Operation Phakisa - a Disaster in the making

05 October 2017 - President Zuma today will no doubt sing the praises of government’s ‘Operation Phakisa’, an initiative designed to fast-track the extraction of oil and gas from our coastal waters.  It is claimed that this is a unique initiative to address issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality as highlighted in the National Development Plan (NDP).  This extraction has been labelled as ‘development’.  It is further argued that Operation Phakisa is an innovative and pioneering approach to translate detailed plans into concrete results through dedicated delivery and collaboration.  But at the outset it must be asked: delivery for whom and collaboration with whom?

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), groundWork and the many community people reliant on the sea for their livelhoods, were excluded during the negotiations over Ocean Phakisa, but senior Exxon leadership flew to Durban to meet with government.  Ironically, at the same time we had met with Exxon leadership in good faith but in hindsight this was probably only for show as they knew that they could ignore us as after our meeting they were meeting with a government prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate the greed for oil, gas and elite profits.

Operation Phakisa claims big benefits for the economy – a whopping extra R177 billion to the GDP by 2033 and between 800 000 and 1 million direct jobs. We have heard all these promises before and watched as the mirage dissappeared before us in the heat of Durban. 

Today, as the world is dealing with the environmental justice crisis in the form of climate change, we need to urgently question what society needs from the ocean and what it cannot take from the ocean and, critically, what it can put back into the ocean. 

We need to preserve our ocean; it is 71% of the earth’s surface. With our greed we kill the ocean; and kill ourselves in the process. Oil and gas exploration will have a devastating impact on climate change and environmental injustice, South Africa’s tourism industry, people’s livelihoods, small businesses, as well as recreation and sport activities. The dangers that come with offshore oil and gas exploration such as oil spills, pipeline leaks, drilling rig explosions, toxic waste pollution and more floods, higher sea levels and storms will wipe out the livelihoods of people.

KZN general warm subtropical climate and extensive beautiful beaches is a popular tourism drawcard. Healthy oceans are critically important to marine life and to coastal communities whose economies rely on tourism and fishing. Opening up new offshore areas to drilling risks permanent damage to our oceans and beaches without reducing our dependence on oil. Our coast could be subject to huge oil spills equivalent to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with calamitous long-term costs for the tourism and fishing industries. If these plans were to go ahead, the climate crisis which is not factored in and taken seriously, would intesify.  If we drill for any oil and gas, be it on land or at sea, we will not meet the promises we made to the world to reduce our greenhouse gasses.  Already we have overshot our targets.

The SDCEA is part of a global campiagn, Fish not Oil, which works with fisherpeople throughout the world to ensure that traditional fishing is a key priority.  What the ocean does offer people is life – in the form of fish.  When we take oil from the ocean we risk losing the very life the ocean gives us.  The earth bleeds when we do this, warns the Uwa people from Columbia.  We cannot damage and bleed the only place we know as home, our earth.

We cannot use the ocean for the economic advantage of a few at the expense of all.  Extractive industries such as oil and gas makes us as a nation poorer rather than able to secure the promises of the Bill of Rights for all.  The World Bank has warned of the negative effects of the extractive industries on the economy of African nations.  This is not some left-wing organisation saying this; it comes from the conservative Adam Smith economist.

Big business and government do not value the ocean as the giver of life, rather purely for their own economic gains.  The case of EnviroServ wanting to dump 27 million litres of toxic waste into the ocean, is a case in point.  We cannot use our ocean as an industrial sewage pit that secures the profit of private companies.  So what we need to hear from President Zuma during his Phakisa speech today is how government is going to secure our ocean and coastline for the fisherfolk, for local tourism, and for the world as we face down the barrel of a gun called climate change.

The negative impact of environmental consequences of the oil industry activities are mainly localised within the host communities; the communities that depend on the land and water that was theirs for centuries. Ask south Durbanites about Engen, Shell and BP and they will tell you how they live the negative consequences of the profits of multi-nationals.

The exploraiton for gas and oil through Operation Phakisa will not just cause a devastating impact on the people of the KZN coastline, but on the marine life as well. Oil and gas exploration requires seismic testing to be conducted first to scan and locate deposits of oil within the sea bed. Seismic surveys designed to estimate the size of an oil and gas reserve generate their own environmental problems. The auditory assault from seismic surveys have been found to damage or kill fish eggs and larvae and to impair the hearing and health of fish, making them vulnerable to predators and leaving them unable to locate prey or mates or communicate with each other. These disturbances disrupt and displace important migratory patterns, pushing marine life away from suitable habitats like nurseries and foraging, mating, spawning, and migratory corridors. In addition, seismic surveys have been implicated in whale beaching and stranding incidents. These processes will affect our sardines and whales which have finally started appearring regularly up and down our shores.

It is clear to us that Operation Phakisa will bring about destruction to our marine environment and to the people who eke a livelihood using the ocean. It may be able to boost our economy and provide this many jobs, but at what cost, and an economy for whose benefit? Offshore oil and gas exploration has been and forever will be a risky industry that has a direct impact in climate change and destruction to our marine environment. What President Zuma must say is that Exxon and other exploration companies must go home.  Our oceans are not for sale, our oceans are ours to protect so that it can sustain lives and protect the well-being of the millions of South Afircans who depend on it.