Johannesburg - Government's intention to go ahead with shale gas exploration and more coal mining could have a devastating effect on South Africa's water supply, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said on Wednesday.
Critical water production areas and water systems were being threatened by coal mining, WWF fresh water programme senior manager Christine Colvin said in a statement.
"The explosion of shale gas exploration in the Karoo will similarly disrupt the social fabric of this fragile area and we do not have clarity on how negative impacts will be dealt with."
In his state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday, President Jacob Zuma said government planned to push ahead both with nuclear energy generation and shale gas exploration, both strongly contested, but respect environmental laws.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping a mixture of water and chemicals under high pressure underground to free natural gas trapped in shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock.
Efforts to mine this gas in the Karoo have been met by resistance, as environmentalists have argued it will pollute underground water.
Colvin said: "Current plans for the expansion of coal mining and shale gas exploration will certainly be a ‘game changer’ for South Africa. They will shift our economy from being an energy-constrained economy to being a water-constrained economy."
Mining companies had not been held accountable for pollution and acid mine drainage. Clear details of measures to protect the environment and how these would be enforced were needed if fracking went ahead.
WWF living planet unit head Saliem Fakir said the proposed energy solutions in Zuma's state-of-the-nation address failed to address South Africa's immediate energy needs.
"WWF is of the view that far more effort should be put into renewables and targets for these should be doubled.”
"Our economic work also shows that the economic viability of shale gas is doubtful and may not warrant the hype and promise punted by the state as a potential energy ‘game changer’."
On Tuesday, Zuma said government aimed to create a million jobs in the agricultural sector by 2030. It would help communities in food production and subsistence farming to promote food security.
WWF sustainable agriculture senior manager Inge Kotze said around a million more hectares of farmland would be needed to realise this goal.
"This would be largely dependent on and limited by water availability, as well as the additional need for rapid improvement of current water quality to maintain, protect, and grow export market share."
Research by the WWF indicated there was an approaching crisis for provision of nutritious food, clean water, and electricity.
"We would therefore urge for a stronger focus on increasing yields from existing current production through better production practices, landowner stewardship, and greater water and energies use efficiencies", Kotze said.
This was preferable to focusing solely on large-scale expansion into marginal agricultural areas that would need a lot of agrochemicals, energy, and water to sustain yields.