An energy burst for the Karoo

Dr Stefan Cramer, Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, Westlake

While the Karoo is still in the grip of a crippling drought, relief comes in unexpectedly (“New uranium mining alert”, Bulletin July 14, 2017). Shell is even further downsizing its remaining “Karoo team”, citing poor chances of commercial success.

Australian Peninsula Energy, bent on mining uranium in the Karoo, is leaving this month for good – after burning US$10 million in consultants and legal fees. With rains across the Karoo and the big guys leaving, March 2018 might become a turning point for the Karoo.

Karoo residents were shocked, when they learnt a few years ago that more than 700 000 hectares of Karoo farmlands had been earmarked for destructive uranium mining.

This development would wipe out years of painstaking veld recovery. Well, this was too big a chunk for them to chew. In 2016 the company had to
size this down to a
mere 12% of the original land request.

Then came Nananthus, this little guy from the Karoo, a tiny succulent visible only after rains. It patently demonstrated the flaws in the Environmental Impact Assessments and sent the botanists of the Australian company back to the veld. This was just another delay in the licensing process that turned out to be costly for the operators and effective for the farmers now getting better organised. It bought us time to submit a substantial critique of uranium mining in the Karoo, drafted by a host of respected scientists and engineers.

Technical problems at the company`s mine in Wyoming, the depressed price of uranium in the world market, and endless delays made Peninsula in October last year to decide they had had enough. By the end of this March they will have sold their rights and expertise, in case they can even find a buyer willing to burn further millions.

However, as the Ozzies are leaving, we cannot allow them to leave the environmental mess behind they inherited from previous owners. Two sites at Ryst Kuil and at Rietkuil just outside of Beaufort West need urgent clean-up. Radioactive material there is littering the Karoo. Dust storms carry the radioactive particles to great height and distance.

Here is a thought: Why not use the 273 700 hectares of Karoo farm land currently owned by the Ozzies and their local counterparts for real land reform projects. This land had been under-developed as it was earmarked for mining. With more energy in the grid and more water in the ground, a case for sustainable farming in these parts of the Karoo can be made.

It is no coincidence that this month of March 2018 signals an energy burst for the Karoo: The new government will finally sign 27 new renewable energy projects. This will unleash an investment of R56 billion into the economy and create some 60 000 new jobs, about 80% of them in the Karoo.

But many of these projects do not benefit the Karoo residents directly, as they are owned and operated by outsiders. It will be a critical challenge to develop projects that are truly owned by Karoo communities.

The question is “How to make Graaff-Reinet 100% Renewable” in such a way that poor people benefit first.