Amina Ghezal explores the anti-fracking movement in Algeria, “one of the most spirited anti-fracking movements in the world today.”
Heated debates in the media, politics, and social movements revolve around the future of natural energy resources and the safety of the planet. Fracking dominates these debates and incites endless disagreements between fracking advocates such as multinational energy companies – that see it as a profitable natural resource – and environmental activists, who believe that fracking is a threat to the environment and will bring the planet to its demise.
This article will shed light on the shale gas fracking and anti-fracking activism in Algeria, one of the leading oil and gas exporters in the world. We will learn about a story of “fighting for the environment” from a sunken community in the south of the Algerian desert. Algeria is a Northern African country that stretches over 2,381,741 km2 in land area and is situated between Tunisia from the east and Morocco from the west.
Before digging through this highly debated subject, it is important to define what fracking is and why it is perceived as a detrimental energy extraction process. Basically fracking, as the live science website defines, is a hydraulic fracturing or drilling technique used to extract natural resources such as oil and natural gas from the deepest layers of the ground. Use of this drilling process is heavily debated due to its potential destructive effects such as water supply depletion, waste issues and pollution.
The Algerian economy is heavily reliant on fossil-fuel extracted from the southern regions such as the Hassi Messaoud oil field. Despite the fact that the country is blessed with rich solar energy, which could diverge the economy from the over-reliance on fossil-fuel to renewable energy, the economic system is still fixated on oil and gas.
Fracking Oil Fields, Photo by Simon Fraser
Algeria ranks third in the world in recoverable shale gas reserves in the south. This sparks national and international interest in shale gas reserves as a richly rewarding energy and economic source. However, this interest incited heated disagreement between Algerian decision-makers and citizens, prompting ‘environmental war’ to break out between the state and the citizens.
In 2014, ‘Sonatrach’ the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate drilled two exploratory shale gas wells near Ain Salah, a town located in the southern Algerian Sahara. The outcome of the drilling was described as a rewarding exploration of a vital energy source by Algerian politicians. However, the local population were not as enthusiastic as the government with the drilling process.
Controversial ‘Sontarach’ Gas Well. Photo by Magharebia
Thus in 2015, thousands protested in Salah and nearby towns against the hydraulic fracturing, requiring the government to call off the shale gas fracking process due to its high environmental risks such as depletion of the sensitive underground water supplies and chemical waste production, as detailed by the ‘Middle East Eye’. The region relies on a sensitive aquifer system and thus any damage to the local ecosystem will threaten life in the region and the inhabitants’ safety.
Anti-Fracking Protest in South Algeria. Photo from Environmental Justice Atlas
For the sake of this article, I planned to contact a group of Algerian anti-fracking activists. I planned to interview them in order to have ‘hands-on’ narrations about their experiences with anti-fracking activism in the Algerian south. I initiated contact with them, introduced myself and explained the purpose of the article. The activists were keen in the beginning and expressed their interest in conveying their voices of anti-fracking and “No to shale gas drilling” to the world. However, a few days later, they called their participation off without giving reasons.
I deduce the potential incentive behind their withdrawal could be the fear of being criticised or reproached by their government or local authorities if they discuss the fracking and anti-fracking social movements in Algeria with a foreign source, especially if there is still an unrest between the government and the local inhabitants because of the fracking. Of course, there could have been another reason for the withdrawal, but whatever this was, I did not wish to put the activists under any pressure that might cause them any harm or expose them to any personal or legal ramifications. Therefore, I decided to go on the journey of reflecting on the anti-fracking activism in Algeria through what has been written internationally and how it relates to the wider global community of anti-fracking activism.
Anti-fracking activism worldwide reacted positively to the anti-fracking movement in Algeria; ‘Dissent Magazine’ wrote an article about anti-fracking protesting and activism around the world, referring to anti-fracking activists as “Fracktivists” who, far from being a “NIMBY conceit”, call for more just and sustainable economy. The anti-fracking social protests in Ain Saleh, Algeria were described as “one of the most spirited anti-fracking movements in the world today”. The article highlighted the tension between the Algerian government and protesting citizens, who are accused of standing in the way of national economic growth and prosperity of the country.
One of the many anti-fracking protests in Ain Saleh, Algeria. Photo from Twitter/@tokyowiyya
These accusations, according to the article, were met by a swell of the number of the Algerian protests with others joining from other Algerian cities, organizing sit-ins and marches. However, escalation in and around Ain Saleh led to physical clashes between the police and the protestors. The article pointed out that the anti-fracking social movements in Algeria are the first in the Arab-world that have received world-wide solidarity and attention.
From a different perspective, many Algerian protesters and anti-fracking activists considered the shale gas fracking in Algeria as a form of neo-colonialism where energy giant ‘Total’ sought to find another location for shale gas fracturing after the fracking ban in France. Algeria, the former oil-rich colony, seemed to be the optimal alternative. Such assumptions incite critical debates of a lack of social justice, transparent and fair energy policies in the country and concerns about corruption that lies beneath the fracking projects. This opens doors to such questions as to what extent governments respect the basic human right of living in safe and sustainable environments.
Unfortunately, many southern cities are underdeveloped and lack adequate infrastructure despite being the engine of the Algerian economy as they consist of several oil-wells where national and multinational companies strenuously extract oil and gas from the deep sands of the southern states. The anti-fracking movement in Algeria reflects not only fear of man-made environmental hazards that will devour the natural resources and undermine the environment, but also reflects unfair exploitation of the land and people, all threaded with a shortfall of environmental and social justice, and corruption.
Until now, the Algerian government and the citizens are still pulling the thread of the fracking debate. The population of the Algerian south, despite possessing limited power, being remote and lacking sufficient human and financial capital to transmit their voices to the external world, constantly defy the fracking enthusiasm expressed by the Algerian government. The Algerian anti-fracking activists are quite aware that if the environment is no longer safe, it will no longer sustain human life. Thus, we must recognize that the environment needs us more than ever and we need it to remain alive in return.