Regulation of the water sector

By Extract from the NWRS 2 by the Department of Water and Sanitation

Regulation of the water sector and the use of water is a critical element of the effective, equitable, and sustainable water management of water resources and the delivery of sustainable and appropriate water services.

Regulation oversight

Regulation aims to change the behaviour of water users and water institutions to ensure the sustainable and equitable use, protection, conservation, and development of the nation’s water resources. The minister, as shareholder in a number of water sector institutions, plays a role in providing strategic guidance and oversight to these organisations, which is different from the regulatory role of various organs of state.

The Department of Water Affairs/Water and Sanitation (DWA/DWS) regulated water use even under the 1956 Water Act through, for example, issuing water permits, setting discharge standards, and regulating dam safety. Under the National Water Act (NWA) the scope of this regulatory role has expanded considerably.

In addition, there are now a number of organisations involved in the regulation of water, as shown in Figure 14, with different roles and responsibilities spread across this wide range of functions. Nonetheless, in relation to water resources, the DWA plays the major role, although elements of these regulatory functions will be transferred to Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) in due course. The DWA’s mandate is derived from the Constitution, the NWA, and the Water Services Act, 1997 (Act No. 108 of 1997).

Successful implementation of the broader scope of regulation under the NWA remains a challenge that must be addressed by the DWA/DWS and other water sector institutions over the next period.

The scope of water regulation encompasses:

  • Water use authorisation: to ensure the equitable and sustainable use of water in the public interest. Water use may be authorised (or permissible) in terms of Schedule 1 of the NWA, a general authorisation, an existing lawful use, or in terms of a water use licence.
  • Drinking water quality and wastewater discharge regulation: which ensures minimum standards for drinking water provision and for wastewater discharge, regulated through programmes such as the Blue Drop and Green Drop certification programmes and through national minimum norms and standards.
  • Infrastructure regulation: to ensure that water infrastructure is functional, properly operated and maintained, appropriate for present and future needs, meets public health and safety standards, and is sufficiently durable for a realistic economic life expectancy.

    This includes dam safety regulation to ensure the ongoing protection of public health and safety in relation to dams with a hazard potential.

  • Regulation of corporate governance: in water. There is an ongoing programme of inspections of dams with a safety risk. The DWA undertakes remedial work on departmental dams requiring such, while remedial work on other dams (including private dams) is undertaken by owners of dams that do not comply with one or more of the many safety criteria set in the Dam Safety Regulations.
  • Economic and social regulation:
    • A pricing strategy for raw water use has been gazetted, implemented, and is being reviewed.
    • Norms and standards for water services tariffs have been gazetted.
    • A project to determine suitable institutional arrangements for economic regulation from source to tap and back to source has been initiated.
    • The DWA has undertaken a compliance survey of municipality water services tariffs against the relevant norms and standards. This survey indicates that almost all municipalities provide free basic water and use stepped tariffs that are pro-poor and promote water conservation.


Despite the progress, there are still a number of challenges facing the regulation of water use in the country.

Water use authorisation and compliance

While the DWA has managed to significantly reduce the backlog in water use licence applications, there is a challenge in streamlining the process to ensure and maintain an efficient, equitable, and effective authorisation process and to prevent a new backlog from developing.

Limited capacity to ensure compliance with authorisation conditions has led to high levels of illegal water use, and pollution from various sources, including from municipal wastewater treatment works.

There is a major challenge in ensuring the accurate and up-to-date capturing of water use information on the Water Registration Management System.

Validation and verification, which is necessary to provide an accurate database of water use to support regulation, is not yet completed and is proving to be a slow and resource-intensive process. While compulsory licensing has been completed in three catchments, the overall process has been slow and is resource intensive and complex.

A large percentage of water use is authorised as existing lawful use in terms of the previous Water Act (1956), and is not subject to the same conditions that would be applied if this water use was licensed in terms of the NWA.

Illegal water abstractions, especially by irrigation farmers present serious problems.

Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a major source of pollution that results from water use practices that were allowed when less stringent conditions were imposed on mine discharges prior to promulgation of the NWA. However, AMD offers an opportunity in that it can become a valuable additional water resource if properly treated and managed. The proposed mining of gas using hydraulic fracturing techniques, referred to as fracking, can bring enormous economic benefits to South Africa. However, hydraulic fracturing is said to pose a threat to groundwater and to the environment, which has sparked calls for strict regulation. This may entail declaring fracking a controlled activity in terms of the NWA. Exploration is currently on shale and coal.

National Water Resource Strategy 2 98

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