Progress Report on water licences & their implications for economic development in South Africa: Department of Water & Sanitation briefing

Water and Sanitation

05 August 2015
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) presented a progress report on the allocation of water use licences and their implications for economic development in South Africa. The report featured background information on the National Water Act of 1998, the water use licensing scheme and progress to date, current intervention programmes, legislative developments, and support for poor farmers.

Developments taking place included looking at how the issuing of licences could be fast-tracked and progress with the President’s advisory council. In terms of current intervention strategies, the Electronic Water Use Licence Application and Authorisation System (e-WULAAS) would radically transform water use licensing, and would be implemented by September 2015. Through this system, an application would be submitted online and when it was lodged, the system was designed to manage it. In dealing with applications at the moment, there was a massive backlog.

The new water licensing regime included the National Water Amendment Act, 2014; regulations regarding the procedural requirements for water use licences; the water use licensing business process; and e-WULAAS. A key improvement was that there was a business process which had to be adhered to in order to make the process more efficient. If the process was applied, targets for issuing licences would be met.

On the land reform programmes in the country, Members complained about the “before-and-after” situation, where farms that had been acquired by the state for a co-operative became unproductive because the land had been sold separately from the water rights, which meant people had got the land but not the water to maintain the farms. This was something they described as fundamentally wrong. It was asserted that black farmers generally faced difficulties in acquiring rights to water, and one Member said her main worry was that whites had come to South Africa and had taken the land. Now they were taking the water, when blacks were the original people of this country.

The DWS was of the opinion that it was making good progress overall, despite the room for improvement that always existed. The Chairperson commended the DWS for actively seeking to involve Parliament, but cautioned against it just being lip-service. He suggested that a joint meeting should be convened with the DWS and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform so that they could deal with the issues appropriately.

Meeting report

Introductory comments
The Chairperson introduced the agenda of the meeting and said it was more of a briefing, and so did not require a quorum. There had been formal apologies from the Minister of the Department, Ms H Kekana (ANC), Mr A Mpontshane (IFP), Mr L Basson (DA). The Director General of the Department, Ms Margaret-Anne Diedricks, had also sent an apology. In her absence, the delegation would be led by Mr Anil Singh, Deputy Director General. The Committee had one item on the agenda for the day and next week it would deal with the skills shortage issue.

Department of Water and Sanitation: Progress report on allocation of water use licences
Mr Singh said the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) was there to present a progress report on the Department’s process of allocating water use licences. In general, he would be talking about how it was allocating licenses, the criteria and the progress that had been made to date.

He said the National Water Act of 1998 had made water a public good, changing the 1956 Act. In this way, the 1998 Act was progressive in its approach. He then went into a general overview of water use licensing as he described the water use licence application scheme. The licensing scheme had inputs such as the application fee, assessments such as the relevant legislation, and the output, which was either authorisation or a decline. A problem was that when the DWS received applications it did not have full information most of the time. He briefly explained the flow of the scheme and showed a table detailing the total number of water use licences and volumes of water issued per water use sector. There had been a rise in the number of licences issued from the 2001-2010 period, when 133 had been allocated at the local government level, compared to the 2010–to date period, when 340 licences had been allocated. These figures indicated the progression. However, there were smaller allocations to the agricultural department, from 1 327 in the 2001-2010 period to 654 in the 2010–to date period.

Mr Singh said developments taking place included looking at how the issuing of licences could be fast-tracked and progress with the President’s advisory council. In terms of current intervention strategies, the Electronic Water Use Licence Application and Authorisation System (e-WULAAS) would radically transform water use licensing, and would be implemented by September 2015. Through this system, an application would be submitted online and when it was lodged, the system was designed to manage it. In dealing with applications at the moment, there was a massive backlog. The benefits of this system included greater transparency, as the application could be monitored and one was able to track and trace how it was going. There were currently 1 514 unlicensed, but an action plan to fix this issue had been put in place.

The new water licensing regime was briefly outlined. This included the National Water Amendment Act, 2014; regulations regarding the procedural requirements for water use licences; the water use licensing business process; and the electronic water use licence application and assessment system. A key improvement was that there was a business process which had to be adhered to in order to make the process more efficient. If the process was applied, targets for issuing licences would be met.

With regard to legislative developments, the agreed time for the processing of the respective authorisations was said to be a cumulative period of 300 days. There had been agreements before, but now there was legislation covering and backing those agreements. Although 300 days might seem long, practically there was a need for an outer time limit for all three departments to reach agreement. However, if the process could be finished sooner, that would be done. On the overall amendment of acts and regulations, there was a requirement for public participation, which was very important.

Mr Singh described the support for the resources of poor farmers, which was complementary and had to be seen in comparison to other government initiatives, if only to ensure alignment. There were a few selection criteria, including being a South African citizen, a member of the Water User Association, a historically disadvantaged individual (HDI), and a farmer who was not able to raise capital. Several key bulk projects had been implemented in different regions such as the Northern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

He said the Department had made good progress, but there was room for improvement and they could always do better. It had regular interactions with the sectors and was looking at continuous ways to improve. It needed support from Parliament, and for them to bring to the Department’s attention cases where people had not been served properly. The Department was proud of its system and would report back on further progress.

Discussion
The Chairperson said there had been irony in what the Department was raising. Lip service had always been paid to how important Parliament was, but having listened to what the Department had been saying, Parliament was nowhere in the water use licensing process. It was something that needed to be corrected once and for all. He was aware of regulations, but it was the first time a Department was actually involving Parliament. He said these were regulations from a National Treasury point of view which were taken in December of each year, and by the time they came back, the regulations would already have been passed. It was a step in the right direction, to have the regulations go through Parliament, as they could make or break the very essence of that legislation. On the land reform programmes in the country, he had seen a “before-and-after” situation, which he described as a farm having been acquired by the state for a co-operative and after the co-operative had been established the landscape was brown and the dam did not exist anymore. The answer was that the land had been sold separately from the water rights, which meant people had got the land but not the water to maintain the farm. There was something fundamentally wrong there. He asked the Department to comment on that.

Ms T Baker (DA) appreciated the electronic system, but still had a few doubts about the targets the Department was setting. Were they saying that what they had done in five years they would now do in one year? She asked how realistic this was, because although electronic methods generally performed better, it would still be a process. She asked how many licences were still out there. A considerable amount of support had been given to KwaZulu-Natal, but she was concerned about the other provinces and other regions. The situation was dire, and there was a need to check on what kind of support they were giving.

Mr D Mnguni (ANC) referred to the eradication of outstanding licences, which currently featured 1 514 un-finalised licence applications. What was the categorisation of these licences, and how many were they were finalising per month? From his calculations, it was about 218 per month. Was that feasible? He then gave a “before-and-after” example himself of a white farmer who had land, and when the black owner came in the water had been cut and they had not had water since. The farmer had tried all he could for the last five years, but nothing had happened. There was another farmer in a constituency he had visited, and the farm was drying up. The dam was too small, and they were asking for a greater volume of water, but had failed to get a response. However, in the mining and local government sectors there had been an increase in volume. He asked what the positives and negatives of this increase in water were, because water was officially scarce in South Africa.

Ms M Khawula (EFF) was worried about the situation prevailing currently. The presentation made it seem like everything was going smoothly, but it was not. She was worried about those farmers who were planting sugar cane. White and black people did not get the same rights to water. She also was concerned at how the Department had referred to “poor people,” and asked why it did not go directly and help them if it knew about their situation. While everything looked fine on paper, in reality it was not.

Mr T Makondo (ANC) thought all the issues being raised pertained to one issue. He said that when Mr Singh had talked about the Water Act of 1966, he had indicated that the Water Act of 1998 had been for the public good with regard to water resources. However, a point could be raised as to what the Act had been trying to achieve, because the same issues kept arising even with the new Act in place. There were a number of emerging black farmers who found it very hard to work because of the difficulty in gaining access to water. Was the current Act able to assist in that regard, or was it just there on paper? He said there was a sense that white farmers continued to steal water – whether they had a right or not was something the Department could respond to. In some instances, farmers just closed their dams and the animals of the new farmers died without them being able to do anything. There was always talk of transformation, but in practice it was in the distance because the people could not see it. He wanted to know if the current Act assisted the government in what it was trying to achieve. If not, what was being done to ensure that this happened soon?

Ms Z Balindlela (DA) asked what the working relationship between the DWS and the Department of Agriculture was, because if there was not a strong relationship they would have a problem. She asked how they worked together. Some projects under agriculture -- for example, the Magwati Co-operative – had been unresolved for more than 12 years, but the last time she had asked, nobody knew about it at all. Everyone needed to know about these projects and how they were doing. She asked the Department if it had prepared enough for the Mzimbugu project or not? She said she did not expect a response, however.

Mr Mnguni said the presentation had said nothing about the roles of catchment management agencies in the allocation of the licences. He also said when one applied, one could get rejected, but what were the reasons and justifications for the decision?  

Ms M Khawula (EFF) said her concern was that when going to places like Empangeni, the sugarcane plantations owned by blacks showed no progress, but the ones for whites were thriving. She asked why the DWS did not let the water flow freely, rather than through catchments, because people used to live off that.

Ms J Maluleke (ANC) said the presentation had shown the progress, but the challenge was definitely in the implementation. If the Department had challenges in the constituencies, it should not have waited to raise them in a meeting like this. The issues were important, so the Department needed to do as they had agreed in order to assist properly.

Department’s response
Mr Singh said the Chairperson had made a valid point about the stakeholders and the role of Parliament, and reassured him that the Department did take the matter seriously and did not just pay lip service to it. When dealing with regulations and legislation, Parliament had a role that the Department respected. The DWS had worked positively with the Committee to make sure those regulations had an impact and remained meaningful. Therefore, public consultations remained important, as was the role of Parliament’s oversight.

With regard to land reform programmes, one had to deal with the reality that water was under the public custodianship of the Minister. The challenge was one of having the legislature that was progressive, but the capacity to implement was not there. Not having the financial means and the people skills was the difficult part. The catchment management agencies were responsible for dealing at the local level, where people could be part of the decision-making but had not been able to implement it.

The DWS believed in the electronic system and its tools. In the previous five years they had not had the tools, but now there was an electronic system and a business process which was realistic. He asked the Committee to give them the opportunity to apply their plans, and assured it of their the dedication and commitment.

On the impact of the drought on other parts of the country, he would respond when he got the information from other colleagues who were dealing directly with the respective issues, and would come back to the Committee in writing. However, there was a need to be conservative in how they dealt with water and saved it.

He would also have a response from the people dealing directly with the issue of resources for struggling farmers, and would report back to the Committee.

The Department shared the same concerns over the question of the sugarcane farmers, and wanted to support them in resolving their water issues.

The question raised by Mr Makondo on the Water Act was very important. It had brought about a fundamental shift in thinking and made a great improvement, but the transformation ideal had not been reached after 21 years. He said the principle was, who owned the water? If the Minister owned the water, what did that mean? They needed to challenge each other and do better, but he was of the opinion that the Water Act had improved things.
 
The DWS did have a good relationship with the Department of Agriculture. He did agree, however, that after 12 years there was a need to account for the unresolved Magwati Co-operative project.

The DWS did have water catchment agencies, and their role was to do other support work for the Department. He would provide a detailed response when he had the required information.  

With regard to the appeal process, he said the Water Tribunal would deal with all appeals in all the other sectors as well, and not just the water ones. The internal appeal authority was the Department of Environmental Affairs, which would be instituted once the regulations were finalised. However, the Tribunal was already authorised and working. In future, they would talk about policy, and one of the suggestions was to simplify the policies.

On the implementation issues, he said there was a need for an implementation plan, but this would be addressed at a future meeting. Irrigation boards were a policy initiative put forward to deal with transformation, and reported to water user associations and user boards.

Mr Sipho Skosana, Director: Water Allocation (DWS) addressed the challenges faced in the “before-and-after” situations raised by Members. He said the challenges were that the relationship with rural development needed to be intensified to have better coordination, and ultimately to fix it. Water was being disaggregated from the land. That gap arose from the legislation, and the unintended consequences were that the Act allowed a person to make decisions on water without knowing whether a claim would go through or not. The Department was looking into the legislation from both sides and had memorandums and understandings to try and bridge these gaps. The two were so different, so the DWS was working to formalise the situation so that it would be binding. It was not merely about the quantity of the water, but also the quality, which was why they were monitoring the mines to make sure they were licensed properly. The Department were trying to make sure they did not operate without licences.

He said the Department had a breakdown of the numbers for the Committee to monitor. It was stretching its resources and had a dedicated team which had been withdrawn from their usual jobs, going around the provinces to work on specifically that issue. They were looking for information on which applications were finalised, and which were not.
 
The Chairperson said he thought the Department would have said something about land reform and water rights, to indicate exactly what was happening at the moment. Even though they were saying they were waiting until the review of the legislation, what would happen until then, because the damage continued? In his constituency, some employees had been dismissed unfairly. These things were happening, and the irrigation boards were part of the Department but were not defending their people. They remain un-transformed and to put it bluntly, these were white farmers who wanted their production to flourish. So what would happen until the legislation was reviewed? From what he could gather, it would be business as usual because water rights remained a private concern of the previous owner. What were the interventions?

Ms Balindlela asked if the Department could help the Committee by providing a fully documented report on the Magwati Co-operative. She repeated that nobody knew of it. The President had also announced the Mzimvubu project, but nothing was happening. She asked for a full report on the two projects as soon as possible.

Mr Mnguni asked, as they were dealing with the Expropriation Bill, whether the Department was involved in the discussion, because it might have had an effect on water rights.

Ms Khawula said her main worry was that whites had come to South Africa and had taken the land. Now they were taking the water, when blacks were the original people of this country. She asked what was happening.

Ms Baker asked how many mines there were in total and if a list of those mines was available. The names of the mines were not confidential information or a confidential document, and therefore she wanted to see it. In terms of drought relief, she already had the answer from the Department, and not even R10 million had been paid out. She was concerned that the rains were already falling, meaning the drought was ending, so she wanted to know what had happened to the money and the people who needed it? The whole drought was questionable, but they had said there was a drought and were supposed to have given support, but to date they had not. There had not been a concerted effort to tackle water conservation. What were they doing?

Mr Singh repeated that they would be coming back to present once more, but responding to Ms Baker’s question, he said that money had been transferred but it had not been according to the order of implementation. The DWS was still waiting for confirmation, but they would take the matter up and get back to the Committee.

On the question of mines operating with no licences, he said that the licence was of economic value to a client so it was confidential by virtue of that fact until the client received the licence. He also agreed that the Department owed an answer on particular employees who had lost their jobs or positions.

On the Magwati Co-operative and the Mzimvubu project, he said they would come back in writing.
On the Appropriation Bill, he said they were engaging on it because it did indeed have a key impact on water.

Mr Skosana addressed the issue of what was happening in the interim during the amending of the legislation. The DWS was not sitting and doing nothing. Most of its activity had been in the area of redistribution, and there were committees which they were coordinating. At the national level, national land allocation and capitalisation programmes existed, and there was representation there to ensure the land was attached to water. The DWS was also monitoring applications that were coming their way to ensure there were no gaps. On the restitution side, there was not a lot of movement, but the Department was expediting so that once it happened there would be a minimal impact.

The chairperson said a number of matters had been mentioned in writing, and the DWS was saying all of this would happen, but how would he know that it would happen? As part of the Committee’s oversight work, they should be able to say they could see the five projects and determine whether they were working or not. That ownership had since been transferred, and he was not saying he did not trust the Department, but it was part of the oversight work because there had to be accountability.. The issue of land reform was real, and it affected their constituencies negatively. There was future legislation in process, but the problem was here now, not in the future. People were struggling every day, and that was what they were really confronted with. People may have it nice in the boardrooms, but the reality was different out there. The water was available, but the majority of the people did not have access to that water.

Ms Khawula said this matter was very sensitive because when one looked at land restitution, when one got land, the water must come with it. As South Africans, their land had been taken. Why must they suffer when they were the originals? How could one buy a car with no engine?  It really hurt the people. She asked the Department to look into an issue in Maduba, where the cows of a farmer had had to drink poisoned water.

Mr Mnguni asked, with regard to the Expropriation Bill, if the DWS had made comments on the Water Bill, and what they were.

The Chairperson suggested that maybe they should convene a joint meeting with the DWS and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform so that they could deal with these issues appropriately. That would be his direct response going forward, so that they could be more proactive. All the issues had been responded to, but not fully, due to the fact that some of the issues were not within the DWS’s domain.

Ms Baker mentioned briefly that there were still reports the Committee had requested a while back from the Department that had still not been received.

The chairperson suggested that they should have all of those outstanding reports before the next meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.

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