In a virtual meeting, the Committee was briefed by the South African Weather Service (SAWS) and the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) on their first quarter performance for the 2023/24 financial year.
SAWS reported that they had achieved 16 of their 24 targets. The bulk of the targets that were not achieved involved infrastructure, information systems, and administration challenges, with the high-level load-shedding during the period having a major impact on its infrastructure. Air quality monitoring stations in the Vaal triangle priority area had been able to perform at less than 50% of their capacity, which had serious health implications for communities where there were high levels of air pollution.
The Committee expressed their concern over the lack of timelines being provided by the SAWS on acquiring power backups for the air quality monitoring stations, and whether this initiative would enable them to meet the minimum air quality monitoring standards. SAWS assured the Committee that they would finalise the procurement process by December of the year and that once in place, the stations would be in a position to provide reliable data.
SANBI reported that they had achieved 98% of their set targets in quarter one, and was in a healthy financial position. They were fulfilling the entity's primary decision support mandate, providing scientific and policy advice on a number of critical areas, including the state of biodiversity in the country and the impact of alien invasive species.
A Member suggested SANBI should use the services of Rhodes University's Centre for Biological Control (CBC) to clear invasive plants, considering their successes at the Hartbeespoort and Roodeplaat dams.
Minister’s opening remarks
Ms Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, said that when looking at the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) quarterly report, it was evident that there was overall good performance in the first quarter, but there was just a small issue that required attention.
The Committee was aware that the South African Weather Service (SAWS) had struggled to deal effectively with the consequences of load-shedding since last year. As a result, there had been continued underperformance in the first quarter, but what was giving her hope was that there had been an improvement in the second quarter in the system's functionality. She had asked SAWS to prepare their presentation in light of the fact that the Committee was aware of the existing problem, and what they would want to know about was the progress in fixing the problem. In her opinion, lengthy inputs were unnecessary -- what was required was a progress update to show that the SAWS's problems were being appropriately attended to.
SAWS's first quarter performance 2023/24
Ms Feziwe Renqe, Chairperson of the Board, SAWS, said that as the financial year began in April, thunderstorms had occurred over the central and eastern part of the country. In May, heavy rainfall led to flooding and other phenomena witnessed in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality and along the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. The SAWS had played its pivotal role in issuing warnings to the public about life-saving weather information, as well as warnings which had been issued in response to the heavy rainfall that resulted in flooding over parts of the city of Cape Town, Paarl, Stellenbosch and other towns in June 2023.
As much as SAWS was able to provide weather-related warnings in the period under review, the infrastructure performance remained an area of vulnerability. Management was confident that implementing SAWS's infrastructure sustainability plan would translate into improving infrastructure performance and meeting its target in that regard. The board continued to work with management to make resources available to change the tide in the infrastructure performance. To change the tide, the board established an ad hoc infrastructure sustainability plan committee as one of the intervention measures to assist management in ensuring that the desired turnaround plan with respect to the radar performance was achieved. Intermittent power failures due to load-shedding and power surges affected the performance of the air quality stations and other equipment. SAWS and the Department were engaging and executing interventions to ensure a steady power supply to stations. To improve data recovery, the recapitalisation of the 15 air quality monitoring stations was ongoing in the period under review.
As a member of the World Meteorological Organisation(WMO), SAWS remained committed to the reforms of the WMO. She reported that the entity's chief executive officer (CEO) was elected to the board of the WMO executive council in June during the 19th World Meteorological Congress held in Geneva, as well as on to two sub-committees of this august body. This was a great achievement, not only for SAWS, but also for the country, to position itself and advance its position in matters of weather, climate and hydrological services internationally.
Mr Ishaam Abader, CEO, SAWS, said that for the first quarter, they had set a total of 24 targets, but had achieved only 16. The non-achieved targets were in Programme Three (Infrastructure) and Programme Four (Administration). In Programme Three, they had a total of eight targets and managed to achieve only one. Among these were the percentage availability of automatic weather stations' infrastructure and automatic rainfall stations' infrastructure. This was due to power outages, cable theft, network communication systems failure and software incompatibility. As a corrective measure, they were in the process of procuring long-term evolution (LTE) modems for rapid wireless data transmission, to enhance communication. They had also been unable to achieve the targeted 90% availability of the lightning detection network infrastructure due to load-shedding and system-related failures affecting the network.
They had been unable to achieve 80% of priority areas' air quality stations available on the South African Air Quality Information System (SAAQIS) to meet the minimum data requirement. This was due to load-shedding and electricity challenges resulting in data loss, as well as instability of instruments. To remedy the issue, they procured a six-hour lithium-ion battery backup solution for stations that could be charged via solar and electricity. The procurement process for the backup power for the pilot stations was concluded, and instrument recapitalisation was ongoing throughout the monitoring networks.
In Programme Four, SAWS had been unable to achieve the R7 627 500 unregulated commercial revenue generated target they had set for quarter one. This was due to commercial partners’ revenue share being below budget due to forecast products linked to the inadequate uptime of radar equipment. There had been low implementation of the air quality station maintenance tender. They were implementing mitigation strategies to address the infrastructure and air quality challenges, respectively.
Mr Norman Mzizi, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), SAWS, said that the total expenditure incurred for the period, excluding depreciation and amortisation, amounted to R109.75m. This was 1.22% below the year-to-date budget of R111.11 million. They had a surplus of R9.2 million.
See attached for full presentation
Ms H Winkler (DA), while noting an improvement from 39% to 47% in the performance of air quality monitoring stations in the priority Vaal triangle area, commented that this meant that less than half of the 15 monitoring stations that were under the management of SAWS were reporting air quality data in accordance with minimum standards. She asked whether that was actually the case, and what progress had been made with the plan to ensure that they achieved better functionality and got at least 80% of them online in order to meet the minimum quality standard requirements. Was there a timeline as to when they could expect to meet the 80% threshold?
She asked how the SAWS enforced air quality management if they were not getting quality data in the high priority areas. It was a matter of urgency, and Committee did not expect to be told every time they met with the entity or the Department that they were in the process of procurement and getting backup power supply. She insisted that they needed dates and timelines, as this was a matter involving national health, as communities in these areas were being exposed to dangerously high levels of air pollution.
Ms A Weber (DA) asked whether all the damaged loggers in the UV biometer network had been replaced. If not, why not, and when it would be done?
Mr Abader responded that Ms Winkler had been correct that there had been a slight improvement in terms of the 15 stations, and Mr Mdabambi would provide details of the planned improvements to functionality and the timelines.
He confirmed that the loggers in the UV biometer network had all been replaced and were fully functional. They had actually exceeded the 80% target. They had also done an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) placement there, which helped them achieve and exceed the target as far as the Global Atmospheric Watch index infrastructure was concerned.
Mr Mnikeli Ndabambi, Manager: Infrastructure and Information Systems, SAWS, confirmed that 15 air quality monitoring stations in the priority areas were under the management of SAWS. The main challenge was the fact that after going through the procurement process up to the bid adjudication committee (BAC), they now needed to re-advertise, which meant that the timelines would then be guided by the procurement processes, as per Treasury prescripts. He had been having weekly discussions with the CFO and the supply chain department to discuss the issue in terms of non-responsive bidders, and also the shortest period they could follow.
Mr Mzizi said that the tender in question was a non-responsive one, so they had invited colleagues from the Department specialising in the area of procurement to assist in crafting the specifications so that when they were reissued, they could have a better response from the bidders. They were looking at an emergency procurement process they envisaged finalising by December.
Mr Abader, in a further reply to Ms Winkler, said that it was not that 47% of the air quality monitoring machines were not working, but rather that the machines were working 47% of the time. The data was coming through, but the improvement was with regard to the time that the stations were up and running.
Ms Winkler asked whether, once they had procured the backup power supply, the air quality monitoring stations would be fully functional and operational, or if there were other issues concerning maintenance and infrastructure that were going to interfere with the reporting of quality data. How many stations were reporting the data according to the required standards?
Minister Creecy said that what Ms Winkler was raising was that where there were exceedances of air quality standards, the Department and the relevant municipality had responsibility for ensuring that institutions complied with the air quality licenses, and had information upon which to base enforcement action. There was a difference between saying that 47% of the stations were working and that the stations were working 47% of the time. The reason for the underperformance of SAWS infrastructure was because of the externality of load-shedding. What had happened was that in the middle of the financial year, when load-shedding hit, they had had to take measures that were not budgeted for or included in the plans for the organisation. Part of that required that they first obtain alternative power sources, and secondly, obtain instruments that would protect the sensitive infrastructure from the impact of installations being switched on and off. The Committee had already received an explanation for the difficulty they had in procuring the installations, and also the timelines regarding the conclusion of that procurement process. It was difficult for them to comply with Treasury regulations, but if they did not follow them, it would result in the Department having irregular expenditure, which be an issue they would have to explain to the Committee why as well. That was why they had to follow the processes of National Treasury, which all could agree were somewhat cumbersome.
She said that it did not matter that they had data 47% of the time, which could be used to take enforcement action or give that information to the cities responsible for the air quality licences. She hoped her explanation had helped Ms Winkler to understand that they wanted the air stations to be functioning 100% of the time, but even when the stations were functioning 47% of the time, they were still supplying data which was sufficient to know whether or not installations were complying with the air quality licences.
Ms Winkler thanked the Minister for the response, which had provided a clear picture. The question remained whether the procurement of the power backup supply would ensure that the monitoring stations were reporting data 80% of the time, and not 47%, or if there were other issues with the monitoring stations beyond the load-shedding challenges.
Mr Ndabambi responded that the alternative power would assist in protecting the instruments because they got damaged when the power went on and off. The backup would help ensure that the instruments were protected even when the power went off, the data remained available. He assured the Committee that once they had the power backup, more data would be available because the stations would be up more continuously. They observed that when there had been a relaxation of load-shedding, the data availability for that period was high.
The Chairperson thanked the SAWS for their presentation, and said they expected an improvement in the next reporting cycle.
SANBI's first quarter performance 2023/24
Prof Edward Nesamvuni, Chairperson of the Board, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), said SANBI had achieved 98% of its set targets in the first quarter, which was impressive. The Board of SANBI continued to provide guidance, in line with the legal prescripts governing its role and conduct. The management’s collective efforts in implementing the identified targeted measures and lessons learnt from the previous financial year were key in SANBI recording the achievement in the first quarter of the current financial year. SANBI continued to work hard on its innovation and collaborations on its way to delivering on its mandate.
There were many achievements, but a few areas also presented challenges which would be highlighted in the presentation. There had been an improvement in the external audit following the development of the external audit improvement plan which the board had approved. They hoped this plan would improve the external audit outcome by addressing all the findings from the 2022/23 external audit process. The plan was being monitored by the board and its representative committees on a quarterly basis, to ensure that all findings had been resolved by the end of March 2024. They were currently at 63%, which represented 20 out of 32 of the findings that were now fully resolved to date.
He reported that SANBI was also in a good financial position. It was solvent, with total assets exceeding total liabilities, and liquid with current assets exceeding current liabilities. The board had approved the SANBI's financial sustainability strategy from 2023/24 up to 2031/2032, and aimed to maximise its income-generating potential through exploring identified opportunities and pursuing strategic partners. The implementation of different interventions commenced during the first quarter to achieve the outcomes of the strategy. Early signs of progress could be seen in the progressive growth in their own income generation from diverse resources, even while operating under the constraints of a difficult economic climate.
The board had also approved the repositioning of the National Zoological Garden (NZG), together with the implementation plan, which was important in announcing the role of the NZG in conservation in environmental education research and tourism. During the reporting period, the focus was implementing the targeted infrastructure improvement plan, given the ailing infrastructure. The human development and transformation strategy continued to play an important role, with SANBI also leading in that sector. The entity was continuing to implement the Groen Sebenza graduate skills development programme. They were also fulfilling the primary decision support mandate, providing scientific and policy advice on a number of critical areas, including the state of biodiversity in the country and the impact of alien invasive species.
Prof Nesamvuni said SANBI was participating in the process led by the Department in reviewing policy legislation and practices in biodiversity and conservation and fostering sustainable development, while considering social and economic imperatives. Key environmental sectors in which SANBI continued to play a critical role included a contribution to the sector's medium term strategic framework (MTSF) commitment to securing strategic water source areas. This critical work ensured the country’s sustainable water security. These strategic water sources areas constituted 10% of the surface area of the country, yet provided 50% of its water requirements. They continued to treat it with the importance it deserved, and monitored it quite closely.
He said the board noted with appreciation that after long and hard negotiations, the world had adopted the Montreal Biodiversity Framework, with targets for implementation. SANBI continued to participate in the process of domestic implementation of the global biodiversity framework through its own critical biodiversity science necessary for evidence-based policy and decision making. SANBI also supported the Department in the development of the White Paper on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity by providing technical and scientific input.
Mr Shonisani Munzhedzi, CEO, SANBI, said they had managed to achieve100% of the qualitative targets set for the first quarter, and had achieved 98% of the targets set under their annual performance plan (APP) for the first quarter. There was only one non-achieved target, which was under Programme Four (administration), where they had planned to raise R20 million by the first quarter, but had managed to raise only R2.2 million. This had been due to most of their time being taken up by facilitating the actual negotiation of contracts to mobilise the funds. As a corrective measure, efforts were underway to negotiate for resource mobilisation.
Mr Alan Smith, Acting CFO, SANBI, said that they were slightly behind budget on the income for the first quarter, which had also affected their investment option. They had achieved total revenue of R165 million against a budget of R154 million. They had a budget of R256 million, and had therefore ended up with a deficit for the quarter of R76.5 million for the first quarter.
See attached for full presentation
Ms Weber asked why they could not use the services of Rhodes University's Centre for Biological Control (CBC) to clear invasive plants, considering their successes at the Hartbeespoort and Roodeplaat dams.
Mr Munzhedzi said that SANBI played a part in the space of managing and laying the pathways. Responding to the challenge of alien invasive species was one of the key drivers of biodiversity, alongside climate change, pollution and land degradation, among others. Within their APP, there was a specific area that focused on risk assessments, which came in as a form of scientific input in dealing with particular matters where they pick up on specific areas of concern and work with partners to develop appropriate responses. The responses would then be tested and documented appropriately to guide responses across sectors. Some of those responses would require biological intervention, while others required chemical or mechanical responses, all of which came informed by the risk assessment findings that would indicate the extent of the threat and the trends associated with that threat.
Ms Carmel Mbizvo, Head: Biodiversity Science and Policy Advice, SANBI, said that the Centre for Invasion Biology was a key partner for SANBI, with whom they worked very closely. A key mandate of SANBI was to produce a status report on biological invasions, and they also provided key scientific inputs in that status report in terms of interventions. The status report covered the challenges in the response strategy, and the issue of control was actually covered in the status report. They had reached a stage where they would formally release the status report in the next few months.
Mr Munzhedzi said that they were taking note of the specific question from Ms Weber so that they could follow up on it. A variety of parties was doing the actual work on the ground.
Ms Winkler asked whether there had been an update on the irregular expenditure framework of instructions note 2 of 2019/20, about not making provision for an appeal process, which was being dealt with by the executive management in October.
Mr Munzhedzi said they had followed the advice that the accounting authority should attend to areas regarded as irregular expenditure. They had gone through them with the necessary committee. The board would meet in the current month, and that matter would be attended to in line with what National Treasury had indicated. He hoped that in the next quarter, they would be able to report appropriately on the clearance of that issue.
Minister's closing remarks
Minister Creecy assured the Committee that they had heard their concerns concerning SAWS. The Department would work with the entity to ensure that in future, the Committee received an indication of clear progress and timelines for the work being done. The Members had made it clear that they were less interested in the process, and more interested in outcomes. She was sure the SAWS had heard them, and, in future presentations, should move in that clear direction.
The Chairperson thanked everyone present at the meeting and the entities for their presentations. He hoped that in future, they would report on more improved outcomes.
The meeting was adjourned.
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