South Africa has legislation to protect rivers‚ despite pollution

17 April 2017 - 17:40 By Ernest Mabuza
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Hartbeespoort dam as of 28 October 2016.
Hartbeespoort dam as of 28 October 2016.
Image: Glynis Smith

Two rivers in India have been granted the same legal rights as human beings in a bid to prevent pollution‚ a position that is catered for in South Africa.

While this is novel‚ South Africa enacted legislation which protects our rivers and ecosystems some 20 years ago.

“I would argue the Indian case is following on South Africa‚ not the other way around‚” said scientist Dr Anthony Turton.

He said the country’s environmental legislation‚ the National Water Act and the National Environmental Management Act‚ had similar aims.

“What the country has done under the leadership of the late Kader Asmal was that the river and the ecosystem sustained by the river have a legal right to its own water‚” Turton said.

He said under apartheid‚ the Land Act of 1913 gave the owner of the land the right to water that flowed over that land.

Turton said the situation changed in 1994 when the rights to water that were associated with land ownership were nationalised.

“The National Water Act nationalised what used to be the right of an individual and the state took over the custodial role.”

He said although government had powers to regulate the use of water‚ pollution of the river systems was a bigger problem than it was 20 years ago.

Turton said the population of Gauteng lived upstream of water supply but sewerage went downstream.

“Over 4 billion litres of untreated sewerage goes back to our rivers.”

He said although the state was the custodian of water‚ its role had not been met.

He said another pollution problem was from industrial users‚ including gold and coal mines where contaminated water and poorly treated water was released back into the river systems.

The Centre for Environment Rights said South African environmental and water laws provided for the state (represented by the relevant ministers) to hold the environment and water resources in public trust for the people of South Africa.

“So in principle‚ the Minister of Water and Sanitation is a statutory guardian who has the responsibility to protect our rivers and other water resources‚” CER attorney Amanda Mkhonza said.

She said the challenge did not lie with the substance of the water and environmental laws‚ but rather with government decisions that were not in line with that public trust obligation‚ as well as limited investment in capacity to monitor compliance and enforce the laws.

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