Our Burning Planet


Department lays criminal charges against municipalities not meeting sanitation service delivery mandate

Department lays criminal charges against municipalities not meeting sanitation service delivery mandate
The Rooiwal Wastewater Treatment Plant that sparked concerns after the cholera outbreak on 8 June 2023 in Hammanskraal, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

Municipalities that do not address pollution of their water systems, or have not put in place plans to sort out the pollution, have been criminally charged by the Department of Water and Sanitation for breaching the National Water Act.

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has laid criminal charges against municipalities that have not met water quality and infrastructure standards, as well as municipalities that have not met the deadline to submit corrective action plans. 

But Professor Michael Kidd, an environmental law lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says that fining municipalities is an ineffective way of addressing the issue of poor water service delivery. 

Kidd told Daily Maverick: “Ultimately, the people that are paying the fine are the taxpayers — you’re not actually affecting any individuals who might be failing in their duty.

“Prosecuting the municipality is not fixing the problem; it’s addressing the symptom, not the cause. And I think a lot of it has to do with optics — it’s the Department of Water and Sanitation saying ‘Look at what we’re doing.’ And if you ask the question of how this is fixing the amount of sewage going into the rivers, they won’t be able to answer in a positive way. Ultimately, I think it’s using the wrong tools in the wrong circumstances.”

The municipalities charged include:  

These municipalities breached several sections of the National Water Act, some of which include water authorities (municipalities) failing to protect their water systems from pollution or not implementing the corrective steps required to address such issues. 

DWS spokesperson Wisane Mavasa told Daily Maverick that the department went through various actions before filing criminal charges against the municipalities. 

“Where these cases predate the Green Drop 2022 report, the further non-compliance of failure to submit an action plan is added to the investigation. The department’s environmental management inspectors work together with that of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries nationally and provincially in investigating environmental crimes specifically where water is involved,” Mavasa said. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Critical but stable — SA’s water quality and infrastructure rated

Kidd added that the prosecution of a municipality meant that the entities could only be fined and not imprisoned. He said this put a further strain on the municipalities which breached the mandates of the National Water Act because they did not have the financial means to remedy water service delivery issues. 

Section 151 of the National Water Act provides a legal basis for the DWS to lay charges against municipalities that have not been addressing polluted water resources or those municipalities that do not meet the mandate of providing safe and clean drinking water to their residents. 

“To be fair to the Department of Water and Sanitation, in a number of collective situations — looking at the performance from the Green Drop report — you’ve got 50% or more of municipal water treatment plants in the country that are not working properly and in all likelihood are not compliant with the law,” Kidd said. 

“If you look at them collectively, the Department of Water and Sanitation doesn’t have the resources to address that. This is something that needs to be addressed at Cabinet level so that you’ve got finances and resources made available … to deal with the issues at a cause level.” DM 

To read all about Daily Maverick's recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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  • Chris VZ says:

    And KZN doesn’t even appear in the list. eThekwini municipal officials are complicit in raw sewage being pumped into the Umgeni River and the subsequent pollution of the beaches and sea around Durban, in addition to the contamination of drinking water. The only answer is that municipal officials must be charged in their personal capacity, arrested and jailed. Otherwise nothing will change.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Good news? Sue the ratepayer for electing crooks to clean shit and the councillors and management celebrate over our cholera graves. Viva, ANC, Viva.

    • Philip Wernberg says:

      Fine the people who are responsible for the problem not the citizens of the municipality. The Municipality’s managers and staff who are supposed to do their job are at fault. People must vote these incompetents out of office; we get what we vote for.

  • James Francis says:

    Can we start with the various failed Ministers of Water and Sanitation?

  • Friedemann Essrich says:

    Fully agree with Mr. Wernberg: Charge individuals responsible for the failure, i.e. HoDs, mun. Managers and Mayors. Else, they will use the municipal budget to cover legal costs. To create pressure (which is currently non-existent) the officials in charge need to be held accountable.

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