[Editor’s note: Despite the Algerian government’s annoucement that it will temporarily suspend fracking plans, the protests continue.]
The Algerian Sahara has been in the grip of mobilisations against shale gas operations since 1 January 2015, when some 1500 people took to the streets of In Salah, 35 kilometres from the site where Total and Algerian state-owned company Sonatrach are conducting the country’s first shale drilling in the Ahnet Basin.
“It is as if it [In Salah] were dumbstruck, still under the shock of this extraordinary mobilisation,” reveals the Algerian daily El Watan.
Businesses, schools and offices were closed down. The protest initially launched by environmental NGO In Salah Sun & Power was joined by local inhabitants, including many women and children.
The movement then spread to several nearby villages (In Ghar, Iguestene, Sahla Tahtania, etc.) and further north to Saharan oases such as the city of Ghardaïa.
The death of 21-year-old protestor Mohamed El Noui on 4 January, following clashes with the security forces, gave new fuel to the protest movement.
On 6 January, over 2000 people, including many students and teachers, marched in Tamanrasset in solidarity with the people of In Salah.
“The drilling has confirmed the existence of substantial shale gas reserves in Ahnet Basin,” rejoiced the Algerian Energy Minister, who went on to say that it “will provide new economic prospects for Algeria, with no less than 8000 jobs for 2015.”
Sacrificing agriculture for gas revenues
The exploratory works have been launched by Algeria’s state-owned energy company Sonatrach in association with the French oil giant Total, which holds a 49 per cent stake in the Ahnet licence.
Total expects the basin to “produce at least four billion cubic metres of gas a year.”
According to a report published in 2013 by the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), Algeria has the world’s third largest reserve of recoverable shale gas resources, after China and Argentina.
Algerian opponents to shale gas development point to the amount of water needed for the extraction of this unconventional fossil fuel.
Yet Algeria suffers from water shortages and is under permanent water stress, recalls the French activist association ATTAC and the Frack Free Europe movement in a joint statement.
In February 2014, the El Watan newspaper was already reporting on the “fears of farmers in the south” over the threat of chemical pollution linked to the use of the hydraulic fracturing technique.
“There are hundreds of oases in our region. They provide work for thousands of people. Once the groundwater is polluted, it will mean the end of farming. What will the local people do?” says a worried farmer.
The Energy Minister has offered assurances that the “amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing does not exceed 7000 cubic metres and can be reused for other fracking operations”.
As regards the risk of groundwater pollution, the Minister claims that there is no more danger than with conventional fossil fuels.
But these arguments have by no means convinced the protestors, who are demanding a moratorium on shale gas operations in the Sahara, and a public debate on the subject.
They are also calling for a visit from Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal. They insist that if their demands are not heard they will block oil production sites and cut off the principal road links to the exploration basin.
This article was initially published by the Multinationals Observatory.