Cape Town - The government on Tuesday admitted it has for years failed to properly regulate municipal sewage works, many of which are discharging untreated or only partially-treated human waste into rivers around the country.
"The regulation function was to some extent neglected," water affairs acting chief director of regulations Helgard Muller told members of Parliament's water affairs portfolio committee.
"Let me admit, I think that immediately after 1994, and for some years, this function was not getting the right attention... We had to prioritise due to limited resources," he said.
Muller's admission comes a fortnight after the release of his department's Green Drop Report, which assessed 449 of the country's 852 waste water treatment plants.
It found only 32 of them qualified for so-called Green Drop status, broadly equivalent to them complying with international standards.
Further, it found that "the bulk of the (sewage) plants can be described as poor to non-functional", implying that hundreds of millions of litres of inadequately-treated sewage was being illegally discharged each day, mainly by small town municipalities.
Replace incentives with punishment
Among its recommendations was that the department complement its incentive-driven approach to getting municipalities to comply with provisions of the Water Act with a more regulatory one, including, where necessary, punitive measures.
Briefing committee members, department legal adviser Harish Jhupsee indicated that this process had commenced. In the past, water affairs had only "monitored" compliance.
"The enforcement aspect seemed to be lacking most of the time. It never really happened. It's only since April 1 (this year)... that it's being fast-tracked and we have established a directorate."
Such action had now become a priority.
The department had issued 56 directives to municipalities around the country, calling on them to ensure their waste water treatment plants complied with regulations. In seven cases, criminal charges had been laid.
"Following up on those directives will be a very important aspect, and the criminal aspect to it as well. This will be a deterrent and (will send) a message to non-conforming, non-complying officials... We cannot allow criminal activity to carry on," he said.
R23bn enough for clean-up?
Muller told MPs there were discussions underway with the Treasury to try and ensure the portion of municipalities' equitable share earmarked for water and sanitation was actually used for this purpose.
"The equitable share is quite substantial, but the money doesn't reach the water and sanitation component. We are working with Treasury to engage with them at the time municipal budgets are determined, to look at why can't we... engage with that process.
"So that from a national side, we force them to ringfence the water and sanitation budget, and ensure that the money that's given from the equitable share actually gets allocated to the right point," he said.
MPs at Tuesday's briefing questioned whether R23bn - the amount Water Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica says she needs to patch up the country's collapsing sewage works - was enough.
Democratic Alliance MP Annette Lovemore said the Western Cape alone required R8bn to solve its waste water problems.
"The Western Cape is by far one of the better-performing provinces, so R23bn for the country - I wonder if this is not a serious under-estimation," she said.
Tuesday's briefing comes only days after TAU-SA and the National Water Forum laid criminal charges against three ministers, including Sonjica, for failing to stop pollution in South Africa's rivers.
The others who were charged are Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson and Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu.
South Africa's extensive network of sewage treatments plants, pipe networks and pump stations treats about 7.5bn litres of waste water a day.