Too few staff to stop environmental crimes

The departments of water and environmental affairs are running with minimal staff levels in their compliance, monitoring and enforcement units. These are the ones tasked with overseeing anyone who has a relevant licence, and tracking those that do not.

The department of water affairs' own report for the last financial year said it had monitored 2 576 sampling points, 1 935 waste discharge points and 457 mines. The last number represents an increase of 145 on the mines they planned to inspect. But the latter two represent a failing of 1 568 and 1 620 on their targets respectively.

These targets do not include the complaints the department gets to investigate. And in the recent Africa Mining Indaba, Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu said there were almost 1 600 mines in operation across the country.

The number of people at water affairs working on compliance, monitoring and enforcement is in constant flux as the department has a long record of being unable to keep skilled workers.

In November 2010, in response to a parliamentary question, Edna Molewa, the minister of water, said there were 16 officials at a national level and 15 at a provincial level. There were nine vacant posts at the national level, and 56 at the regional level, she said.

In its last annual report, the department said, “Our compliance monitoring and enforcement capacity has been increased from 21 to 25 during the previous financial year.”

'Growing amount of work'
Linda Page, spokesperson for the department, said it currently had 26 officials countrywide. “The unit is being capacitated taking into consideration the growing amount of work to be done,” she said.

To further help it, partnerships were being developed with other enforcement agencies and institutions, she said. “At the moment the staff that are appointed are doing their very best to ensure compliance and there are significant successes in this regard,” she said.

For the last financial year the unit issued 53 pre-directives (where operations are warned to change what they are doing) and 11 directives (they have to cease). Nine cases had been successfully prosecuted.

Melissa Fourie, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights, said the department has never had more than 30 dedicated positions for compliance, monitoring and enforcement. They were also relatively junior, she said.

The specific unit is run by a director and two deputy directors, while the other ones are run by a deputy director general.

“This tells me that the department of water affairs itself is not prioritising compliance monitoring and enforcement,” she said. Instead, the department has a soft compliance policy, where it sits down and resolves problems with violators. This is contrary to the legislation, where violations of the National Water Act are criminal offences and should be treated as such, she said.

Green scorpions
In contrast, the department of environmental affairs appears to suffer from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to inspectors. Its "National Environmental Compliance and Monitoring" report said numbers of its environmental management inspectors (popularly known as the Green Scorpions) had risen to 1 399, from 903 in 2010.

But this includes 600 inspectors in South Africa National Parks, and hundreds of others in the other provincial parks services. These do their work inside the parks. So when these are taken away the actual number of green scorpions working for the department nationally is 66.  

Their job is to enforce six large areas of law – the National Environmental Management Act, Biodiversity Act, Air Quality Act, Waste Act, Integrated Coastal Management Act and Protected Areas Act.

They found 1 439 cases of non-compliance, and opened 1 080 criminal dockets of which 201 were handed over to the NPA.

The department of mineral resources also wants to take over the issuing and monitoring of compliance authorisations for all of its mines, a move it is pushing in amendments to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act.

But Fourie said the department does not have the required skills to do this. “The department of mineral resources has negligible experience in environmental compliance monitoring, and even with the political will required, it will take them 10 years to get up to speed,” she said.  

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

Nehawu launches urgent court bid over protective gear for health...

The health workers’ union says the government has rebuffed its attempts to meet about mitigating risks to workers

Stay at home, Cyril said. But what about the homeless?

In Tshwane, forcing homeless people off the street resulted in chaos and the abuse of a vulnerable population. In Durban, a smooth, well-planned operation fared far better

Press Releases

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders