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The Regulatory Environment of the South African Water Sector

This article gives an overview of the regulatory environment in the urban water sector.

The National Water Act

The National Water Act, Act No 36 of 1998 (NWA) regulates and protects water resources (including surface water and groundwater) and has effectively transferred all water ownership to the state. Water is a national competence, and the primary responsible authority is the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).

The NWA regulates 11 different ‘uses’ of water, such as taking water from a resource, storing water, and discharging waste or effluent into a water resource. It is particularly relevant to alternative water supply projects, including ground water use. Residents who fall under Schedule 1 of the NWA are allowed to use groundwater on their properties for reasonable domestic use without a licence8.

Businesses that want to use groundwater must either register the use(s) under a general authorisation (GA) with DWS (which typically takes a few weeks), or must apply for a water use licence with DWS (which takes up to 300 working days). In order to qualify for GA registration, the user must comply with all the conditions listed in the relevant GA. For example, in the case of the GA for the Taking and Storing of Water (published 2 September 2016), one of the conditions limits the volume of water that can be abstracted per year.

National Legislation

Seawater desalination does not require permission from DWS for abstraction, provided it is not located in an estuary or river mouth. Similarly, discharge of brine to the ocean does not require permission from DWS. However, a coastal water discharge permit is required from the Oceans and Coasts Branch of the Department of Environmental Affairs.

The National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act

In terms of design and construction, water systems must be consistent with the National Building Regulations (NBRs) under the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act, Act 103 of 1977, which governs all building and construction work in South Africa. At present, the NBRs do not include provisions relating to water efficiency or alternative water supply; however, the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) has initiated the process to include these aspects. It is unclear how long this process will take, but draft water efficiency standards are being developed.

National Environmental Management Waste Act

Under the national norms and standards for disposal of waste to landfill, from August 2019 liquids can no longer be sent to landfill in SA. From 2021 this will also apply to brine or waste with a high salt content (>5%) and a leachable concentration for total dissolved solids of more than 100 000 mg/l.

Other Water Sector Regulations

Other key national laws and regulations that may be relevant to projects in the water sector include:

■ Water Services Act, Act 108 of 1997 (relevant to the regulation of water and sanitation services provided by municipalities);
■ South African National Standard for Drinking Water (SANS 241: 2015);
■ National Environmental Management Act, Act 107 of 1998 (relevant to environmental authorisations); and
■ Industrial Policy Action Plan (highlights water and sanitation as a key sectoral focus area).

It should be noted that during emergency situations (e.g. disasters due to drought) certain authorisations can be fast-tracked or are no longer required. Further information can be obtained from the responsible authorities

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