Water Use Applications: progress report on efforts to reduce backlogs

Water and Sanitation

02 November 2010
Chairperson: Mr P Mathebe (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee welcomed the Department of Water Affairs and noted there were many of its officials in an acting position, which was a problem. The Committee was told that in addition to the Minister being replaced, the Director General and Chief Financial Officer had been suspended on 1 November. At the end of the meeting, the Committee noted that in the past it had been the DWA’s tendency not tell the Portfolio Committee the truth. That was why their Minister was gone – because the Department had misled her.

The Letsema project manager gave a progress report on the emergency response plan for eradication of water use authorisation applications (WULAs) backlog. The report gave reasons for the backlog
, which included capacity constraints, delayed inputs from other departments and incomplete documents from applicants. The previous Minister had created the Letsema intervention strategy. Of the backlog of 4318, 3039 had been finalised, while 1279 were left to be processed. DWA had learnt numerous lessons, such as the resource intensive nature of the process, the cost of making the mistake of accepting incomplete applications, not placing sufficient responsibility on clients for completeness of applications. Plans to address long term sustainability included a proposal to establish a dedicated unit for Water Use, extension officers to assist people to complete the applications, and considering a review of application forms and the fee required as well as including in the current call centre people trained on water use authorisation. DWA needed improved processes to improve their image, enhance the regulatory role of the department, improve DWA's position to deal with appeals, and anchor DWA's contribution to governmental programs such as poverty alleviation.

The Committee were concerned about the lack of capacity, and questioned if the issue was being sufficiently addressed. The prosecution of those using water illegally was noted, and the Committee asked at what stage these individuals would face criminal processes. They noted the problem of accepting incomplete applications, and expressed their hope that this had been addressed. The Committee asked for details of the skills required to carry out the WULAs. The interaction between the mining sector and the mining department was highlighted, and the Committee asked for further details on this. The Committee highlighted that increased focus needed to be placed on backlogs at municipalities to enable service delivery.

Meeting report

An Acting Chairperson, Mr P Mathebe, was elected because the Chairperson had been promoted to Deputy Minister of Police.

The Acting Director General, Cornelius Ramfers, introduced the Department of
Water delegates present: Mr Trevor Balzer, the Chief Operations Officer; Mr Mbangiseni Nepfumbacla, Acting Deputy Director General (DDG): Policy and Regulation, Ms Rachalet Cronje, Water Resource Management Support; Mr Vincent Manene, Deputy Director, Parliamentary Support; Mr Nndangi Musekene, Directorate of Protection and Waste, Ms Deborah Mochotlhi, Chief Director of Regulations and Letsema project manager.

Ms M Mabuza (ANC) asked about the ‘acting’ status of many of the delegates represented.

The Acting DG explained that the Director General and the Chief Financial Officer had been suspended on 1 November. Investigations were underway with the possibility of disciplinary hearings.

The Chairperson did not want to discuss suspensions at that time. The political head should explain.

Mr G Morgan (DA) said that bearing in mind there was a newly appointed Minister, the Minister should be asked to come before the Portfolio Committee as soon as possible to explain. When the new minister had been appointed the past Sunday 31 October. How could people have been suspended on 1 November? The Minister should be brought in to respond.

The Chair said that the Committee would put in a request for the Minister to respond on this issue.

Emergency response plan for eradication of water use authorisation applications backlog
Ms Deborah Mochotlhi, Chief Director of Regulations and Head of the Letsema project, began by explaining the reasons for backlogs, which were caused by inadequate capacity (numbers and skills), insufficient guidelines, delayed Reserve Determination, delayed inputs from other departments, incomplete documents from applicants, and inadequate assistance to historically disadvantaged individuals (HDIs).

She noted water uses in terms of Section 21 of the National Water Act, which included taking and storing water, impeding or reducing its flow, altering the bed or discharging or disposing of waste into water, or using it for recreational purposes.

The benefits or rationale for dealing with backlogs were to improve the image of the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) and the government, who were being blamed for stifling economic growth, to enhance the regulatory role of the department, to improve DWA’s position to deal with appeals / tribunal, and to anchor DWA’s contribution to governmental programs such as poverty alleviation.

The previous Minister had created an intervention strategy – Letsema (which means a group of people coming to together to achieve a common goal). It comprised of two groups divided into different regions, each including national office personnel and professional service providers (PSPs).

The project had started in February 2010. The backlog had been 4318. Of this, 3039 had been finalised, while 1279 were left. Most were in the realm of stream flow reduction (1130) and agriculture (825).

She then discussed the factors that had led to discrepancies in statistics such as pre applications turning out to be full applications, files reported as backlogs being only enquiries, applications that had been differentiated per water use instead of as an integrated application, and the duplication of files.

DWA had learnt numerous lessons, such as the resource intensive nature of the process, the cost of making the mistake of accepting incomplete applications, and not sufficient responsibility is placed on clients for completeness of applications. The challenges were listed as:
▪ non-use of authorisation guidelines by applicants,
▪ applicants not responding on time,
▪ the time consuming follow up on applications
▪ clients had not been sure of what was required,
▪ unlawful water use while WULAs were being processed,
▪ resistance to contribute to redress and equity, and
▪ the impact on other functions within the department.

Ms Mochotlhi discussed the long-term sustainability of a zero backlog, and noted the long-term recommendations. These included establishing a dedicated unit for Water Use. There was a need to review business process, with extension officers assisting historically disadvantaged individuals (HDIs), and with a review of application forms and the fee required. In addition, DWA needed to create a call centre (to be incorporated into the current call centre but including people trained on water use authorisation). Forty two contract workers had been appointed in July 2010 – therefore capacity building was underway. Training had started in October using the new application form. Skills acquisition and training was continuing, and was still much needed.

Discussion
Mr Morgan thanked DWA for the statistics, noting it as a good sign that the department understood the challenge underway. WULAs were an important issue. The backlog was being processed at a decent rate, and he trusted they were on line to be done by 2011. He asked them to go through the skills needed in the particular unit. It was one thing to have clerical staff, and another to have the skills to scrutinize accuracy and context. The long term suggestions had been reasonable. However, there were a number of users who were using water without permits. When the project end, users who had not complied / completed forms / responded, and remain unprocessed – what would happen in that case? Water use without licence was a transgression of the Water Act. There was some condonation of use without WULAs for some groups, but eventually enough needed to be enough regarding those involved in the backlogs. Would criminal prosecution happen after a certain deadline? Could a barrier be enforced? When would water use without licence be prosecuted? He wanted reassurance that there would be a date. He then made an example of mines. There were about 120 mines that should not be operating.

Mr S Huang (ANC) noted that they had a strategic plan – why did DWA mission differ from their guidelines? There were many issues in DWA. In that case, how would they improve their image? There had been so many suspensions. He asked about the rationale behind gearing towards an improved position when dealing with the tribunal. Letsema was a good concept. Looking at the backlogs per province (1314 in Kwazulu Natal; 135 in Gauteng), why was there such a big difference in backlogs between them? On accepting incomplete applications, how had this mistake been made? Efficiency needed to be improved on. The new Minister should attend a Committee meeting soon. There was now no Portfolio Chairperson, no Director General, no CFO, and a new Minister.

Ms M Mabuza (ANC) reminded the Portfolio Committee that the former Chair had said that there were people in the department who were not committed. On the backlog discrepancies, she thought it was because people were not serious about their work. The department needed to be looked into. Some issues raised that day were not raised in the previous meeting. The professional service providers in the Letsema teams had not been noted either and that had happened in July. The Portfolio Committee needed to get information, and not have to dig for it. They needed to have a follow up on the day’s meeting and a report to be able to track improvements.

Mr J Skozana (ANC) said there were no time frames included in the report. He supported Ms Mabuza's comments. What was happening with new applications? Were they being addressed simultaneously? One of the causes of backlogs was inadequate capacity; did they have the capacity now? Some applicants had not completed applications properly; was there any awareness of this so that it had been corrected? Of the 1279 WULAs left, this number was still too big. Of the 42 contract workers appointed, were they capacitated for the particular skills needed? On the review of application forms (that cost R114), was the department referring to current or previous forms? This report seemed very separate from the previous one. Reports needed to be comprehensive.

Ms D Tsotsetsi (ANC) commented on timeframes. What was the plan for capacity building? It was a major challenge. When would they start building and recruiting skills? How efficient was the Human Resources department? The longer the problem of incomplete documentation continued, the longer it defeated job creation programs. Did people understand the information needed? Some needed help. She also said that languages should be taken into account. Most applications were in English and Afrikaans. Where were DWA offices situated? There may be a need to decentralise and have them in different regions. What penalties were being applied to correct the problems? What about monitoring? Was there a public participation or awareness campaign conducted as far as the requirements for WULAs were concerned? The problem would continue as long as capacitation was not happening. Who was resisting transformation, as noted in the report? Was the call centre efficient? How many people were trained per province? Were they now coping?

Ms J Manganye (ANC) asked DWA if they would they be able to, or had begun to source the needed capacity, and it seemed they had people who were just not doing their jobs. There was a need to put monitoring measures in place. Why had they not brought the list of professional service providers hired and their qualifications? There was a need for urgent action, and capable people to be put in place. Progress had to be made.

The Acting Chair noted the challenge of the unlawful use of water by applicant where WULAs were still being processed. What penalties had been meted out to those individuals and entities? Of the 42 contract workers, what was their provincial spread? Also, he wanted to know about their numbers with regard to women and people with disabilities. On the difficulties that HDIs experienced because of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), what were they doing to assist them?

The Acting DG gave an overall view of water licence usage and capacity. There was an issue in the skills department that needed a long term solution. WULAs required a multi disciplinary team – engineers, admin, etc. They had yet to put numbers on various types of skills needed. On timeframes, they still aimed for a cut off date of 31 March 2011. On enforcement and compliance, DEA needed to implement action on illegal water use, and needed to put a program and plan on the table. There were some cases currently before the court. On the HDIs, DWA needed to look at how to improve the assistance program. Language issues needed to be addressed. On equity and transformation – they still needed to look at those specifics.

Mr Mbangiseni Nepfumbacla, Acting Deputy Director General (DDG): Policy and Regulation,
said there was an interim committee to try to deal with some of the issues being noted regarding policy and regulations. Certain strategies were being reviewed, such as the National Water Use Strategy and the legislative review. Water quality was also being addressed. Tools needed to be updated with lessons learnt. On the guidelines, processes had been somewhat fragmented. Guidelines had been drawn up but did not address everything. On incomplete applications – there was a need to revise application forms in terms of cost and their user friendliness. Some people had said it was difficult to fill in. Some information required was quite technical, but that information was needed. They were working very hard, perhaps they needed to work harder. Continual improvement was critical.

Ms Mochotlhi noted, on the cut off point regarding illegal water use, that it was difficult to establish, especially when those people had not provided the necessary information. They issued a 90 days letter, then a 30 days letter. When this was not successful, in the past they had then written a decline letter. However, that took the matter to the tribunal, which then involved further backlogs. Now a letter was written to indicate all previous communication, and another letter was written stating that DWA considered the application to be withdrawn. When a client was not happy with the decision taken or a delayed application, they could take the matter to the tribunal. When the issue was relevant to a particular mine, it could also be taken to the tribunal.

On KZN and Gauteng licences, she said that applications received depended on the applicants themselves. In this case it was because of the number of stream flow reduction applications in KZN. There were many small developers that wanted to apply. On HDIs and assistance to them, DWA had engaged with the Forestry Council and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). It was difficult for DWA to assist. She was not sure about the different reports noted by Ms Mabuza. She would not give a false report. She apologised for not including the timeframe. It was 31 March 2011. DWA were trying hard to finalise the backlogs before then. This project had taken resources from other functions. On contract workers, DWA had planned for two per region, but had increased the number to three, including the national office. She did not have numbers for women or disabled, and was not sure if they had attained their target.

Mr Nndangi Musekene, Directorate of Protection and Waste, said that the contract workers were distributed across regions. He added that they had disabled people (perhaps three), and that information could be provided.

The Acting Chair noted that the last time Ms Mochotlhi had appeared she said she would provide the details, but she was still speculating.

Ms Mochotlhi said that she had not anticipated this question, and at the last meeting it had been referring to other specifics.

The Acting Chair said that they could not comment on information they did not have.

The Acting DG said that they would provide all the details in a written report.

Ms Mochotlhi said that, regarding the discrepancies, it was unfortunate, but those were the issues that needed to be addressed. On accessibility of regional offices, there was much movement between regions in the beginning by DWA. Decentralised offices may be something to be addressed going forward. On those resisting redress and equity, she noted it as a political issue. There were challenges all over. DWA was battling with those legal challenges and policy issues. Details would come with the legislation review.

Mr Musekene responded to the issue of the skills required. DWA was dealing with applications from different sectors (mining, environment, road construction, industry, waste water treatment works, etc), which all required specific skills, such as civil design for waste water treatment works. There were engineers, fluvial geomorphologists to assess the disturbance of river courses, people to do impact prediction in terms of chemicals for mining in order to include mitigating factors. When abstraction licences were given, they would need to know the amount of groundwater available to ensure the resource was not depleted. All these skills were required. Not all of them were embedded within DWA.

Ms Tsotetsi appreciated the spirit in which DWA were taking the questions. On capacity, she said that it was fine to use consultants when scarce skills were needed. Non performance could be bogged down by contracts, which resulted in fruitless expenditure.

Ms Mabuza said that this project was reported to the Committee on 25 August. DWA had said they would approach the Chamber of Mines to assist. Was the resultant collaboration not sufficient to prevent consultants from being needed? DWA had acknowledged that they needed to improve the quality of reporting at the last meeting.

Mr Morgan asked for further discussion on what progress could be reported upon in terms of the relationship with the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR). The previous minister had said there was a need for greater coordination. The Minister’s view was that it was not possible to stop mining because of a failure of water licences. The issue had been given to DMR because they were empowered to stop the mine. Was it possible to get those mineral resource officials to understand mines should not be operating until water licences were issued?

Mr Skosana asked for the timeframe again, and asked the DG to get his team to deal with the outstanding issues and projects.

The Acting Chair said there was a problem not being taken seriously. Municipalities were at the centre of service delivery, but there was no unit to focus upon municipalities. The backlog in the municipalities was hampering service delivery.

The Acting DG said he would be meeting with the team the following week to discuss outstanding issues and other high priority projects. On the issue of municipalities, DWA needed to find out how to classify various licences to expedite service delivery. They were not doing well on the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA). On mining licences, it gave only three months, and if the department had not responded, then the mine could proceed. It was de facto in the National Water Act that 90 days was given. It was inexcusable for DWA to sit with licences from 2008, capacity issues notwithstanding. Dealing with issues of illegal water use within that context was needed, and the decisions taken on them. This regulatory tool impacted upon service delivery. One needed to look at the structural problems related to the licences. DWA needed to deal with the Chambers, which would enable DWA to then deal with many sectors at once. There was a need to face water use, and foster partnerships in order to improve the process. In terms of mining, engagement with DMR was needed to resolve issues. A lot of work was needed between the two departments. The application fee was currently R114 and DWA had sometimes waived that fee. Was that figure justifiable in view of the cost of the expertise needed to issue the licence? The initial rationale was that the figure enabled everyone to pay. There may need to be a differentiation between different types of applications. DWA needed to turn around licensing, so that it was dealt with on a day-by-day basis.

Ms Mochotlhi reiterated the cut off date of 31 March 2011. On the matter of the Chamber of Mines, it was found that DMR helping to process the mining applications was seen as a conflict of interest, as it was their applications. They had not put resources on the table to help. There were other relevant departments, such as agriculture.

Mr Musekene said the cut off date coincided with the end of the financial year.

The Acting Chair thanked the DWA. Members were still not that impressed. There were many contradictions. It was the DWA’s tendency to not tell the Portfolio Committee the truth. That was why their Minister was gone – because the Department had misled her.

The meeting was adjourned.


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