Water allocation rights and fracking in the spotlight

The proposed National Water Policy Review could change the way farmers use their water allocations

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The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs made its plans known at a Pretoria press conference at the beginning of the month, after the National Water Policy Review was gazetted on 30 August. Members of the public have 30 days to respond to the amendments. Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa said the department wanted to apply the use-it-or-lose-it principle in future.

If allocated water was not used within a set time-frame, it should be re-allocated to a public trust managed by the minister as custodian of the nation’s water resources. Authorised water users would no longer be able to trade water among each other. “Our position is that there should be no form of temporary or permanent trading between authorised water users. It will be obligatory for any holder of an entitlement to surrender such use to the public trust if it is no longer used,” Molewa said.

The department wants to prioritise social and economic equity in the re-allocation of water. “Economic regulation will be applied throughout the water value chain,” said the minister. The department, in consultation with the national treasury, would determine water use tariffs annually. Dr Theo de Jager, vice-chairperson of Agri SA, said preventing farmers from trading their water rights constituted intervention in the free market system.

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“Changes should be in alignment with the National Development Plan but it doesn’t seem as though these governmental bodies are in alignment at the moment,” he said. Nic Opperman, natural resources manager at Agri SA, said it was important to note that these issues were currently only on the department’s wish list. “The department is moving towards a single piece of legislation governing all water use in the country. This is a good idea, but there are minor devils in the details.”

He added that there were, however, issues that could be troublesome and Agri SA would comment on the matter. Molewa said government was in the process of changing legislation to accommodate fracking for possible underground shale gas reserves.

“I have taken the decision to issue a notice of intention to declare fracking a controlled activity in terms of section 38 of the National Water Act. The notice includes the exploration for and/or production of onshore unconventional oil or gas resources and any activities incidental thereto including, but not limited to, hydraulic fracturing,” Molewa announced.

DA spokesperson on water and environmental affairs Marti Wenger said if fracking were approved following the consideration of public comment, every precaution should be taken to protect the environment and water resources. She called for stringent control measures, including a charter to regulate decisions involved in fracking and demand transparency about chemical use. They should also explain the rules applying to companies as well as how transgressions would be dealt with.

“Fracking has the potential to create jobs. We cannot reject it out of hand. We need to do what is right for the environment and we need to do what is right for unemployed people who could benefit from fracking,” she said. Wenger added that the DA would scrutinise the impact of all the proposed policy changes and intentions declared for its intended and unintended effects, and urged interested parties to give public comment.

De Jager said it was important that greater certainty on water rights should come about soon, as uncertainty discouraged investment in the sector.