Water use licences: Department should opt for openness over secrecy
Eddie Trent, Shadow Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs
9 November 2010
The Department of Water has revealed that the backlog of water use licences at the end of 2009 was 4 318 – a staggeringly high figure. These licences are a requirement in terms of the National Water Act for any entity that uses and discharges water into the water courses of the country, or for altering the characteristics of water courses. Since then, largely though the efforts of Project Letsema, the backlog is being reduced, and if the Department is to be believed, the backlogged licences will have been processed by 31 March 2011. However, the Department of Water has got itself into a desperate situation - on the one hand it needs to speedily process licences to ensure that economic growth is not compromised, while on the other hand the process of issuing licences needs to be rigorous in order to ensure that our water resources are protected and wisely used.
What does need to change going forward is that there needs to be more transparency in the process of issuing licences. For this reason, the DA calls on the new Minister of Water to publish on the internet in real time all applications for licences and details of licences granted. This will ensure that openness prevails over secrecy, and that the required oversight of the licensing process can be made accessible to public scrutiny.
Considering that at least 98% of the water in South Africa is already allocated to users and that the country increasingly faces deteriorating water quality issues, the effective administration of the licensing procedure, and subsequent compliance and enforcement measures, are the backbone of good water governance.
There is immense pressure on the Department from many sectors for a swifter turnaround in licensing procedures, most notably from agriculture and mining. The backlog in terms of water use licences processed for the mining sector this year alone stands at 433, showing the large number of new order prospecting and mining rights that are coming on line.
The capacity to effectively process water use licence applications in the Department is abysmal. For this reason 42 contract workers had to be employed by the Department in July this year to help deal with the backlog. But going forward the issue of internal skills in the Department needs urgent attention. We cannot have a situation where a backlog is cleared, contract workers are relieved of their duties and then a new backlog appears.
Considering that one of the risks of speedily processing applications is that officials may not apply their minds to the applications or that they may feel pressure from their political principals to make the problem of the backlog go away, it is very important that the process is made more transparent. It is exceptionally difficult for members of civil society to obtain the details of licences granted. The Department certainly does not feel any obligation to provide copies on request. In January this year, for example, I requested a copy of the licence for the Vuna mine in Mpumalanga, but no response was ever forthcoming.
South Africans have a right to know how water is being used and who is using it. Members of the public, including farming, environmental and community organisations, have a right to hold users to account, and to hold the government to account where transgressions are being committed by users, but government is not taking action. Accountability requires openness, and for this reason all water use licence applications must be published. The Minister must prioritise such a programme in the new financial year.