The National Water Amendment Bill, open for public comment until 16 January 2024, has drawn substantial concern within the agricultural sector due to its potential impact on water allocation and usage. This bill, published on 17 November 2023, seeks to enact significant changes within the existing National Water Act framework.
Annelize Crosby, head of legal intelligence at Agbiz, emphasised that the bill’s objectives encompass critical aspects of water management, aiming to ensure equitable water allocation and prevent adverse effects of private water trading.
She highlighted that the proposed amendments extend beyond these objectives, covering diverse areas such as the review of the national water resource strategy, enhancement of water source area protection, facilitation of water use authorisation transfers, and the refinement of water user association governance.
Concerns for the agriculture sector
Crosby, while discussing Agbiz’s assessment of the bill, expressed concerns about specific clauses that could significantly impact agricultural practices. “Even at first glance, there seems to be quite a few concerning provisions contained in the bill,” she remarked.
Regarding the prohibition of water trading, Crosby referred to a recent Constitutional Court judgment. “The question before the court was whether a water use entitlement obtained in terms of the National Water Act may be transferred to a third party,” she explained. “The Constitutional Court found that the act allows for the transfer of water use entitlements and that parties may also charge fees for transferring the rights.”
However, Crosby pointed out that the bill seems to counter this interpretation by restricting water trading.
“It intends to nullify that interpretation by amending the act to state that a water entitlement may be surrendered specifically…but that such water use cannot be traded in any way and must be surrendered to the national government,” she explained.
She highlighted the limitations imposed on the transfer of water for irrigation purposes.
Conservation vs. sustenance
Addressing concerns about reviewing water licenses in vulnerable areas, Crosby indicated that licenses granted for agricultural use in these regions might face evaluation. “Water licenses granted for agriculture in such areas will be reviewed,” she noted, underscoring potential implications for existing licenses.
Crosby further delved into the contentious provision requiring a 32-meter setback in regulated areas, stating, “Water use licenses may not be issued for any ploughing activity unless the 32-meter setback has been established.”
She highlighted the minister’s potential authority to introduce additional restrictions impacting water source areas.
Amid these concerns, Agbiz is actively engaging its members to gather input and formulate detailed comments on the bill. The agricultural community remains vigilant, striving for a balanced approach in the final legislation to ensure both the conservation of water resources and the sustenance of vital agricultural activities within the country.
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