Can fracking and birdlife coexist in the Karoo?
On Saturday 24 October I was contacted by a producer of 98.7fm PowerFM to talk about the above topic as part of the: POWER Weekend Breakfast show with Pabi Moloi & Mvangeli Nzuza the following morning (Sunday). Realising that I’d be reaching audience not normally into birds and birding, I gave a lot of thought as to how to make the topic more interesting than a bland reading of the facts that this could possibly entail. I was told by the producer I would have 30 minutes, and prepared the following script. Unfortunately, I was cut off after 15 minutes by the presenters, which kind of ruined the initial prep work which would have been wrapped up in the final 15 minutes, so I though I’d better include the story here, which goes some way to answering questions I posed but then did not have time to answer in the truncated on-air version.
Good morning! It is really a pleasure to be talking to you today, and all the early-bird listeners. Although can I just add, I hope the early birds did not catch any worms.
You have invited me here today to answer the question: Can fracking and birdlife coexist in the Karoo?
There is probably a yes or no answer to that, which we can get to at the end of this show, like many difficult questions, the answer is a bit difficult, and of course is just one thin slice and angle on the impacts of fracking.
To answer this question we need some background: on the Karoo, on birds and birdlife, and of hydraulic fracturing also known as fracking.
Can I set the scene by asking you a few questions?
Chocolate can kill birds: true or false? I will answer that one a bit later…
Modern birds descended from a group of two-legged dinosaurs known as theropods, whose members include the towering Tyrannosaurus rex, according research published in Scientific America. Now that you know this, can I ask you to imitate the noise of Tyrannosaurus rex?
So this is my imitation ‘pac pac puck puck (chicken noise)’ So if you are ever having nightmares from watching one of the Jurassic Park movies, just remember that.
Next question: why are birds useful? …..
So I know that there are some people who just don’t like birds: a great example is Mitchel from the sitcom Modern Family, who freaks out each time he sees a pigeon. But did you know that many garden birds eat spiders? In fact there is an island in the Pacific ocean where all birds were accidently irradicated when an arboreal house snake was introduced that ate all the birds. What happened after this? The spider population exploded.
Did you know that the avitourism industry, that part of South Africa’s ecotourism industry that depends directly or indirectly on birdwatchers (prior to covid of course), involves about 40 000 people and is worth R1 billion give or take a few million? This info from a DTI report from 2010.
Birdwatchers tend to be affluent and well educated (maybe like the listeners of Power FM?) and travel far and wide and spend more than other types of ecotourists. Birdwatching is a hobby that entertains on many different levels: those who can’t relate might want to think of birdwatching like a computer game with many different levels, hidden treasures and involving a lot of travel to exotic destinations, except that it a lot better for the mind and body than a computer game, and you get to contribute meaningfully to the local economy by doing so. If you are interested in maybe exploring this as a healthy pastime, there are a lot of resources on the BirdLife South Africa’s website. BirdLife South Africa is an NGO representing much of the birdwatching community, they are involved in a wide range of conservation and research projects, and they sponsored this research about which I am talking today through a donation from Gaynor Rupert and conducted in conjunction with the Karoo BioGaps project, a SANBI initiative.
Another question: Do all birds drink water?
Next question: when I say Karoo what does that conjure up for you?
The Karoo is an arid zone covering about one third of South Africa as well as parts of Namibia, and is made up of two biomes: 2 different natural entities: the Succulent Karoo and the Nama Karoo.
It is a place where birds are rare or fill the air: that was the title of Richard Dean’s PhD thesis, Richard Dean is one of South Africa’s leading arid zone ecologists and co-author on the research paper that is the basis for me being invited to talk with you today.
Both biomes are semi-arid, and are distinct due to differences in rainfall amount and seasonality. The succulent karoo receives low amounts of winter rainfall is a world arid zone botanical hotspot with huge amounts of endemic and uniquely adapted plant species. The Nama Karoo, which you will be familiar with from a drive between Cape Town and Johannesburg, is more extensive and receives erratic summer rainfall. Despite being climatically and botanically distinct, for the most part the birds don’t distinguish between these biomes, and we consider the birds of the Karoo to be just one set of birds. Like the plant life, the bird species richness for an arid zone is very high with over 400 species recorded over the region, which is just under half of the birds recorded in South Africa. There are 10 species of birds found in the Karoo found nowhere else in South Africa or the world. In addition, an array of other animals, with high endemism, inter alia, in tortoises and scorpions are found in the region.
Both biomes have high species richness of larks (Alaudidae) compared with other biomes whilst the Nama-Karoo also has a large assemblage of nomadic birds, and both have many granivorous bird species that rely on water. Resident species of birds tend to maintain low densities and wait for rainfall events, whereas nomadic species search for resource patches scattered in time and space, so their respective densities vary temporally and spatially (Dean 1995).
A variety of proposed developments are planned for the Karoo, including mining for uranium, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and solar and wind energy facilities. These developments will likely have an impact on the biodiversity of the region; and birds (along with many other animals) will face many challenges in the future if all of these developments go ahead without due consideration to their wellbeing.
In South Africa, mineral and mining rights are owned by the state who may grant licences to oil and gas companies to explore the possibility of using fracking to extract gas from shale deposits. The recent initiative to prospect and to mine natural gas from the shales of the Karoo using hydraulic fracturing is cause for concern because it uses large quantities of water. About 52% of the Nama-Karoo and 10% of the Succulent Karoo biomes fall within potential concessions .
Fracking involves pumping a combination of water, chemical additives and sand underground to extract natural gas trapped in shale formations. Waste water (used in the drilling process) and produced water (used to flush out the natural gas) do not stay underground but are pumped back to the surface and stored in retention dams alongside the drilling rigs. These impoundments thus contain water with a mixture of toxic, acidic and saline chemical additives that are used in the extraction process, along with the accidental discharge of oils and careless diesel spills from the drilling process (Burton et al. 2014, Veil et al. 2004).
The scarcity of open water sources means that the produced water ponds in the Karoo are likely to attract animals who drink water or are associated with open water in various ways. The concern is that this water would be a deathtrap.
Hazards to birds at wellpads include not only the toxic components of the water in the ponds, but also oil slicks on the surfaces of water.
Oil alone can be lethal, disrupting water repellence in the plumage and insulation properties of the feathers and can be a significant source of mortality (Ramirez 2010).
Imagine I threw oil all over that nice dress you bought at the Rosebank mall. It would be a tragedy! I’d be in such trouble! But at least you’d be able to have a shower and put on some new clothes, the consequences for a bird are much worse.
For our research, we assessed the life history and habitat-use traits that make birds of the Karoo vulnerable to pollution effects.
We use a trait-based approach to determine vulnerability of birds to contaminated water. We initially considered the list of 407 bird species recorded for the Karoo (Dean 1995). We removed all species from the list that could best be described as incidental or vagrant in the Karoo, resulting in a list of 315 species.
We considered the following traits: feeding (kingfishers, waders), resting (ducks), nesting, drinking and diet. Scoring was based mostly on our extensive experience with these species, but also by referring to published information including some of our studies using camera traps at water sources.
Of the 315 species considered, 211 species have the core of their distribution range in the Karoo and 104 species are marginal. 141 (44%) had life history attributes that made them potentially vulnerable to contaminated water.
Given the aridity of the Karoo, many of the bird species that occur there show various adaptations to deal with low water availability. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, we found that just under half of the species that occur in the Karoo have some association with water; either strongly associated with water for nesting or just drinking water when it is available. Some of these associations with water are clear, but some are not always immediately obvious; for instance, swallows not only often drink water, but also use mud to build their rests. Sandgrouse fly long distances to drink and to provide water to their chicks. So, contamination of water supplies or the provisioning of contaminated water (with concomitant contamination of mud and potential loss of aquatic vegetation) pose a risk to the bird life of the Karoo, and this may be undervalued. The extent of the risk to species would vary greatly but could prove catastrophic for nomadic aquatic species attracted to ponds of contaminated water. Other species, vulnerable only due to drinking under unusual or very hot conditions, may only suffer localised mortalities.
The reactions of birds to most of the chemicals used in fracking are unknown. Known hazards to birds include pesticides and industrial pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and heavy metals, particularly mercury (Fry 1995, Giesy et al. 2003, Moore 1985). However, it should also be noted that birds sometimes have unusual lethal reactions to apparently harmless substances; for example chocolate is toxic to at least one species of parrot (Gartrell and Reid 2007), and veterinary medicines such as diclofenac have proved lethal to vultures (Swan et al. 2006). Given the extensive list of compounds already identified from water produced by fracking (Stringfellow et al. 2014), and given the rather extreme effects of PCBs, insecticides and fungicides on bird populations (Fry 1995, Giesy et al. 2003, Moore 1985) it would be unwise to assume that birds would not be affected by water containing some, or all, of these compounds.
Basically, Pits or sludge dams constructed near well sites to hold produced water may be a major hazard for birds in the Karoo (Holness et al 2016) as shown by other studies in the Northern Hemisphere (Farwell et al. 2016, Latta et al. 2015, Ramirez 2010).
If gas extraction is to go ahead in the Karoo it is essential that waste water is treated to mitigate against its potential negative effects on biodiversity. Current use of new technology in the United States of America to remove oil and salts from produced water show that this, and proper management of fracking ponds, significantly reduces the negative impacts on birds.
These treatments, which separate waste liquids and condensate from fresh water, result in products that can be sold, and fresh water that can be used for other drilling activities or given to livestock or wildlife (Ramirez 2009). The China experience, however, suggests that few operators would comply with this additional requirement (Guo et al. 2014), even if required by law. An economically sound suggestion is that ponds are simply covered with shade cloth, thereby complying with legislation. A further consideration in planning ahead is that abandoned wells need rehabilitation and restoration (Ramirez and Mosley 2015). There is the possibility that remnant chemical residues at abandoned wells could be dissolved by rain, with the runoff forming ponds or entering river systems, and thus remaining a hazard for birds, livestock and people.
Under South African legislation, companies granted rights to conduct shale gas extraction are obliged to rehabilitate the environment around the mine (Section 24N (7)(e) and (f) of the NEMA legislation) (Motala 2013). Proper rehabilitation after closure is essential; however, to date, there has been a poor track record of proper mine closure and environmental rehabilitation across South Africa (McKay and Milaras 2017).
There is an urgent need for research on mitigation and prevention of mortalities related to contaminated water. Making contaminated water truly inaccessible through fencing and netting will require considerable thought and effort, and need to be maintained and sustainable over the long term. The provision of alternative and safe drinking sources also needs consideration. Certainly, the impact of contaminated water on birds and biodiversity needs greater attention.
So the crux of all this research is that it is all pointless if we cover up ponds and provide clean water if the underground water is contaminated, and this is being pumped up inadvertently elsewhere, say on a neighbouring sheep farm. From this point of view there is very grave concern about the impact of fracking beyond birdlife to the livelihoods of those in the Karoo. Obviously one would like industry to provide work, provide incomes, and do so in a safe way that allows everyone to benefit. The concerns given track records of some companies is that this won’t happen.
So what are the alternatives? Currently, the status quo, with a mix of tourism, places like Karoo National Park, Mountain Zebra, Tankwa Karoo plus small livestock farming are proving to be beneficial to birdlife in the Karoo. In fact, some of the richest bird communities are around farmsteads, which have irrigated lands, trees, water and often a safe environment from potential predators, like monkeys or jackal. There are winners and losers in this scenario, like many others, but on the balance of things, drought aside, this is a fairly stable relationship. That stability could be severely rocked by hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo.
We might need to wrap up about now: If you are interested in birds and birding, there is a rich source of information on the BirdLife South Africa website, including our free book on Karoo Bird: Ecology and Conservation. The research upon which this is based is published in Ostrich Journal of African Ornithology.
Thanks to my co authors as well as the organisers, facilitators and funders of the Karoo BioGaps project.