Progress made in ensuring equitable access to water

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pretoria – Significant progress has been made since 1994 to ensure equitable access to water, according to the 20 Year Review Report.

President Jacob Zuma released the report on Tuesday in Pretoria.

According to the report, the process of water allocation has since been reformed to ensure equitable access and to ensure that old legislations have been addressed.

The Review noted a number of new waste water treatment schemes being completed and existing ones refurbished, in recent years.

Little done to manage limited resources

Before 1994, the apartheid government did little to regulate issues like pollution or enforce land rehabilitation.

The mining industry was shielded from environmental regulation and was not required to rehabilitate land after closure. As a result, dust blowing from mine dumps and the toxic residues of open-mine stockpiles are now negatively affecting the health of people in nearby settlements.

The Witwatersrand was also at risk from rising acid mine water, which has negative effects on the environment and potentially, human health. 

According to the 20 Year Review, not only had the black majority been confined to 13 percent of South Africa’s surface area, placing tremendous strain on the natural resources in those regions, but 98 percent of the country’s water resources had been allocated.

“That left the new government only 2 percent to allocate to the previously marginalised majority. The white-dominated agricultural sector consumed 60 percent of the country’s water,” the report notes.

A lack of infrastructure and services like storm water drains, sewerage systems and waste-removal services contributed to high levels of littering, general environmental degradation and poor human health.

Development policy

The past 20 years have seen a dramatic and sustained process of forming environmental guiding principles, institution-building and restructuring, legislation and policy development and domestic and international engagement – all with the intention of addressing the historical legacy of inequality, international isolation and the fragmented structures of environmental governance.

The country’s first development policy, the Reconstruction and Development Programme, the Review states, and the passing of the National Water Act in 1996, the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) in 1998 and other legislation, has laid the basis for sectoral legislation, policies and strategies.

The environmental sector has, over the years, made significant and direct contributions to job creation and poverty alleviation through programmes such as Working for Water, Working on Fire, Working for Wetlands, People and Parks and the Green Fund.

The law-enforcement capacity of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Water Affairs has been enhanced by the development of capacity in the form of Green and Blue Scorpions. The protection of South Africa’s ocean resources has been further enhanced with the purchase of a fleet of environmental vessels since 2006.

The Department of Water Affairs produces the State of the Rivers Report to track river health, and the Green and Blue Drop Status Report to track the quality of drinking and waste water. Two assessments of the state of the country’s biodiversity have also been undertaken in 2004 and 2011.

Water resource management

Strategies have been developed to guide future water resource planning, management and investment requirements, based on an assessment of the country’s water balance against projected future needs. The key issues include a greater focus on water conservation and water demand management as every drop counts and the country cannot afford to waste any more water.

“Other issues include increased utilisation of ground water, the re-use of waste water in both coastal and inland systems, more dams and transfer schemes, desalination, catchment rehabilitation, including the clearing of invasive alien plants and rainwater harvesting,” the Review says.

According to the State of the Environment Report 2012, there are 223 river ecosystem types that represent the diversity of rivers, of which 57 percent are threatened (25 percent critically endangered, 19 percent endangered and 13 percent vulnerable).

Only 35 percent of main rivers and 52 percent of tributaries are in good condition.

In response, the Department of Water Affairs initiated an ‘adopt-a-river’ programme which seeks to raise awareness on the need to care for water resources and also encourage active stakeholder participation, especially those along the river courses in addressing pollution.

Wetlands constitute about 2.4 percent of South Africa’s surface area and 65 percent of wetland types have been identified as threatened with extinction. Some 82 percent of estuarine ecosystem types are degraded, while 43 percent of estuaries are threatened.

The country experiences water pollution from inadequate, overloaded, ageing or poorly maintained and operated sanitation and waste water treatment systems, inadequate rehabilitation of river systems and inadequate enforcement to prevent industrial pollution.

Bulk water projects completed

In recent years, the review notes that a number of new waste water treatment schemes have been completed and existing ones refurbished.

To secure water supply, several bulk water projects were completed between 1994 and 2013, these included the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and a network of water-transfer schemes to transport water from areas of relative abundance to those of relative scarcity.

These projects aim to address problems of water shortages in urban areas and dense rural settlements far from large water courses, and to provide water for agriculture and industrial development.

According to the 20 Year Review, the process of water allocation has been reformed to ensure equitable access and address old legislation.

Now, the focus will need to be on implementing the new processes to ensure universal access to this public good.

Water-use efficiency targets for the agriculture sector have been put in place and the Department of Water Affairs is currently completing water management plans for the manufacturing and mining industrial sectors.

“Management plans to save water have been completed for 14 irrigation schemes, but the department is not yet assessing the percentage of water losses curtailed through the implementation of these management plans. Leakages from domestic water reticulation systems remain one of the main causes of water wastage.”

The Review notes that the Department of Water Affairs has made good progress in clearing the backlog of water-use licences. Applications from agriculture, power generators, municipalities, stream-flow reduction activities, mining, industries, government agencies and developers have been prioritised.

In June 2013, the department published the second National Water Resources Strategy, building on the previous strategy that was published in 2004. The goal of the strategy is for water to support economic development and the elimination of poverty, and for water to be managed in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Maintenance and operation of waste water treatment

The report recommends that improving the capacity, maintenance and operation of waste water treatment systems must be a priority of government.

It warns that the deteriorating quality and security of supply of water undermines the ability of government to effectively address inequality and grow the economy.

“This situation has been further exacerbated by the increasing rate of water consumption due to population growth, industrialisation, urbanisation and greater demand for irrigation and stock water. All this has led to increased water abstraction and reduced water quality, both of which put pressure on South Africa’s rivers.”

A broad range of indicators to monitor the quality of surface, coastal and ground water has been developed. Government has developed standards for basic water supply and sanitation that aim to reduce human health issues and environmental degradation. These standards have been implemented to varying degrees.

However, the Review points out that in some municipalities, there are problems with maintaining and operating infrastructure related to these services.

“Erosion of management and technical skills at all levels, but in local government in particular, as well as poor use of incentives, disincentives and regulations to address quality problems, has contributed to deterioration in both the supply and quality of water.”

Since 2011, measures have been put in place to reduce the risks associated with acid mine water in the Witwatersrand, including treatment and alternative-use options for treated water. The review recommends that these measures be scaled up as acid mine water remains a risk to water resource management in various areas of the country. 

The report acknowledges that although South Africa is one of the few countries in the world in which tap water is safe to drink, challenges remain around ensuring equitable access to water and maintaining water quality.  –



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