A gas well drill. Picture: EMILIANO LASAVIA/AFP
A gas well drill. Picture: EMILIANO LASAVIA/AFP

There has been much excitement about the discovery of vast natural gas resources in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The exploitation of off- and onshore gas could propel the struggling economies of many countries into greener pastures — for example Mozambique, which has already been the recipient of investment into its nascent oil and gas industry. Gas fields have the potential to deliver real benefits to people who have lived in severe poverty for decades.

However, exploration for natural resources and their eventual exploitation does come at an environmental cost. While the risks of climate change being accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels are widely accepted, the risks of contaminating land and groundwater are less well known.

In densely populated Europe land is scarce and the cleanup of contaminated brown field land is an issue. But in Sub-Saharan Africa new green field sites for construction and exploration are so available that contaminated land has not been seen as a problem.

For example, SA has a long history of mining and the country has more than 5,000 derelict and abandoned mines, many of which have simply been fenced off. Legally, the government is responsible for cleaning up derelict and abandoned mines, but it has financial constraints and the land is not desperately needed, so cleanup is not seen as a priority.

But it ought to be. The Lancet commission on pollution and health found that pollution in air, water and soil causes 9-million premature deaths, and that 90% pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries. The toxins from contaminated land leach into the groundwater and contaminate water supplies or get absorbed into fruit and vegetables and accumulate in fish.

As a result, the exploration of oil and gas resources should include a thorough review of the life cycle of the facility, including post closure after the extractable resources have been removed.  All facilities should include a thorough assessment of latent and residual risks on closure to ensure risks are managed and sufficient funding is available for post closure rehabilitation.

Clean drinking water is an incredibly valuable resource, one that will only become more precious with the increased affect of climate change and more frequent droughts. SA is one of the more industrialised countries in Africa, and there are lessons that can be taken from its mining industry for countries embarking on gas exploitation, as indeed SA is itself after the recent discovery of offshore gas.

The first is that exploitation needs to be considered in tandem with decontamination. There is a real risk that countries will rush into oil and gas exploitation and create even greater contamination of soil and groundwater if the appropriate legal frameworks are not in place.

Potential contamination can be mitigated by careful planning at the design phase and implementing sound engineering practices during construction and operation of plants. Industry and the government need to work closely to ensure these effects are managed well even after the assets have been exploited.

The second is that to be effective legislation needs to have teeth. For example, SA has world-class environmental legislation in place, but it is not consistently enforced, one of the reasons being that governments are under pressure to allow development to increase employment.

The multinational companies, which have well entrenched policies and procedures around social responsibility and the environment, generally appropriately manage their contaminated land risks. However, other companies will only comply with requirements if they know the regulators will actually enforce the law.

Stronger policing and criminal sanctions are needed against companies that ignore environmental legislation and do as they please. NGOs and civil organisations are noted for their role in bringing such activities to the forefront.

The third is that renewables need to be a bigger part of the energy mix. Sub-Saharan African countries are discovering natural resources but they also have the potential for the development of solar power resources.

For example, SA is building two large coal-fired power stations at Medupi and Kusile, but the Northern Cape has one of the highest solar radiation areas in the world, with an average of more than 2,500 hours of sunshine a year. There are also great wind and biomass opportunities.

Ideally, decontamination of brownfield sites in Africa can go hand in hand with the exploitation of renewable energy. It has already been proposed in SA to turn declining mining areas into renewable energy development zones.

Human activities and developments have effects on the environment, and when these become we should intervene to mitigate these or stop them from occurring.

• Kriek is MD of environmental consultancy GCS-RSK