Shale gas “fracking” in the Sahara is worse for water

Shale gas fracking North Western Sahara aquifer

Shale gas exploitation in the Sahara is not the same as shale gas exploitation in the US. There are added complications, namely the dependence of fracking activities on a trans-boundary hydraulic system (the North Western Sahara Aquifer System), in a water stressed region, that depends primarily on that very system for its own water needs.

As shown by the recent waves of protests that spread from the southern region of Algeria to the rest of the country as the government announced the beginning of shale gas extraction, a very new threat is set to destabilize the Saharan region.

With the discovery of significant shale gas reserves in the region, and at a time when fracking has been banned in France and it has become increasingly controversial in the UK; multinationals are pushing to exploit reserves in the Saharan region. But the real implications surrounding shale gas extraction applied to the Saharan context have been highly overlooked by domestic governments, worse still there is limited transparency surrounding these activities.

As the “imported” technique of shale gas extraction, fracking, has started to play out in the Sahara; Why should this not only be of national concern but also of regional and global concern?

Aside from the known environmental and social concerns with shale gas extraction, fracking in the Saharan region has a central added complication: the geopolitics of water.

Mohamed Balghouthi, cofounder of the Economic and Scientific Intelligence Unit of Tunisia (GIEST), was one of the first Tunisian figures in 2011 to denounce how shale gas extraction in Tunisia is primarily question of water and therefore food sovereignty . The link between shale gas and sovereignty is also a central issue for rest of North Africa. Here is why.

Understanding the scale of water consumption for shale gas extraction

According to the Stockholm International Water Institute the total water requirement for a fracking well during its entire lifetime (20-40 years) can be anywhere between 24,000 m³ (24 million liters)  and 500,000 m³ (500 million liters).

If Shell in Kairouan, Tunisia, sticks to its plan of drilling 740 wells it will consume between 17.76 million m³ (17.76 billion liters) to 370 million m³ (370 billion liters) of water in 50 years.

This is roughly equivalent to the water consumption of the current Tunisian population for the next 100 years (see below for calculations). In other words, Shells fracking project in Tunisia is drinking 100 years’ worth of water for the entire Tunisian population.

Tunisia is already a water stressed country with per capita renewable water availability of 486 m³—well below the average of 1200 m³/capita for the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) region. This is also true for Algeria and Libya.

Water has no frontiers:

Shale gas extraction in the Saharan region will require companies to tap into the North-Western Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS) for water. This water is needed to release gas from the fractures (for more information on fracking see here). The NWSAS extends over a surface twice as large as France and straddles three countries; Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. With more than 30 000 Km³ of water, accumulated over the past million years, this subterranean aquifer and has enabled the urban and agricultural development of the semi-arid regions of these countries for the past 30 years. But this water is currently over-exploited; the Sahara and Sahel Observatory and the Institute of Research for Development have recently calculated that the average annual rain water recharge meets only 40% of the water quantities withdrawn from the aquifer.

Given the considerable amount of water required for fracking, the current water stressed and water precarious condition of the Saharan region and the fact that three countries by and large depend on the same hydraulic system; it doesn’t take much to put two and two together to see that fracking in the Saharan region will cause significant civil strife in the region.

Naturally with water comes the question of food sovereignty, already a hot topic in the region. Data from the 2014 Near East and North Africa Food and Agriculture Statistics Yearbook shows that in 2010, all of the five North African countries imported 60 %  or more of their cereals from abroad. Tunisia imports 60% of its cereal needs, 70% in Algeria and 90% in Libya. The reasons for the loss of food sovereignty in the region are numerous: mis-management of nation-wide agricultural development, the adoption of neoliberal economic policies pressurized by international politics, and water management. Yet the onset of shale gas fracturing activities exposes the region to additional threats to food sovereignty, because water is being directed towards energy production (which is largely exported) rather than domestic consumption and agriculture.

Shale gas extraction in the Sahara is a particular threat for farming realities in the oasis. When unemployment increases in the region, or in the face of civil unrest or war, it has been shown that people tend to return to their farmlands to create a livelihood for themselves. In the semi-arid regions closest to the Saharan desert, aside from tourism and high impact industries like mining, date plantations are an important source of income. Palm date plantations depend entirely on groundwater and appropriate irrigation systems – the foggaras–  a product of centuries of human ingenuity. Other forms of agricultural practices in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya depend between 60% and 90% on water from the NWSAS for its irrigation. Once the primary source of water available to the Saharian populations in these three countries is polluted or runs dry, the livelihoods of an estimated 40 million people will be directly threatened. As we have already witnessed with the Arab spring, dissatisfaction is likely to be translated in contagious social unrest, spreading across the region.

This is why people are protesting extensively throughout Algeria.  The current “imported” practices of Shale gas extraction in the Sahara is touching the resource that is most dear to the region, water.

Water Calculations:

Average water consumption per well = 24,000 m3 (24 million liters) – 500,000 m3 (500 million liters)

Number of wells Shell plans to drill in Kairouan = 740

TOT water consumption for Shell’s operation in Kairouan (Tunisia) between 17.76 billion liters (24 million liters water x 740 wells) and 370 billion liter (500 million x 740 )


Average water consumption per capita in Tunisia = 296 m3

Tunisian current population = roughly 10 million

TOT annual water consumption in Tunisia = 2.96 billion liters


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4 thoughts on “Shale gas “fracking” in the Sahara is worse for water”

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  4. Joe Zuback says:

    The article assumes that hydrofracturing of shale reserves can only use fresh water resources. However, hydrofracturing water technology has advanced significantly to allow use of very salty “hypersaline” wastewater from the hydrofracturing process, up to eight times saltier than seawater, as an alternative to fresh water for hydrofracturing.

    The use of saline water for hydrofracturing can be a game changer for coastal regions with shale gas reserves, scarce fresh water resources, and food sovereignty concerns. An integrated public-private partnership strategy would include new desalination facilities to produce fresh water for potable and agricultural use, transfer of the waste desalination brine (2X saltier than seawater) via new pipeline infrastructure for shale hydrofracturing, and transferring a portion of the shale gas produced back to the desalination plant via the brine pipeline right-of-way to meet desalination and brine pumping energy needs.

    Because most hydrofracturing water is permanently retained in the formation from which gas is displaced, using desalination brine for hydrofracturing is a more environmentally benign solution than disposal via discharge back to the sea. In addition to desalination brine, wastewater from hydrofracturing, called flowback, would be recycled within the shale gas production region for hydrofracturing fluid use in subsequent wells (as is currently the case for >90% of such wastewater in the Marcellus region in the US). Shortfalls in hydrofracturing fluid demand could be met by adding supplemental seawater to the brine transfer pipeline.

    An integrated seawater desalination+regional hydrofracturing strategy would also create unique economic synergies worth noting. Energy demand for local desalination would mitigate market price risk for local gas producers who would also be assured of long term water supply for hydrofracturing under an integrated energy-water exchange agreement.

    There is much discussion these days of the “food-energy-water nexus” and how new ideas are necessary to solve the water, energy, and food challenges of growing populations in arid regions. Perhaps to the surprise of many, the latest technology advances that allow the use of hyper saline water to meet the water needs of hydrofracturing might enable new water, energy, and food management strategies for arid coastal regions that have shale gas and oil potential.

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