Ultimate dependence on our coal-powered stations for energy has resulted in economic growth in the manufacturing sector lagging behind. According to a recent report by the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI), electricity supply disruptions have largely contributed to the decline of the Business Confidence Index (BCI) to a 16-year low. In the same report, SACCI also noted that South Africa’s economic performance is falling behind both that of Africa and the rest of the world.

Our energy crisis is a thorn in the flesh, one which should be dealt with without further delay. The Government needs to move swiftly to identify and activate enablers for economic growth, specifically energy sources. For our economy to thrive, access to adequate, affordable energy is crucial. Equally important is the need for sustainable development, and to this end the shale gas exploitation in the Karoo basin poses a dilemma. In the United States of America adverse public health risks of fracking have invoked fears among affected communities, with residents of Texas calling for a ban on fracking in November last year.

According to a presentation by Dr. Graeme Potter published on 18 June 2014 in the USA, there are about 750 different chemicals used to enhance water flow, 650 of which are carcinogens. Though it is difficult to link illnesses to particular chemical exposure, some credible data collected suggested a direct relationship between increased infant mortality and the density of fracking wells. Low birth weight has also been reported among the communities in close proximity with fracking wells. Possible contamination of underground water by carcinogens and endocrine disrupters places the lives of affected communities at risk of cancer and hormonal disorders, just to name a few.

According to the South African Constitution, every person has a right to an environment that is safe and free from health risks. An impediment of these rights to affected communities in the Karoo due to fracking will reflect negatively on the Government. Given the current stance that the community has taken to oppose shale gas exploration until the Strategic Impact Assessments have been completed, the damage on the Government’s reputation, should there be any adverse exposure, would be even greater. Apart from possible health risks, the amount of water required for fracking is huge and half of it is irrecoverable. Given our meagre water resources, there is bound to be yet again a deprivation of another human right, that of access to adequate water supply.

The Government has a vital task of drafting fracking regulations that are clear and provide precise check points and resolution processes to deal with emerging risks before, during and after fracking activities. Environmental and public health impacts can be controlled through effective regulation and implementation of strict control, monitoring and remediation measures.

There is no doubt that fracking, if carried out correctly and responsibly, has enormous potential to unlock South Africa’s economic growth not only through the provision of reliable energy, but also through the creation of much-needed jobs.

Fortunately, we are not pioneers in hydraulic fracturing. We, therefore, have an opportunity to learn from the likes of USA and Canada – with the former having considerably reduced its reliance on crude oil producers in the Middle East and other parts of the world – and avert foreseeable environmental and public health risks. Even more encouraging is the fact that fracking in the Copper basin of South Austria has taken place over the years without significant environmental impacts.

Nonhlalo Mphofu is the Safety, Health, Environment and Quality Executive of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.