Briefing by the Water Research Commission and Briefing on Department of Water Affairs and Forestry Budget

Water and Sanitation

13 October 1999
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

13 October 1999

Documents Distributed
Overview of the Budget of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry

Presentation by Mr Odendall of the Water Research Commission (WRC)
The WRC was established in 1971under the Water Research Act (Act 34 of 1971).  The problem that the Commission was aware of then and is aware of now is that South Africa will most likely run out of water between the years 2020-2030.  Some of the problems that are facing South Africa’s water supply include long severe droughts; high rates of evaporation; poor ground water resources; and severe water pollution.

Terms of Reference
The WRC’s terms of reference are:
• To promote the co-ordination, communication and co-operation in the field of water research.
• To establish water research needs and priorities.
• To fund research on a priority basis.
• To promote the effective transfer of information and technology.

The WRC derives income from levies on water consumption.  The funds are collected for the WRC, on a commission basis, by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.

Modus Operandi
The WRC does not undertake in-house research, but funds research under contract with other agencies.  Between 200-250 ongoing and new research projects are funded annually.

Research fields
The WRC has to address the total water cycle, and research is being funded in the following subject fields:
• Developing Communities: Water Supply and Sanitation
• Potable Water Supply
• Municipal Wastewater Management
  Water Quality Management
  Agricultural Water Management
  Industrial Water Management
  Membrane Technology
  Integrated Water Resource Management
  Surface Hydrology
  Conservation of Water Ecosystems
  Mine Water Management
  Water Policy
• Information Technology

Products and Services
The WRC offers five different means to distribute their research findings and new information.  These include:
  Research Reports, Technology Transfer Reports and Software resulting from research projects financed by the WRC. 
  Water South Africa, an accredited scientific journal.
  South Africa Waterbulletin,
a new journal published bi-monthly.
  Waterlit, a bibliographic database started in 1975.  Contains references to a wide variety of local and international publications on all aspects of water and water-related subjects.
  Computing Centre for Water Research, providing access to water-related data and computer programmes.

Mr Odendall concluded his presentation by explaining the importance of  South Africa developing its own knowledge on water-related issues, rather than importing the information from industrial countries.  He said that South Africa’s water problems are different and more urgent than those in industrial countries.  Since South Africa has unique needs it must take the lead in research and developing new technologies.  Currently, South Africa is at the forefront of a dozen areas including sewage treatment and membrane technology.

First session of questions by Members
Mr Ginida (ANC) asked two questions.  Firstly, he wanted to know how WRC distributes its information.  Secondly, he asked whether the research being done expanded into the township areas where there is over population and the rivers are highly polluted.

Mr Odendall answered the first question by explaining that the WRC distributes information using the published media.  For example, research proposals and results are published in journals, newsletters, and on their website.  In addition, they hold special seminars.

In addressing water pollution in rural areas Mr Odendall agreed that this is a very worrisome topic and the WRC has done research into this area.  Last year, the WRC catalysed a research program in the Eastern Cape to help maintain estuaries.  However, they are finding it difficult to control water pollution in certain rural areas because the pollution is from a number of sources.  They are trying to make gains but it is a slow process.

Another member asked whether or not there is collaboration between countries with similar water conditions.

Mr Odendall confirmed that there is international collaboration on various levels.  For example, they have links with the United States, Germany and France.  The number of countries that they are working with is slowly rising.  There have been times when the WRC has called in overseas experts to help with the research.  Also, the WRC is active in several international associations.

Mr Odendall was asked the total budget is for the WRC.

The budget of the WRC is R60 million a year.  Twelve percent of the budget goes towards administrative costs; the rest is used for research purposes.

Another member wanted to know what is happening with the research to increase the rainfall in South Africa.

Mr Odendall explained that the rainfall project has been very successful and they have recently made breakthroughs.  The WRC has developed a seeding agent that can seed clouds to produce rain.  This technology has been applied elsewhere and it has proven to increase the rain by 30%.

A member asked if the WRC receive any external funding.

Mr Odendall explained that there has been very little donor funding.  Outside donors are reluctant to donate for research they would rather give money for the delivery of the products.

Prof Ngubane (IFP) asked two questions.  She requested more information on membrane technology.  In addition, she wondered if there is an attempt being made to conserve water at a family level.  For example, are houses being equipped with things like rain barrels?

To answer the question concerning conserving water at the family level, Mr Odendall referred to water demand management.  This refers to reducing water used in agriculture, industry and in the urban context.  In the urban context the most effective and easiest way to save water is to fix leaks.  There are also other programmes in place to reduce water in the urban context.  For example, pre-paid meters are used to help condition people to use less water.  Mr Odendall explained that while these efforts might be effective in pushing the 2020-2030 dates forward it is inevitable that South Africa will face a major shortage early in the 21st century.

Regarding  the question on membrane technology, Mr Odendall explained that nature does not like imbalances.  Therefore, if there is water and salt water separated by a membrane to create a balance the fresh water will automatically run into the salt water.  The technology is trying to reverse the process by making the salt-water change into fresh water.  The cost of this technology is very expensive but the price is declining all the time.

Another member asked about efforts being made to supply and conserve water in the rural areas.  The member was particularly concerned about setting up toilets in these areas, and the lack of measures to do so.  The member wondered if South Africa was the worst country for running out of water.  The member thought that maybe Israel and Saudi Arabia were facing the same problem.

Mr Odendall pointed out that the water situations in Saudi Arabia and Israel are very different from the conditions here.  In addition, these countries have oil which makes them very wealthy and therefore they are capable of developing and applying very expensive technologies.

Finally, Mr Odendall agreed with the questions and comments about the lack of sanitation and plumbing in the rural areas.  They are in the process of developing affordable technologies for these areas.

Follow up Questions
The first question asked concerned water in the rural areas.  One of the members was concerned that there are communities in South Africa which have been told that they are not situated where they are likely to have water.  The member did not understand how people could not get water at all.  Secondly, the member wanted to know how the information from the WRC reached people in the rural communities.

Mr Odendall thought that the first question was more of a political issue and did not feel that it was his place to answer the question.

He went on to explain that there had been efforts made to reach the rural communities both with information and with research proposals.  They have approached typically “disadvantaged” universities to encourage them to put forward funding proposals.  The WRC have found it difficult to communicate to the grass roots levels of communities. Therefore, have tended to focus more on getting information out to places like water boards.

Mr Sigwela (ANC) asked whether conserving water from the natural sources would help to delay the 2020-2030 date.

Mr Odendall agreed that conservation at the source is a good idea but he reiterated that the water shortage problem would have to be dealt with eventually

Mr Ginida (ANC) wondered if there is a gap between the knowledge of the WRC and the knowledge of the local governments.

It was explained that local governments are on a full mailing list and they are sent information when it becomes available.  However, the WRC realises that the danger in this is that no one looks at it and it gets filed.  They are in the process of trying new strategies.

Prof Ngubane (IFP) wondered if it would be an effective form of conservation if people collected rainwater and conserved it for watering their lawns and gardens in the summer.

Second session of Questions
The first question asked re-enforced that question of conservation and saving rainwater.  It was pointed out that this could be extremely useful for people who live in the townships since they do not always have easy access to water.

Mr Odendall apologised for not having properly addressed the question concerning water conservation by the use of rainwater.  He felt that this kind of water conservation should be encouraged. However, on a larger scale storing water research is very expensive.  Right now the question is money, not research.

There was a question about Kruger Park and rivers drying up in that area.  It is becoming very problematic because the animals do not have water to drink.  The member wondered if there was any research being done there.

Mr Odendall confirmed that there is extensive research happening in Kruger Park.  The rivers are drying up in that area because of  over use.  This problem and area have received extensive research.

Mr Phala (ANC) asked if there was anyone trying to purify seawater for human or animal use.

As mentioned previously, Mr Odendall confirmed that there are technologies being developed to purify salt water. Unfortunately, these techniques are extremely expensive.

Another member asked if the WRC is researching the mineralisation of rivers.

Mr Odendall confirmed that many projects regarding mineralisation have been funded.  Salt build up is a major concern but there is research being done here.

It was asked if while calculating the 2020-2030 date if the decrease of the population due to AIDS was taken into account?

The impact of AIDS was not factored in while calculating the 2020-2030 dates.  With the worst case scenario AIDS will drastically cut the population and the 2020-2030 dates will be pushed ahead.  However, as stated before, the water shortage is something that is sure to happen.  AIDS will not stop this process, although it may slow it down.

Another member asked about the impact of  pre-paid meters on water conservation.

The results of the pre-paid metres have been varied.  In KwaZulu-Natal for example, they have been unsuccessful.  In the Free State, on the other hand, they have been extremely successful.  The WRC is funding studies to find out what has caused the difference.

The  Chairperson, Ms Sonjica (ANC) asked how South Africa could go about privatisation.

Mr Odendall admitted that the WRC had done very little research into privatisation and that they had very little information on this issue.

Finally, the committee wanted to know about the successes the WRC has had in its research.

Mr Odendall told the committee about a book that was published in 1996 that has all of the successes of the WRC to that date.  He offered to mail it to the committee.  In the mean time, he explained that the commission has success in: developing accurate ways of measuring rainfall; pioneering leak detection; developing a financial investment model now used for all local authorities; and developing methodologies for locating ground water.

Briefing by Dr. Mokeyane on the Budget of the Department
Dr Mokeyane presented the committee with several statistics regarding the Department’s budget.  The main three accounts discussed were:

Exchequer Account (total R 2 599 632 000)
Water Trading Account (total R 2 277 460 000)
Industrial Plantation Trading Account (total R 365 418 000)

Dr Mokeyane then gave the breakdown for eight programmes including:

Administration (total R 118 625 000)
Water Resource Assessment (total R 68 765 000)
Water Resource Planning (total R 100  649 000)
Water Resource Development (total R 316 111 000)
Regional Implementation (total R 1 468 106 000)
Integrated Water Resource Management (total R 82 006 000)
Water Services (total R 80 603 000)
Forestry (total R 364 767 000)

All of these accounts and programmes were broken down into different sections including: transfer payments; miscellaneous expenditure; personnel expenditure; administrative expenditure; stores and livestock; equipment; land and buildings; and professional and special services. More details on the breakdown of these statistics can be found on the Department’s website at

Questions by members
A member asked where the people who are qualified for professional and personal experience pick up their skills.  They wanted to know if it was through school or in government departments.  The member also wanted to know where their expertise was practised.

Dr Mokeyane explained that expertise accumulated from a lot of different areas.  For example, academic experience and experience in government service.  There are a number of professionals who left the Department and then returned as consultants.

Another member asked who constitutes as the professionals.  They wanted to know if there is any transformation among these professionals.

Dr Mokeyane answered that the professionals are the same people just mentioned.  There is a roster of consultants, which is not as representative as the Department would like, but it is improving.  Transformation is beginning to happen.  This is not an easy matter, but there is progress being made.

Another member asked if there has been a loss of expertise in the Department because of a policy of transformation?

In response, Dr Mokeyane said  that there has been no loss of expertise due to transformation. Many people have left the Department only to return as consultants.  It is a much healthier working environment to work as a consultant.  Consultants work fewer hours and make more money.

Prof Ngubane (IFP) asked why stores and livestock are grouped as one category.

The reply was that store and livestock, are grouped together simply because historically that is the way it has been done in the Department

Finally, the committee wanted to know what processes are in place to find qualified personnel.

Dr Mokeyane answered that there are advertisements for new positions.

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