A patch of irrigated farmland breaks up the otherwise arid landscape of the Karoo, a stunning semi-desert wilderness that stretches across the heart of South Africa.
The Karoo has long attracted artists, hunters and the toughest of farmers. But now, if energy companies and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) get their way, it will soon also be home to scientists investigating whether shale gas extraction, known as fracking, could work here.
10 Oct 2013. Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves digging wells up to 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) deep, then pumping in large amounts of water mixed with chemicals under high pressure to crack the shale rock and release the gas.
The technique has revolutionised the U.S. energy market, but it remains controversial in many countries, not least because opponents say it can endanger water supplies.
In 2011, the company Royal Dutch Shell applied for an exploration licence in South Africa, covering more than 95,000 square kilometres, almost a quarter of the Karoo. But the region is a fragile environment with very little water, and local suspicion of fracking runs high.
Nieu-Bethesda, a village of 1,500 people some 750 km (470 miles) south of Johannesburg is a case in point. The only permanent water supply is a spring that wells up from deep within the surrounding mountains. The stone furrow pictured here helps carry the water through town.
Any interruption to this spring's flow or quality and Nieu-Bethesda risks dying out.
11 Oct 2013. Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
"Shell must stay away from here," said 59-year-old Molly Nikelo, an unemployed grandmother in Nieu-Bethesda, who supplements her meagre monthly state hand-out by cultivating a small plot of rare purple garlic for sale in expensive eateries in Durban.
"What about the water? It supplies everybody and only comes from one place. People drink it, wash in it and grow vegetables with it," she said.
28 Oct 2013. Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
The pro-fracking lobby argues that exploiting the country's shale reserves, estimated to be the eight largest in the world, could transform South Africa's economy. A study commissioned by Shell said the industry could create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
With an election in six months, that argument has gained traction, especially as the ruling ANC is struggling to come up with answers for the millions of impoverished black citizens - like those living in the poor township pictured here - for whom life has changed little in the two decades since apartheid.
In this context, emotions are being stirred by the legacy of white-minority rule that has left a handful of wealthy whites in control of most of South Africa's land, and blacks in dead-end townships waiting for jobs that never arrive.