Reports suggesting that a Canadian oil and gas firm is planning to start hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in one of Africa’s most sensitive environmental areas along the Namibia-Botswana border have made environmentalists, civil society organisations and local communities apprehensive about the long term effects of the activity on the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last natural sanctuaries.
In August, the Canadian oil and gas exploration company, Reconnaissance Energy Africa Limited (Recon Africa), announced that it was planning to drill oil and gas wells in an environmentally sensitive and highly protected area in southern Africa that supplies the Okavango Delta – the largest inland delta in the world – with water. The firm says it has acquired the rights to drill in more than 35,000 km2 of north-east Namibia and north-west Botswana. According to site maps, the proposed drilling location sits along the banks of the Kavango River, straddling the border between Namibia and Botswana, inside the newly proclaimed five-nation Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area – the largest protected area in southern Africa.
Maps from both the Namibian and Botswana ministries of mines confirm that Recon Africa – which is listed on the Canadian TSX Venture Exchange – has been granted petroleum-prospecting licences in the area.
Concerns over massive environmental problems
On its website, Recon Africa claims that this new discovery could actually dwarf the Eagle Ford shale basin in Texas, which is celebrated as one of the largest terrestrial oil and gas finds in the world. Oil and gas discoveries like the Eagle Ford basin helped make the United States the largest oil and gas producer in the world, but not without creating massive environmental problems.
There are fears that fracking, which requires lots of water (that the two desert countries don’t have), would lead to human and animal populations suffering from water scarcity, water pollution, habitat loss, environmental degradation and soil pollution among other ills.
The Union of Concerned Scientists explains in its ‘Guide for Residents and Policy Makers Facing Decisions Over Hydraulic Fracturing’ that the negative impacts of hydraulic fracturing often include poor air and water quality, community health problems, safety concerns, long-term economic issues and environmental crises like habitat loss.
Stakeholders in the dark
The announcement by Recon Africa, which coincided with the news that the firm had hired a leading fracking expert to lead the Namibian drilling operation, drew angry reactions from a cross-section of stakeholders. While Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism insisted that it publicised an environmental impact assessment (EIA) that was done to cover the drilling of three wells by Recon Africa, concerned stakeholders said they were unaware of the development.
Chris Brown, the Chief Executive Officer of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment, expressed surprise at reports of imminent drilling for oil and gas.
“I have spoken to a number of people to ask if anyone in the mining sector here had heard of this development and if anyone in the NGO sector had heard of it, and it seems to be totally under the radar here in Namibia,” Brown was quoted in the media as saying.
He pointed out that a project of this magnitude should have gone through thorough environmental review and permitting processes.
“There needs to be public consultation. We monitor all the adverts that come out in the newspapers, and we monitor all the adverts that come out around EIAs, and we haven’t picked this up at all,” Brown said, adding that under Namibian environmental laws, an EIA is required before any invasive activities can be conducted.
Fracking on Recon Africa’s plans?
While the Namibian Ministry of Mines and Energy denied that any fracking would take place, Recon Africa’s Chief Executive Officer, Scot Evans – a former Vice-President of US industry giant, Halliburton – revealed in a statement in June that they had hired fracking pioneer, Nick Steinsberger to run the Namibian drilling project, saying; “Nick is the pioneer of ‘slick water fracs’.” Evans went on to laud hydraulic fracturing as “a technique now utilised in all commercial shale plays worldwide.”
Recon Africa also revealed that it had completed refurbishing a big drilling rig in Houston, US, which would be shipped to Namibia in October to begin drilling as soon as November or December this year.
Recon Africa’s exploration licences border three national parks upstream of the Okavango Delta. They also cover 11 separate community nature concession areas, one World Heritage site and part of the KAZA Conservation Area. The drilling area also includes the last refuge of the San community with a future drill site near the World Heritage Site of Tsodilo Hills in Botswana. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) say the site is home to some 4,500 rock paintings.
The prospective area is also home to Africa’s largest migrating elephant herd as well as endangered African painted dogs and sable antelope. The Okavango River, in the north of the potential fracking zone, is the only source of water to the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s prime tourism attraction.
Maxi Pia Louis, director of the Namibian Association of Community-based Natural Resource Management Support Organisations (Nacso), expressed concern over the lack of consultation by the Canadian firm in the 11 community park concessions included in the prospecting licence area.
“I have no idea about this. It is huge, if there was an environmental impact assessment, I would have known because this is where a lot of our conservation projects are,” was quoted by The Namibian as saying.
Fears for the San community
University of Cape Town social scientist, Annette Hübschle, is concerned by the impact the fracking project could have on the San communities in the area.
“Particularly worrisome is that First Nations peoples, the San peoples, are living in the region. They are already living on the margins of society. This is going to negatively impact their way of life, their livelihood strategies and the place they call home.”
Another act of plunder?
On its website, Recon Africa revealed that it owns 90% of the Namibian side of the shale deposit, with the government-run National Petroleum Corporation of Namibia owning the remaining 10%, an arrangement that also worries Hübschle.
“This is neo-colonial extraction of the worst sort where Namibians draw the shorter straw and foreign companies walk away with our mineral wealth,” she said.
Ready support in neighbouring South Africa
In neighbouring South Africa, global petroleum giant Shell has – for the past 11 years – been trying to frack a large area in the Karoo, but has faced stiff opposition from environmental groups such as Frack Free South Africa whose director, Judy Bell is also very concerned about the fracking plans in Namibia and Botswana.
“The world is hurtling toward a point of no return due to climate heating, caused by the extraction, storage and use of fossil fuels,” Bell said.
“We have no time left, so let’s leave the oil in the ground and use the naturally abundant sources of energy from the wind and the sun.”