Julia Colvin of the WESSA Water Explorer Programme in South Africa writes about the importance of including lessons about fracking in schools.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. This sentiment certainly rings true for many environmental education organisations working tirelessly to protect precious water resources for all.
With applications for the exploration of shale gas over much of KZN, Fracking is an increasingly real possibility. The WESSA Water Explorer Programme and DUCT have joined forces and shared networks to reach as many affected schools in the PMB and greater Midlands area as possible. The aim is to inform learners from school environmental clubs about the alarming realities of what fracking actually involves, and the negative impact this may have on the environment, particularly water resources, and ultimately, the health and well-being of local communities.
For many teachers and learners alike, the concept of fracking is something they have never heard about. Unconventional gas is a fossil fuel trapped between layers of rock deep underground. Fracking, (hydraulic fracturing) is the one of the processes of extracting gas from up to six kilometres underground. The gas is captured, distributed and used as a fossil fuel energy source. Fracking well fields are extensive areas that comprise the wellheads, mining infrastructure including site offices and housing, transport roads, pipelines and attenuation ponds for contaminated flow-back water. The process of hydraulic fracturing involves drilling up to 5 km deep and up to 1 – 3 km horizontally. The well penetrates through the aquifers (underground streams). A cocktail of millions of litres of water, sand and toxic chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic, are injected under tremendous pressure into the wells to fracture the rock bed along the horizontal axis. The sand acts to open up pockets of gas, which then flows freely to the surface of the wellhead to be extracted. Released gas and radioactivity can also escape into the environment and water resources, as has been recorded in Colorado, USA, and other fracking sites around the world. Fracking is seen as a serious environmental threat and is now banned in many countries and regions around the world.
South Africa is a water scarce country and is currently in the grip of a severe drought. Each fracking well uses between 6 and 25 million litres of water. In fracking areas in the USA there can be as many as 6 wells per km2. That oil companies should be considering using millions of litres of scarce water for each fracking procedure is alarming. “Another serious consideration, is the potential contamination of our ground water aquifers”, says Penny Rees from DUCT. “The KZN midlands is known as a water factory with rivers, streams and springs that supply water to over 6 million people . Should this deadly cocktail of chemicals pollute our ground water, this would wreak untold devastation for the communities that depend on this water”.
“The concept of gas as an energy source is deeply flawed”, says Judy Bell, a well-known environmental activist fighting the applications to explore for oil and gas. “In an era where countries including South Africa have signed the Paris Agreement committing to move toward a low carbon economy, the extraction of hydrocarbons in the form of gas is only going to delay an already urgent transition to cleaner, renewable energy.”
The fracking debate is something we all need to be involved in. It is important that children are able to practice active citizenry to safeguard their future and take a position on this controversial issue.
“Both organisations promote educational approaches that are enabling rather than fear based,” says Bridget Ringdahl of WESSA Water Explorer. She explained how using an informal approach of questions, conversation and illustrations, the children were able to gain an understanding of the importance of water, an understanding of the use of fossil fuels, the process of fracking and the choices around using renewable energy, emphasising healthy rivers and healthy people. “Many children were aware of the current energy crisis,” she added, “They were asked to respond to the presentation by creating a role play involving a scenario between different stakeholders with different agendas – both for or against fracking.”
Other groups explore fracking facts and formulate their thoughts about the impact of fracking creatively, by making posters. Some of these posters were displayed the community participation meetings held by environmental consultants, SLR, who are appointed by Rhino Oil and Gas to apply for environmental authorisation to explore for unconventional gas.
On World Environment Day, Pietermaritzburg school children marched through the streets of PMB waving their protest posters. “Our children are our future leaders,” says Pandora Long from DUCT. “They need to situate their learning within a broader framework in which they can develop close connections to the natural world of which they are part. Having an understanding of the way in which decisions like fracking affect their lives, both now and into the future is so important, as is the ability to act in an informed way to protect the health of people, livelihood generation and well being.”
Through the combined efforts of DUCT and WESSA Water Explorer many schools have been part of this education programme with others encouraged to sign petitions and raise awareness.
For schools and the children of KZN, this is only the beginning of a long campaign. Despite vociferous opposition within the KZN Midlands community, the Petroleum Association of South Africa, PASA has approved the scoping report and given Rhino Oil and Gas the green light to go ahead with the environmental impact authorisation (EIA). This is one step closer along the slippery slope towards the extraction process of fracking.
South Africa’s mineral resources lie in the hands of a few powerful people. Learners and teachers like, Sibongile Mthantyana from Sobantu Secondary School, expressed concern about the effects that fracking would have on water, soil erosion, habitat destruction, communities and climate change. She commented that it is not a fair price to pay, when fracking benefits only a few. “Why, when there is so much opportunity to use cleaner forms of energy, are we having this discussion in the first place? Why are communities in KwaZulu-Natal being placed in this position of risk?”
The WESSA Water Explorer programme is an online fun, inspiring and educational programme that empowers students to lead joint action on water issues. The international programme supported by GAP UK and HSBC, enables schools to earn points as they complete a variety of water challenges. Through their efforts to manage their water more wisely they stand to win many appropriate prizes to assist them in achieving their water goals. As many as 280 teams are registered in South Africa. Register for free on www.waterexplorer.org