It was widely reported last month that of the 850 wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) tested for the 2022 Green Drop Report, 334 (39%) were in a “critical” state. Of these, corrective action plans for only 168 were submitted to the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).
There are reportedly plans to prosecute several of these water services providers (all municipalities), following the successful conviction recently of Lekwa Municipality for pervasive water treatment failures in contravention of water legislation.
I was quoted as being critical of the option of pursuing the criminal prosecution of non-conforming municipalities because it does not necessarily solve the underlying problem of sewage running into water resources.
Ultimately, the problem, which is more pervasive than the 334 WWTWs mentioned above (those are only the “critical” ones), is not scientific or technical but one of governance and political will, exacerbated by legacy issues and a critical lack of finance and other resources, such as technical skills.
It need hardly be said that the pollution of South Africa’s water resources is a huge problem, probably more appropriately referred to as a crisis. Polluted water kills animals and other organisms, poses a health threat to humans (as during the recent Hammanskraal cholera outbreak) and undermines the function of water as a critical economic resource.
This latter aspect has been repeatedly highlighted by Professor Anthony Turton. All of this is occurring in a water-scarce country, where water availability will be reduced through the effects of climate change and a growing population.
Obstacles to litigation
Several colleagues have asked me if it is possible (or if it would be worthwhile) to use litigation to force the relevant government entities to comply with the law (treat the sewage properly). This remedy is called a mandatory interdict.
In my view, there are several potential obstacles to this being an appropriate intervention, but these can be circumvented if one chooses the correct government entity to target and thinks creatively about a potential remedy.
The first obstacle relates to sanitation services being a local government competence in terms of the Constitution. This means that other spheres of government (the DWS, for example) usurping this function or interfering in local government’s exercise of this function is unconstitutional.
Read more on Daily Maverick: Department lays criminal charges against municipalities not meeting sanitation service delivery mandate
There are statutory and constitutional options for intervention in circumstances where local government is not performing, which is clearly the case in many instances. These have been selectively used, if at all, with limited success.
The fact that it is many local government entities that are breaking the law is also a complication, for other reasons. First, there are so many of them. If one targeted failing local government entities, there would be numerous potential respondents to the litigation.
Adding a further spin is that, in many cases, it would be difficult to think of an appropriate remedy (that is, what the court will order the municipality to do), since many of the worst-failing municipalities do not have adequate finances (and will never have adequate finances under current funding models) to solve the problems.
Many municipalities probably do not know exactly what the problems are because of the bleeding of expertise in the public water sector, especially local government, over the past two or more decades.
And then there’s the potential problem of municipalities being ordered to conduct repairs and spending enormous amounts of money on contractors who do not fix the problem, as evidently happened in Hammanskraal.
In my view, the key to litigation that could work is in section 3 of the National Water Act. This provides: “As the public trustee of the nation’s water resources the National Government, acting through the Minister [of Water and Sanitation], must ensure that water is protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner, for the benefit of all persons and in accordance with its constitutional mandate.”
This is not the place to examine exactly what public trusteeship means in this context (there are several academic viewpoints), but at the least it means that the national government must ensure the things that are mentioned in that section, including that water is protected. It seems clear that the national government is falling significantly short of meeting this mandate if one looks at the state of our rivers.
The buck stops here…
So does this mean that one needs to take the minister of water and sanitation to court? The problem with this is that the department would not have sufficient finances to address the problem properly, even assuming it can get around the problem of interfering in municipal competence.
Ultimately, the buck stops in terms of section 3 with the “national government”, which acts through the minister of water. If the minister has insufficient resources to address the problem, then the national government must ensure that adequate resources are made available to do so.
Litigation could conceivably target the President (as the head of the national government) to establish a plan to deal with the problem (acting through the minister), and then to implement the plan.
This plan, based on the idea of assisting municipalities instead of interfering in their mandates (which would be constitutionally acceptable), would have to provide for adequate finance and the provision of other necessary resources. These resources must be sufficient to address the problem now and to provide for the necessary maintenance and related funding to keep the system running healthily into the future.
Deficient municipal procurement practices and a shortage of technical expertise at that level could be addressed by the plan’s provision for centralised procurement practices (to provide for economies of scale) and the establishment of a team of engineering and other experts employed by the DWS to assess what is necessary to remediate problems at a local level and to ensure continued performance.
This would save on the costs of numerous expert consultants having to be contracted by local government entities to assess their needs and repair the problems.
The current water crisis has a potentially negative effect on section 27 of the Constitution, which provides for the right of access to water (for basic human needs, at least) and also section 24, the right to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing.
A plan to address the water crisis, properly implemented, would serve to fulfil these constitutional rights. South African law has recognised that sometimes these rights cannot be fulfilled immediately, and clearly it is unrealistic to believe that the water issues can be addressed in a short period.
The Constitutional Court said in the Grootboom case in 2000 that, where a right is being progressively realised (in that case it was the right to housing), not only is it required of the government to have a plan to provide for that realisation, but that the government must continuously ensure the plan is being implemented. This is what is necessary in the case of water.
It is also worthwhile to consider that the water crisis is occurring at the same time as South Africa is experiencing alarming electricity shortages, and when many aspects of the government’s provision of housing, education, health, decent transport infrastructure and other services are in a mess.
It is probably unrealistic to expect the government to be able to remedy the water issues acting by itself, even if ordered to do so by a court. Just as many of the other problems mentioned here would benefit from the government working with the private sector, so too would the water crisis, and this should be a central element of any plan developed to address the sewage flowing in our streams.
While the obvious culprit responsible for the biggest water pollution problems in South Africa is local government collectively, targeting them through the courts to sort out the problem would be a piecemeal Band-Aid solution.
The root cause can only be addressed by the national government taking seriously its responsibility as the public trustee of our water resources, which it is manifestly failing to do at present. DM