Uninformed opinion


Veteran journalist John Lawton in 1995 warned the American Association of Broadcast Journalists that the irony of the Information Age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.

To that one can add “and far too much power to fringe activists with too much Internet access.” The thought came to mind after reading a SAPA report on a new study on acid mine water flooding in Gauteng. The report found that contrary to media reporting last year, there was no risk of acidic mine water flooding any basement structure in the CBD of Johannesburg. The Mine Water Research Group, headed by Professor Frank Winde, was also highly critical of the acid mine drainage report prepared last year for government by a team of specialist scientists, and presented to an inter-ministerial committee tasked to deal with the threat of rising mine water under South Africa’s biggest city.

Among the risks identified in the government report is that the rising water could lead to the “flooding of underground infrastructure… close to urban areas”. It also warned, among other things, of increased seismic activity, the threat of groundwater contamination, serious negative ecological impacts and localised flooding. The research group said it was difficult to avoid the impression that the government report was “a premature, somewhat hasty response to a largely media and interest group-driven campaign that appears to have inflated, misrepresented and exaggerated possible risks associated with the filling of the mine void”.

Something similar can be said about oil company Shell’s plans for shale gas exploration in the Karoo. This excited bad puns (“frack off”, etc) and much activity by environmental types and the mass media. The result was a government morotorium on the idea and fears fomented by some journalists that South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, mooted for a tiny section of the Karoo was in peril. Considering the sheer size of the Karoo (400 000 square kilometres, about a third of South Africa) it is difficult to say if any exploration anywhere in that vast former inland sea would affect the viability of the SKA. Neither can I find an reference to where Shell was planning to explore. Surely not every square metre…

This also makes it difficult to determine if the exploration and perhaps subsequent gas extraction poses a threat to ground or surface water as alleged by some or whether the gas rigs and possible pipelines it will spoil the natural beauty of the region in whole or in part. The natural beauty, of course includes roads, farmsteads and windmills, powerlines and endless fences.

What has this to do with defence and security? Nothing much, except that emotion and a flighty grasp of the facts impacts us as much as the energy sector or mining.