By Bellah Zulu, ACNS
Anglicans in South Africa have said the voices of health professionals are being ignored in the national debate about the benefits and dangers of 'fracking'.
In an article for the the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ)* one of the co-authors**, Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA) Environmental Co-ordinator the Revd Dr Rachel Mash, said there are a host of potential down sides of the fuel extraction method to the health and welfare of South African society, and to the environment.
“The drilling and fracking processes use hundreds of chemicals as well as silica sand, and additional elements are either released from or formed in the shale during drilling. These substances can enter the environment in various ways,” Dr Mash writes.
The article comes as South Africa is on the verge of embarking on 'fracking', an exploratory high-volume hydraulic fracturing method of extracting the huge reserves of natural gas contained in the shale rock.
In an interview with the Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS) yesterday, Dr Mash said, “[South Africa] has a poor history with the extractive industries and our mining industries have exploited workers and led to environmental degradation.
“Fracking is particularly challenging for South Africa as we are a water scarce country. We also have a big challenge with HIV and fracking leads to a huge boom in the trucking industry, which often leads to an increase in sexual risk for communities.”
She added, “Fracking is a boom and bust business and so you get an economic boom for a few years and then the community is left with a bust, and a large area is affected over years.”
Many other groups and political parties are also opposed to fracking. Agang is one of South Africa’s political parties. It has indicated its plan to oppose this method based on the growing evidence of its “harmful environmental effects wherever it is being done worldwide.”
The party said that, based on evidence, fracking would destroy one of the country's most pristine and unique environments and “only the present generation would gain from any economic benefit fracking would bring.”
Dr Mash said she was particularly concerned that the government had excluded health professionals from the consultation processes on this method of gas extraction. She said, “This calls for concern especially because a very large area of South Africa could contain shale gas.
“We have a choice to make. Do we become leaders in renewable energy or do we continue with fossil fuels? Renewable energies are small scale and localised.”
Dr Mash is worried that the fracking debate seems to be too focused on jobs versus the environment without giving sufficient consideration to questions of the implications for people's health.
The article acknowledges the substantial benefits that fracking may bring to the South African economy but emphasises: “The environmental and health impacts may not be insignificant and these have yet to be considered in sufficient depth. To reduce possible negative public health impacts, a precautionary approach should be adopted and provision made for monitoring and adaptation.”
The authors conclude that the voice of the health profession should be part of the debate and that a full health impact assessment should be required before companies are given the go-ahead to drill.
*The South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) - first published in 1884 - is a monthly, peer reviewed, general medical journal publishing leading research impacting clinical care in Africa.
**Other listed contributors include Jolynn Minnaar, Journalist and director of Unearthed, South Africa and Bob Mash, Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, Stellenbosch University, Tygerberg, South Africa.