Budget Vote Hearings: Department of Environmental Affairs Entities

Water and Sanitation

08 May 2012
Chairperson: Mr P Mathebe (ANC) (Acting)
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Meeting Summary

The South African Weather Service and the South African National Biodiversity Institute briefed the Portfolio Committee on the work they had been involved in over the past few years. Both entities discussed: their achievements thus far; their mandates and the need to fund future projects; their financial budgets for the 2012/13 financial year; and the challenges that they faced in the near future.

The South African Weather Service provided university science students with bursaries and internships in its organisation, as this ensured the sustainability of trained professionals. The South African Weather Service was focusing heavily on training aviation personnel, in order to ensure the safety of flight passengers. The Service was looking at expanding commercial interests into the untapped industries of mining and construction, as well as working to improve its early warning system in rural areas.

African National Congress Members asked what progress has been made in informing citizens in rural areas about early warning systems, were concerned that the Weather Service budgeted only R5 million for its early warning system, stressed how important such a system, asked whether the system would be geared towards local or international areas, asked how the Weather Service  managed to attract new staff while also retaining the expertise of skilled employees, and stressed that it was important that bursaries reach rural areas where skills development was most crucial. The Democratic Alliance asked whether the Weather Service charged an administrative cost for providing weather information to companies that used the data for their own commercial gain, how it planned to increase its commercial revenue, and whether it would hike existing prices or attempt to get new clients with new business opportunities.

The South African National Biodiversity Institute's mandate now included fauna, and not only flora. The organisation was working on building a new botanical garden in the Eastern Cape. The South African National Biodiversity Institute was also involved in awareness-raising projects to educate people on the importance of sustaining biodiversity.

African National Congress Members asked how and where the South African National Biodiversity Institute conducted its awareness-raising initiatives, wanted to know more about the access to biodiversity information, and asked why there was so much money allocated for project funding that remained unused. The Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs was still new to the information presented and it was hard to keep up with presenters. The Acting Chairperson said it was important that the South African National Biodiversity Institute send its presentations to the committee prior to meetings so that Members could familiarise themselves with the data and asked how the South African National Biodiversity Institute proposed to deal with  people’s lack of knowledge that was destroying natural resources. The Democratic Alliance was concerned about the R10 million infrastructure investments that remained stagnant for years as this hampered any chances of improvement or expansion and wanted to know the reason behind the 77% decrease in donor funding and sponsorships.

Meeting report

South African Weather Services Corporate Strategy and Annual Performance Plan Presentation
South African Weather Services (SAWS): Key Objectives
Dr Linda Makuleni, SAWS Chief Executive Officer, introduced her delegation before discussing the strategy plan and annual budget of SAWS and the performance of SAWS during the 2012/13 financial year. Since 2011, SAWS added a new value to its mission statement, namely to be a caring organisation that promoted understanding and compassion, both internally and externally. All weather services in South Africa were required to have a Quality Management System in place by November 2012. SAWS was proud to announce that it was one of the first in South Africa to receive such accreditation. The strategies of SAWS were in line with South Africa’s national priorities and the objective of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. SAWS was also focused on attracting and retaining skilled personnel to increase its pool of scientists. SAWS worked closely with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to reduce the impact of climate change on biodiversity, as required by the Global Atmospheric Watch and the Air Quality Monitoring Station. SAWS strove to remain relevant in providing meteorological information to aviation and marine services. SAWS was also looking to improve its relationship with stakeholders, both internationally and locally.

SAWS: Achievements so far
In terms of human capacity building, SAWS had in recent years launched an outreach programme where it hosted science fairs at high schools in the Eastern Cape, amongst other areas. SAWS also sent its scientists to universities in rural areas to inform students of bursaries that were available. The bursary and programme was aimed at attracting scarce and critical skills and to ensure continued leadership within the organisation. The majority of bursary holders eventually got employed within the organisation. Bursaries and internships were offered not only to scientists in the Information Technology (IT) area, but to people across all areas including human resources and finances. SAWS was awarded accreditation by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) to provide training within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and other countries. SAWS was proud to announce that it had obtained title deeds for the Waterkloof Land Development Project, and an impact assessment was currently being conducted as part of the process of rezoning the land for commercial development. The staff profile of SAWS has not changed much since 2011, though the organisation aimed to employ staff in accordance with the demographics of South Africa. In terms of its financial management, the SAWS received a clean audit in 2011 from the Auditor-General. The organisation aimed to maintain this level of performance. During the past five years SAWS had received R26 million in grants from shareholders, and the revenue it generated from aviation and other commercial interests had nearly doubled over the past five years. Although administration and operational costs had remained steady since the last financial year, the cost of employing staff had increased. This was due to SAWS’s decision to improve the core competence of the organisation by employing more technical professionals.

SAWS: The Challenges ahead
Due to the work it was required to do, the SAWS needed money to update its computer equipment as soon as this exceeded its expected lifespan of five years. The SAWS needed to develop an early warning system by working in close collaboration work with the Department of Communications that could assist it in disseminating information to citizens. The Deputy Minister of Communications was currently working with SAWS to educate communities in all provinces on weather information so they could have a better understanding of the early warning system. 

SAWS: Financial information
SAWS discussed its budget for 2012-13. The operating expenditure (opex) grant was reduced by R10 million from 2010/11 to 2011/12. SAWS had compensated for this by cutting on administrative expenses, as most money had been allocated towards the Waterkloof Land Development Project. SAWS was grateful for the funding it had received from Government, though it would work to urge the DEA and the National Treasury to increase funding so that SAWS operations could continue. SAWS relied heavily on aviation for its revenue, though it planned to generate more income through other commercial entities. Income on investment interest was said to decrease as capital had been withdrawn in order to roll out the numerous operations of SAWS. As a result of fewer grants, operational expenditure decreased as many operations had to be shelved, though these could not be delayed indefinitely.

The Chairperson thanked SAWS for its presentation and opened the floor to MPs for questions or requests for clarity on any issues related to the presentation.

Discussion
Mr J Skosana (ANC) wanted to know what progress has been made in informing citizens in rural areas about early warning systems. Information Technology (IT) was very scarce in these areas and it was important to educate citizens there in order to mitigate the impact of natural disasters. He commended SAWS for heading programmes in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, but said there were other rural areas that should also be visited such as Mokopane and Limpopo.

SAWS reassured Mr Skosana that there were plans to launch similar projects in rural areas other than the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. SAWS planned to head a weather programme in Limpopo in the near future. Furthermore, SAWS was more likely to launch a programme in an area with strong structures which were at high risk for weather damage. The organisation used historical data to establish high risk areas. For example, the high incidence of lighting in KwaZulu-Natal was used to classify the area as a high risk area.

Mr Skosana was interested to know how SAWS managed to attract new staff while also retaining the expertise of skilled employees.

Dr Makuleni said a benchmarking exercise was used to compare how SAWS compared with other weather based institutions. SAWS also had a policy on remuneration and rewards, which entailed recognising the work of scientists and providing them with the tools to do its work. Also, an incentive programme was in place, which rewarded skilled professionals who took the time to train other scientists who were less skilled. A challenge that faced SAWS was the fact that after employees received training and became skilled, they were lured into the private sector by prospects of higher salaries. Thus, in order to retain the skills of professional scientists, SAWS needed to revise its salary system and compare it with that of potential competitors in the private sector.

Mr Skosana enquired about the methods used to measure the reduction in greenhouse emissions, and asked that, if there were results, how SAWS knew whether the results were successful or not.

SAWS replied that greenhouse gas emissions were monitored at the Global Atmospheric Watch Station in Cape Point. The data was captured in quarterly reports that were sent to the World Data Centre. There was a strong indication that emissions were increasing. With proper Government funding, SAWS could help implement an internationally recognised programme aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Mr Skosana stressed that it was important that bursaries reached rural areas where skills development was most crucial.

Ms C Zikalala (IFP) said she was glad SAWS was dealing with the issue of a lack of scientists, as the organisation desperately needed people trained in maths and science. Also, it was good that schools and universities were being involved, as they were very valuable to SAWS.

She requested more information on the training of pilots and stressed the importance of informing aviation entities about weather conditions, as this ensured the safety of passengers on board flights.

Dr Winifred Jordaan, SAWS Head of Training, said that pilot training included the training of all aviation personnel. The training had been tightened over the last few years because during discussions between the National Civil Aviation Authority and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) it was said that SAWS  was not strict enough on testing the competencies of aviation personnel. SAWS had thus updated its competency tests, which now formed part of the training of South African Air Force personnel. SAWS was not involved in the training of commercial pilots, which fell under the mandate of private pilot training schools. However, training of its personnel was a key priority area for SAWS.

SAWS responded to the issue of aviation dangers. Aircraft accidents were sometimes due to technical failures, but could also sometimes be caused by irresponsible behaviour of pilots. Meteorologists could only recommend where they thought pilots should or should not fly, but in the end the pilot would make up his or her own mind.

Ms Zikalala enquired about the indigenous knowledge book, and accused SAWS of not submitting it to the Committee.

Dr Makuleni responded by saying she would follow up on this issue, and if it was true that MPs had not received the book, she would request the administrative office of SAWS to send copies of the book to Committee Members.

Ms Zikalala further wanted clarity on what SAWS meant when it talked about the “safeguarding of life and property”.

SAWS responded to this issue by saying that SAWS was in correspondence with Disaster Management Authorities both nationally and provincially. They communicated with each other through an sms service to inform each other of pending weather conditions that might prove dangerous. SAWS cited the recent tropical cyclone Irina in KwaZulu-Natal and said that proactive steps by these joint operational centres prevented extensive damage. SAWS said that the organisation was working to improve this service at local government level.

Ms Zikalala said she was glad that SAWS was working hand-in-hand with the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs by visiting municipalities and local communities and educating people on how to make use of weather forecasts in daily life.

Mr G R Morgan (DA) asked whether SAWS planned to decrease the number of upper air soundings.

SAWS responded by saying that sources of upper air data had increased due to technological advancements. Therefore, the number of upper air soundings was being increased.

Mr Morgan asked SAWS to brief the Committee on the renegotiation of its contract with Future Foresight. Why was there a need to terminate the contract? Had a date been set to terminate the contract? Was there any update on the contract since the renegotiation took place?

SAWS replied that the organisation formed partnerships with other companies such as MTN and Vodacom. In terms of the commercial contracts with such companies, such as the one with Future Foresight, SAWS was required to meet certain targets. However, due to a lack of funding, SAWS was unable to meet these targets and thus liable to a financial penalty. Consequently, instead of terminating the contract entirely, it was decided to renegotiate the contract so that targets were set at lower levels.  

Mr Morgan wanted to know whether SAWS charged an administrative cost for providing weather information to companies that used the data for their own commercial gain.

SAWS responded to this by saying that the fees charged for providing data depended on whether the data was raw or processed, the latter type being charged more. SAWS said, however, that data provided to university students for research was provided free of charge.

Mr Morgan asked how SAWS planned to increase its commercial revenue, whether it would hike existing prices or attempt to get new clients with new business opportunities.

To this issue, Dr Makuleni responded by saying that SAWS would not increase its prices. Instead, it would expand its business into untapped industries such as that of mining and construction. She mentioned how US weather services were able to ask low prices because they were fully subsidised by the US government, and seeing as these companies had access to South African markets, SAWS could thus not afford to increase its prices, due to the competition posed by alternative weather services.

Dr S Huang (ANC) was concerned that SAWS budgeted only R5 million for its early warning system. He stressed how important such a system was, and asked whether the system would be geared towards local or international areas.

A representative from SAWS explained that R5 million was not the only amount that would be geared towards developing an early warning system. R5 million was the amount that the organisation requested from the National Treasury during the 2010/11 financial year. SAWS only received the funding late in 2011, and had used it since to educate users on the early warning system. This education was done in collaboration with partner departments such as the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.

Dr Huang wanted to know the reason behind the predicted decrease in aviation income as stated in the budget. Also, considering the organisation’s plan to increase its staff in the near future, how did it intend on maintaining the 2% decrease in employee costs as stated in the budget?

Dr Makuleni responded by saying that SAWS aimed to maintain employee costs between 55-59%. In order to do this, it must regularly revise its employment framework. For instance, if an employee retired or left his job for whatever reason, the organisation must re-evaluate and decide whether that post was still necessary.

Ms M Wenger (DA) asked why SAWS was concentrating its bursary opportunities on human resource and finance posts instead of using the bursaries to develop the skills of weather scientists.

Ms J Manganye (ANC) wanted to know whether university students who participated in internship programmes at SAWS were eventually absorbed into the organisation. Were there other companies that competed with SAWS in the employment of these individuals once they graduated?

The Chairperson asked what criteria were used when bursaries were awarded. Also, he asked whether SAWS considered all provinces when awarding bursaries.

Dr Makuleni responded by saying that during 2005/06 SAWS was under-funded and thus had to re-evaluate its priorities. Managers must be trained in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of leadership within the organisation. Today, however, the weather service was working towards building the skills and competence necessary to manage day-to-day operations. Therefore, in close collaboration with the University of Pretoria in particular, SAWS awarded 40 bursaries per year to students who completed their degrees in Meteorology or Atmospheric Sciences. Once they finished their studies, these students were employed within the organisation. She said the aim of SAWS bursary scheme was to broaden the recruitment pool of the organisation. In terms of bursary criteria, two thirds of bursary holders must be previously disadvantaged individuals, more than 50% must be women, and also these bursaries must be distributed throughout South Africa. Bursaries were advertised nation-wide in media and during the Grahamstown Science Festival when students were invited to participate in SAWS workshops. Areas that were notorious for experiencing severe weather patterns were given preference when deciding where to promote bursaries and training.

Dr Makuleni briefed the Committee on a new initiative of SAWS, namely community rainfall stations. She said this project was particularly important in rural areas near rivers where rainfall was abundant. Members of the community would identify a community leader who would assist the Disaster Management Authorities in monitoring rainfall levels. This information could then be communicated further via cellphones. However, funding was needed for SAWS to implement this pilot project. She said SAWS had managed to get R2.4 million in funding from the Water Research Commission to implement a project in collaboration with the University of Pretoria. The project entailed identifying foggy areas, for example Venda in Limpopo, and then harvesting the fog to collect water sources.

Mr Skosana acknowledged the fact that SAWS recruited people in schools and universities for positions in IT, Human Resources and Finances, but he wanted to know what SAWS was doing to involve people who fell outside of these systems.

Dr Makuleni responded that the positions for which individuals were recruited was entirely contingent on the areas where there were vacancies. She said it was important for SAWS to consider its own equity.

South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)Presentation
Mr Tami Sokutu, Board Chairperson, SANBI, said that SANBI had recently taken on a broader mandate which included not only flora, but also fauna. Naturally, this gave rise to a whole new set of challenges. As a result of poor funding, the positions of retrenched workers could not be filled. Though the majority of its staff members had been relocated to Pretoria, many of them remained in Cape Town at the SANBI offices at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. In 2012, SANBI aimed to increase the number of botanical gardens in South Africa.  He was glad to announce that SANBI was delivering on its task of providing advice to various institutions on biodiversity in South Africa. Over the past few years, SANBI was overly dependent on external funds for projects. As a result the distinction between project funding and Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) funds became blurred, as MTEF funds were used for programmes that were meant to be funded by project funds. Also, fraught relationships with unions spilt over into the organisational structure of SANBI, as they negatively affected relationships with employees. However, relationships with unions were starting to improve. SANBI played a very influential role in the discussions around the Conference of the Parties 17 (COP17). 

SANBI: Mandate
Ms Tanya Abrahamse, SANBI Chief Executive Office, said that the mandate of its organisation was based on the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) as well as a letter form the Minister of Environmental Affairs, which were both gazetted. Also, the National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan, which was approved by Cabinet in 2009, set a framework for biodiversity that outlined the key objectives of SANBI. The obligations of SANBI were in line with President Zuma’s Outcome 10 programme, although this document had not yet been gazetted. SANBI was also proud of the role it was given in terms of the White Paper on Climate Change that was adopted by Parliament. SANBI’s role included providing evidence-based information for assessment and monitoring of the state of biodiversity, and reporting back to the Minister in this regard. SANBI was also responsible for developing tools, maps and guidelines that were used to better manage animal and plant collections. The National Botanical Garden System had been expanded and now included a garden in the Eastern Cape. The next garden that SANBI would work on developing was in Limpopo. The locations for these gardens were chosen based on the value of biodiversity, tourism and education, as well as the extent of urbanisation in the given area. SANBI further provided advice to the DEA, as well as to departments at all levels of Government. The mandate given to SANBI had allowed the organisation to develop human capital in its sector. SANBI had also been successful in writing up a red list of all threatened plant and animal species. This marked SANBI’s great shift toward including elements of fauna in its research. SANBI worked closely with research universities when dealing with matters of biodiversity. The historical data gathered by SANBI was important for tracking the impact of climate change. The Biodiversity Advisor was a website that aimed to inform both ordinary citizens and advanced scientists of the ecosystems in its environment. Through its management of the Scientific Authority, SANBI supplied the Minister with scientific evidence to establish South Africa’s position with regards to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The Minster requested SANBI to give advice on international agreements such as the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. This input from SANBI was presented to Cabinet and then used as the basis of the White Paper passed late in 2011.

SANBI was proud to lead the National Fresh Water Ecosystems Priority Areas study, which mapped out the state of all the rivers, dams, and other sources of fresh water in South Africa. 

All SANBI’s mandate responsibilities were contained it its five-year Corporate Strategic Plan, which was revised annually by its board, the National Treasury and the Presidency. From this revision, an Annual Performance Plan was set out and formed the basis of SANBI’s annual audit. SANBI provided the DEA with quarterly reports on how these plans progressed. Given its broad mandate, SANBI aimed to have cross-cutting programmes which helped the organisation cut back on unnecessary expenses. SANBI wishes to receive sustainable MTEF funding, as reliance on external donor funding created uncertainty within the organisation. Finally, a challenge that SANBI was ready to meet was marketing botanical gardens in a way that would allow people to enjoy them more.

SANBI: Financial budget
Mr Tom Bouwer, SANBI Chief Financial Officer, said that, according to SANBI’s budget for 2012/13, its total MTEF funding would be an estimated R204 million. Funding from Government departments such as the Department of Science and Technology amounted to R137 million. Money from foreign funders would be about R37 million. Thus, SANBI predicted it would be very dependent on MTEF funding during the 2012/13 financial year. The organisation was therefore in need of more sustainable funding to sustain its broad mandate.

The Chairperson thanked the CEO and CFO for their presentations and opened the floor to Members for any questions or comments.

Discussion
Ms Wenger was concerned about the R10 million infrastructure investments that remained stagnant for years, as this hampered any chances of improvement or expansion.

Mr Sokutu acknowledged her concern, and said a lack of proper infrastructure investments by SANBI could become problematic for the organisation. He therefore urged Government to do more to develop South Africa’s infrastructure. The R10 million infrastructure investment that was stagnant would be used in SANBI’s prospective roll out in the Eastern Cape.

Ms Wenger wanted to know the reason behind the 77% decrease in donor funding and sponsorships.

Ms Abrahamse said foreign donations had decreased because many of the big long-term projects, such as the World Bank Fynbos project, were coming to an end. She also attributed the decrease in sponsorship to the global financial downturn. However, she said that SANBI was set to receive funding from the Global Adaptation Fund in the near future.

Mr Skosana asked how and where SANBI conducted its awareness-raising initiatives. He wanted to know more about the access to biodiversity information. Also, he asked why there was so much money allocated for project funding that remained unused. Finally, he stressed the point that the Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs was still new to the information presented by SANBI, and that he found it hard to keep up with presenters.

The Chairperson said it was important that SANBI send its presentations to the Committee prior to meetings so that Members could familiarise themselves with the data and thus not have to struggle to keep up with what was being discussed during meetings.

Mr Sokutu acknowledged this point. He invited the Committee to meet with SANBI’s team of officials in the Kirstenbosch garden, so they can see the work that SANBI had done. Arranging a meeting would ensure that everyone was clear on the key themes and objectives of SANBI.

The Chairperson raised the issue of disseminating information to local communities in rural areas, where people lacked the internet, but were dependent on media such as radio. How did SANBI propose to deal with these people’s lack of knowledge that was destroying the natural resources in South Africa?

Ms Abrahamse said SANBI realised its role in creating awareness about the need to sustain biodiversity. Due to South Africa’s history, the task of raising awareness was predominantly seen as an elitist campaign, and the majority of South Africans had not been involved in this process. Thus, a key concern of SANBI was the need to educate people at grassroots level across all provinces on the meaning of biodiversity and climate change by means of providing them with practical examples.

Dr Huang said he was concerned about the fact that SANBI only utilised roughly half of its R10 million MTEF funding. What was the unspent money used for?

Ms Abrahamse said the reason why such a big part of the budget remained unspent was because the projects allocated ran over a period of three years. Therefore, the money was not unspent; it was allocated towards funding specific projects that rolled over into the next financial year.

Mr Bouwer reiterated her point and said the reason why money did not always get used in any given financial year was because of the nature of project cycles. The unused funds could thus not be referred to as loose money, but rather money that was committed to specific projects.

Ms Abrahamse said she would ask SANBI's head of communications to arrange for Committee Members to visit the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden within the next two months. She assured the Chairperson that the Kirstenbosch garden had tour guides and golf carts for people with disability to make the trip very enjoyable.

The meeting was adjourned.

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