Water vs Energy: the final wrap-up - 6 April 2014

I am hammering this out in a coffee shop on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Cape Town, the mountain is ironed flat by the noon-day sun and there’s a glass of icy water shedding dewdrops of condensation onto the countertop, next to a cup of steaming black coffee. The story’s far from over:

  • Government is so invested in fracking and is such tjommies (that’s local code for ‘friends’) with industry that the South African public can’t be sure they’re making impartial decisions in our best interest. Government isn’t the owner of that gas - it is merely the custodian. They manage it (how it’s mined, if at all, and what happens to the profits) on our behalf. It is important that we look at some of the deeper criticism of the Department of Energy’s development of the country’s energy policy (the Integrated Resources Plan) to get sense of just how much industry and government are in bed together on matters relating to our energy future.
  • The industry says it’s still crunching the numbers, to see if the Karoo shale has enough gas buried beneath its surface to make the exploration costs worthwhile. But if they decide to go ahead, we know government’s pretty much given them the all clear. From now on it’s just a matter of clearing the paperwork.
  • Civil society organisations and activists remain the thin blue line, trying to make sure government manages our water and energy resources responsibly, in a way that benefits us and keeps the environment healthy, rather than one that puts industry and profits first.
  • Is it really the ‘game changer’ government says it is? It’s not as if this is the only source of energy out there. There’s all that off- and on-shore oil and gas we can ship in from our neighbours - Mozambique, Namibia, Angola. This stuff in the Karoo isn’t anything special, it’s just another bit of gaseous energy that you light with a match.
  • The tech needed to reach the gas is owned and controlled by a few small powerful companies. This keeps it centralised and in the hands of a small elite. It’s also a profit-driven industry. It’s too easy for such a powerful, centralised sector to woo government decision makers about how this resource should be used.
  • Renewable tech democratises and decentralises energy, and makes society more resilient. But as Stephen Law, the boss, points out: you’re not going to get the solar water heating industry lobbying the government in the same way as the oil or nuclear industries, because it’s dominated by thousands of small plumbing operations who are too busy running their businesses and don’t have access to the corridors of power. ‘It’s messy. A bunch of plumbers aren’t going to whisper into the ear of the Minister of Mineral Resources and ask for special favours,’ says Stephen.
  • This notion that government departments have everything under control is a dangerous myth. They might issue all the right documents, and follow the correct democratic processes to put policy in place (they haven’t always, by the way, but that’s another chapter), but this isn’t even as good as the paper it’s written on if government doesn’t have the personnel to implement the policies. As Carin Bosman showed, the departments are horribly short on what the computer industry calls ‘wet-ware’ - people with the skills needed to do the job. Implementation is partly technical capacity, partly political will.

The whole fracking business boils down to this: the shale gas and the water of the Karoo are resources that belong to the South African public. They don’t belong to government. Government is merely hired by us to manage how these resources are used and protected. Ultimately, it’s about energy versus water. Given we have other sources of energy (like abundant sunlight beaming free energy down on us across most of the country almost all year round) but we don’t have an abundant supply of water, you’d think it would be a no-brainer? South Africa is a water scarce, sunny country. Water should trump gas hands down.