Thinking Aloud: Pushing All of Algeria’s Buttons

Feb. 28, 2015 by Darius

In the deserts of southern Algeria, protests against the government occur almost every day.  Near some towns, youths have closed roads with blockades of burning tires.  Clashes with riot police and soldiers are becoming more frequent.  The cause?  Algeria’s government wants to begin exploiting local shale gas reserves via fracking.  It would be hard to come up with a situation that has greater potential to inflame Algerians.

The government wants to start fracking to boost oil revenues, which have collapsed along with oil prices.  Like most Middle Eastern governments, Algeria’s government stays in power largely thanks to an expansive welfare state, which predictably creates quite a drain on budgets.  Furthermore, Algeria’s government has been massively corrupt since independence.  Instead of addressing either of these issues, the Algerian government has decided that the solution lies in simply pulling more petroleum out of the ground.

Southern Algeria is home to most of Algeria’s oil and gas reserves, but most of Algeria’s people are in the north.  Oil revenues rarely come home.  The south has long felt, according to a popular expression, that “We have the cow and the north has the milk.”  In addition, Algeria’s people are perfectly aware of the massive corruption in the government.  Combined, the protesters in the south aren’t buying the Algerian government’s line that fracking will ultimately be good for all Algerians.

The protesters also object to the fracking process itself.  Fracking is very water intensive and, given water’s scarcity in the desert, many believe that fracking will excessively drain local water supplies.  Pollution is another issue of which protesters are very aware.

Finally, to make the whole thing much more insulting, the Algerian government is proposing to allow a French company, Total, to carry out actual fracking operations.  Given that France occupied Algeria for nearly a century and a half and 1.5 million Algerians were killed in the war for independence, Algeria’s people are very sensitive to any form of perceived French economic colonialism.  To top it off, fracking has been banned in France for environmental reasons, making fracking in southern Algeria just another item in a long list of things France, or French companies, have done in Algeria because they weren’t allowed to do them in France.  Nuclear testing comes to mind.

In summation: southern Algeria is restive because a corrupt government in the north wants to plunder more resources to prop up its financial skimming and bad economic policies by draining and perhaps polluting the desert’s limited water in conjunction with a foreign company that would be doing in Algeria something that it can’t do in its own country because the practice has been deemed too unsafe, which is incidentally the same country that inflicted 150 years of misery on Algeria.  It’s not hard to understand why Algerians are protesting.  Not that it will ultimately make any difference to the government, though.

For more details on the protests, see “Shale Gas Project Encounters Persistent Foes Deep in Algerian Sahara,” The New York Times, February 26, 2015, p.A4, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/world/shale-gas-project-encounters-determined-foes-deep-in-algerian-sahara.html?_r=0

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