A protest held in In Salah on Wednesday. Photo posted on Twitter by @adlenmeddi

Since the beginning of the year, protests have been intensifying in In Salah, a town located in the Algerian Sahara where the government launched its first shale extraction – or “fracking” – operation at the end of December. The locals fear the environmental consequences of this controversial form of shale gas extraction and denounce the government’s failure to engage residents in any dialogue.

Close to 15,000 people protested in In Salah, with another 4,000 in Tamanrasset and 5,000 in Ouargla, last week, according to “El Watan” newspaper. The protesters carried signs reading “Shale gas, health disaster” and “We are not guinea pigs”.

In Salah and these neighbouring towns are located in one of seven zones identified by the Algerian government as potentially rich in shale gas. Experts believe this North African country could be home to the world’s third largest reserve of hydrocarbon gas (after China and Argentina.) The Algerian authorities also seem eager to diversify their energy production, especially in the face of falling in petrol prices.

This protest in In Salah was held last Wednesday. Photo posted on Twitter by@adlenmeddi

The only known method of shale gas extraction, fracking, is a highly controversial practice. It is not only costly, but it is widely believed to have negative impacts on the environment. The process can both contaminate groundwater and release methane, a gas that produces an even stronger greenhouse effect than CO2. Our Observer says that these concerns about the environment are at the root of the repeated protests.

“We are at risk of having polluted water and running out of water entirely”

Hacina Zegzeg lives and works in In Salah. She is one of the coordinators for the protest movement.

We organised protests last year but the debate cooled a bit because the government agreed to hold off beginning the extraction of shale gas until 2022. However, at the end of December last year, the prime minister came to inaugurate the country’s first drilling site, located about 28 kilometres from In Salah… And we had not even been warned about his visit. All this reignited the movement.

What pushes us to action is, above all, the threat that a shale gas mining operation poses to our town. In In Salah, the groundwater table is fossilized, meaning that the water doesn’t replenish itself. Fracking requires an enormous amount of water and can also pollute the soil. We are at risk of having polluted water and running out of water entirely.

However, the Algerian government insists that this project is supposed to be very beneficial for In Salah. The minister of energy recently said that we were getting worried about nothing and that shale gas extraction puts neither the population nor the environment at risk. However, when I see the analysis done by certain independent experts or when I hear French President François Hollande say that France will not extract shale gas while he is president, well, you can understand why I don’t believe what the Algerian authorities are saying.

The protests are also proof of how fed up we are: the government promised that the extraction of shale gas would create jobs. They also promised investment in In Salah. We are wary because we were already cheated once – during the early 2000s, companies such as BP began to extract from conventional gas wells near In Salah. The executives promised that this activity would bring positive changes to the town. They spoke to us about getting more clinics and schools, but nothing really changed. There is still a high rate of unemployment and we still lack infrastructure.

The Minister of Energy Youssef Yousfi promised that efforts would be made to insure that wells were properly cemented and that the waste produced by the drilling would be expertly managed.

According to Yousfi, the extraction of shale gas would allow Algeria to “diversify its energy sources.” He also said that “new techniques make it possible to extract shale gas without danger.” Said Sahnoun, the CEO of Sonatrach, the Algerian state company for hydrocarbon gas, said that his group would invest roughly 70 billion dollars over the next 20 years to drill close to 200 shale gas wells each year. These investments would result in the creation of 50,000 jobs, according to Said Sahnoun.

Our Observer thinks it would be a better idea to invest in renewable energy sources.

"We learned to respect the environment a long time ago"

There are other solutions within reach. In Salah is in one of the sunniest regions in the world. In 2008, the idea of constructing solar voltaic farms was tossed around. The town could have been transformed into a huge producer of solar energy. But we’ve seen no progress toward the realisation of this dream.

It’s too bad, because this project would have enjoyed support from the local population. Algeria is not a country that is very concerned with ecology. But here, at the doorway to the Sahara desert, we’ve learned a long time ago that we had to respect the environment and to pay attention to water, which we don’t have much of.