MPs disturbed by water ownership

MPs were concerned about private versus public ownership of water, as well as unregistered dams. (Madelene Cronje, MG)

MPs were concerned about private versus public ownership of water, as well as unregistered dams. (Madelene Cronje, MG)

Who owns the water in South Africa?

With the department of water and sanitation owning only 320 of the more than 5 000 registered dams around the country, that was the top question on MPs minds on Wednesday. 

The department told MPs during a presentation on the state of water and sanitation infrastructure to a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that only a small percentage of dams were under their custodianship. 

Water and sanitation deputy director general Zandile Mathe broke down the number of dams per water management area and said there were 5 122 dams registered with the department. 

“From the 5 000 dams that are registered on the database, 320 of those are owned and controlled by the department of water and sanitation.” 

This did not sit well with the MPs. 

ANC MP and water and sanitation portfolio committee chair Lulu Johnson said he was bothered by the ownership question when it comes to water in the country. 

“I’m trying to get a sense between what, as we speak now, is water in private hands and in public hands. Granted, one might wish to say, in your mineral space, the rights are applied for and prospected upon and money is being made. But insofar as water is concerned, what gets to be the situation in terms of that spread? Both in terms of public and private ownership? Whether we’re talking rights and licences.
The fact of the matter is that water is in those hands for up to 99 years in some instances,” said Johnson. 

ANC MP Thomas Makondo questioned if the numbers included dams owned by farmers. 

“Who owns the water in South Africa? If we have 5 122 dams and the department can only account for 320? Who owns it? In this 5 000, do we include dams that are built by farmers on their farms? And how do you balance the issue of ownership of water in that regard?” 

ANC MP Derick Mnguni said he was a bit disturbed by the number of dams owned and not owned by the department. 

“Do we still maintain then that the custodian of water in South Africa is still the minister? How many dams are still unregistered? Do you have any plan to get that infrastructure?” he asked. 

The department, led by deputy minister Pamela Tshwete, could not immediately provide an answer to the question but promised to do so in writing to the committee. 

Mathe said there was a programme in the department called water allocation reform, which was very much linked to land reform as water rights were linked to land. 

“We will try and respond on that one and the plans in future on how we can reform the situation.”

She said the number of unregistered dams were part of an audit the department was currently undertaking.

The department took the committee through some of the ways it was trying to alleviate the strain in water supply in the country, including building new dams around some of the more affected areas. 

MPs asked questions about water canals that posed a danger to children in township areas and wanted to know what the department was doing to minimise the danger. They also had questions about the growth of sand mining.

The department officials faced questions about a water master plan, which they had told the committee during their last appearance would be completed in the next financial year. 

“But we have since been advised the master plan will be ready in 2017. We can come back on the month later. But what we have reported to Cabinet is that the project will finish in 2017,” Mathe told the committee. 

Democratic Alliance MP Leon Basson questioned the department’s plan to build acid mine water desalination plants costing R10-billion.

He asked that the minister appear before the committee before signing any deal, as there might be cheaper options.

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