Full disclosure on fracking in the Karoo

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“Karoo Disclosure” by Deborah Weber. Credit: Soninke Combrinck

Saturday 29 August, the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, launched the collaborative art effort “Karoo Disclosure” exploring the human dimension of fracking in the Karoo, which was accompanied by various speakers who unfastened a different way of approaching hydraulic fracturing.

The exhibit, which is located in the natural history part of the Iziko Museum, includes an array of artworks including photography, video, artifacts as well as rocks, fossils and insects local to the area.  These items explore exploiting our landscape from a cultural heritage as well as scientific perspective. The collaborative work is from the efforts of artists: Deborah Weber, Damien Schumann, Elgin Rust, Gina Waldman, Margaret Stone, Maxim Starcke, Michelle Liao, Lisa Bauer, Tom Glenn, Peet van Heerden, Hendrik Dudumashe and Paula Kingwill.

Speakers at the exhibition opening included art theorist Andrew Lamprecht, Michaelis Art Professor Virginia MacKenny, Curator of Karoo Palaeontology at Iziko Dr Roger Smith, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) energy expert Saliem Fakir and UCT Anthropology Professor Lesley Green.

“Artists think between spaces, and it is important now for interdisciplinary communication to address the issue of fracking in the Karoo,” says Professor MacKenny. She spoke about the way artists envision landscape and have painted the Karoo in the past by referring to artworks by Jacobus Pierneef, renowned for his peaceful landscapes devoid of human life. One element is missing: humanity.

This is what “Karoo Disclosure” hopes to include the human and cultural dimension into the landscape art rhetoric. It tries to address the real issues of hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo.  Lamprecht says the short film places the crisis and the history of colonial exploitation of the landscape in a cultural environment to show how people are affected. It delivers comment that we do not live within the Karoo, but rather, we are “going there to try and find something to take from it, and take it elsewhere,” Lamprecht muses. Thereby reawakening the image of the colonial explorer.

Think cultural landscape, not only physical

Snapshot from the short film “Karoo Disclosure”. Credit: Karoo Disclosure

According to Professor MacKenny, it is imperative to use interdisciplinary communication, especially with regards to fracking, as it affects more than just the physical landscape.”Karoo Disclosure” is to encourage thinking and questioning that crosses between art and science.

“The Karoo is more than a physical landscape, it is a cultural one,” Lamprecht shared with the audience. Politicians and ‘frackers’ are looking at the Karoo as an exploitable resource in a similar way that past colonialists did. Yet, they are blind to the fact that there are people living there and the area is rich with cultural history. Hence the art is about exploring that theme of the cultural landscape.

“People can’t survive in the Karoo without water; the one thing forgotten about in fracking. It is important to place the fracking crisis in a cultural environment,” Lamprecht insists.

What’s the Big Fracking Deal?

Saliem Fakir from WWF explained the methodology of hydraulic fracturing to the audience. Shale gas is formed through the process of thermogenesis which converts organic matter of plants and animals living millions of year ago into into this ‘unconvetional gas’. Fracking is the procedure of drilling deep into the earth’s crust to access gas embedded within the sedimentary layers, through fracturing the layers horizontally to release it. Water and a mix of chemicals are pumped at a high pressure to fracture the rock.

Fakir framed the risks of hydraulic fracturing within a South African context. The fracking process is very expensive and there is no guaranteed return on investment. In the United States they often give figures of 60-70% recovery of gas, but in reality it is closer to 5%, according to Fakir. Hence, it is economically risky because “you don’t know how much gas there is until you frack it,” says Fakir.

There is a risk of contaminating the water with the “soup of chemicals” that is being pumped down, a mixture that is determined by the rock type, Fakir clarified. In addition, Professor Lesley Green stated that “150 of 750 chemicals used are carcinogenic” in the United States. The water usage is extremely high and unrealistic in the Karoo, which only gets 7 inches of rainfall per year. 259 billion (tonnes or litres) of water were used in a period of just over a year in United States.

“Where are they going to get the water from?” came a question from the crowd. Fakir replied that there is not clear plan for the water supply yet, although there are talks of seawater.

Panellists and presenters (left to right): Professor Virginnia MacKenny, Adam Lampbrecht, Saliem Fakir, Professor Lesley Green and Dr Roger Smith. Credit: Soninke Combrinck

 “Where do we start with activism?”

The challenge with taking action as a citizen is that green lobbying has been racialised, Professor Green identified. Professor MacKenny expanded that fracking is broken largely into ‘white’and ‘non-white’ parts, with the elite seeing fracking as a superficial mechanism that will mar their view of the physical landscape, and the working class living standards actually being affected by the process. Hence, it it important to break away from the purely scientific approach to fracking because it does not acknowledge the human crisis.

Unearthed is a film directed by South African and Karoo local, Jolynn Minaar. It investigates fracking and the effects it has on both people and landscape in the United States and translates it to our Karoo environment. It has won several prestigious awards such as Sheffield Documentary Festival 2014 and toured in the Karoo to generate awareness of the consequences of fracking to the local citizens.

To be more involved with the fracking discussion, there are organisations like Avaaz, Greenpeace and 350.org. In addition, one can get involved with marches and protests as visibility is the key to attract attention. “Alternatively, there is ‘couch activism’,” Professor MacKenny finished off. Citizens are powerful with new media platforms and can provide that necessary visibility.

“Disinvest from fossil fuels.You are the consumers – you have the power of choice,”  Professor Green advised. “Learn to notice your world.”

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