all, you stand accused of being complicit in the execution of
Nigeria’s leading environmental campaigner – Ken Saro-Wira and 8 other

If you were innocent, why did you pay US$15.5 million to the widows and
children to settle the case out of Court?

Shell, the path you want us to take us down is not sustainable.  I have
visited the Arctic for 7 summers in a row.  I have seen the tundra thawing.
I have seen the retreating glaciers. And I have seen the melting sea ice.
And I have seen the impact of global warming from the Himalayas all the way
down to the low-lying Maldive Islands. Wherever I go – I see it.

Now is the time for change.  We cannot drill our way out of the energy
crisis.  The era of fossil fuels is over.  We must invest in renewable
energy.  And we must not delay!

Shell, we look to the north of our continent and we see how people got tired
of political tyranny.  We have watched as despots, who have ruled ruthlessly
year after year, have been toppled in a matter of weeks.

We too are tired.  Tired of corporate tyranny.  Tired of your short term,
unsustainable practices.

We watched as Dr Ian Player, a game ranger from Natal, and his friends, took
on Rio Tinto (one of the biggest mining companies in the world) and won.

And we watched as young activists from across Europe, brought you down to
your knees, when you tried to dump an enormous oil rig into the North Sea.

Shell, we do not want our Karoo to become another Niger Delta.

Do not underestimate us.  Goliath can be brought down.  We are proud of what
we have achieved in this young democracy – and we are not about to let your
company come in and destroy it.

So let this be a Call to Arms to everyone across South Africa, who is
sitting in the shadow of Goliath: Stand up and demand these fundamental
human rights promised to you by our Constitution.  Use your voices – tweet,
blog, petition, rally the weight of your neighbours and of people in power.
Let us speak out from every hilltop.  Let us not go quietly into this bleak
future.  Let me end off by saying this – You have lit a fire in our bellies, which no
man or woman can extinguish.  And if we need to, we will take this fight all
the way from your petrol pumps to the very highest Court in this land.  We
will take this fight from the farms and towns of the Karoo to the streets of
London and Amsterdam.  And we will take this fight to every one of your
shareholders.  And I have no doubt, that in the end, good will triumph over

We need to stand up and be counted  – you can sign a petition here.


6 thoughts on “What the (s)hell is going on in the Karoo?

  1. I live in an area of North Texas that sits on top of one of the largest shales in North America. Our entire economy in my County revolves around natural gas and oil production. They do the “Fracking” here and it has raised huge controversies. Many areas have seen their drinking water contaminated to where it is not safe to drink, and believe it or not, we have even had small earthquakes…..all being blamed on the fracking. But, TEXAS is so reliant on the Oil and Gas Industries that they just continue onward. Whether they do this practice in an unpopulated or populated area is irrelevent….it will destroy the environment none the less….. I hope your Country can say NO to Shell!


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