South Africa

South Africa’s waters are governed by the Water Services Act of 1997 and the National Water Act of 1998. These Acts are complementary and provide a framework for sustainable water resource management while enabling improved and broadened service delivery. The National Water Act of 1998 is founded on the principle that all water forms part of a unitary, interdependent water cycle, and should thus be governed under consistent rules. It contains comprehensive provisions for the protection, use, development, conservation, management and control of South African water resources. The strategic objectives are stipulated in the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS; DWAF 2004).

Change in the water-related laws and institutions in the last decade have been guided by the National Water Policy White Paper of 1997. This document stipulates a benefits-sharing approach for international water resources, in accordance with the Helsinki rules. It favours work at the regional level for water management, to enable all affected parties to participate and to address the requirements of IWRM. Nonetheless the national government is assigned “central responsibility” for the water resources, implying precedence of the national level over the regional one. Transboundary issues can take priority as well: the National Water Policy says that the government “will have the right to allocate water to downstream countries in preference to local water allocations”, and for transboundary basins, “the whole shared catchment will be the basis for decision making, particularly where more than two countries are involved”.

Recent transformations in the water resource sector include a shift from central management to a de-centralised system. Water Management Areas have been established, defined largely by hydrological catchment borders, and Catchment Management Agencies (CMA) are designated the main administrative bodies, although progress has been limited.

South Africa’s portion of the Limpopo River basin covers the following Water Management Areas:

  • Limpopo
  • Luvuvhua and Letaba
  • Olifants
  • Crocodile (West and Marico)

A Map of the Water Management Areas within the Limpopo River basin and within South Africa is presented below.

Water Management Areas within the Limpopo River basin and within South Africa


The Department of Water Affairs is facing significant challenges implementing the new legislation, due to the complex nature of the legislation and the challenges posed by dealing with existing rights (ORASCOM 2007b).

Institutional Responsibilities

The Minister of Water Affairs is responsible for managing and administering water resources as the public trustee, ensuring that the country’s water resources are managed for the benefit of all, that water is allocated equitably, and that environmental values are promoted.

The Minister of Water Affairs maintains responsibility for the specification of international water obligations, contingency planning for future needs, and authorising inter-basin transfers or water uses of strategic importance (ORASECOM 2007a). Other water-related functions are delegated to officials in the Department of Water (DWA). The DWA is responsible for implementing the Water Services Act of 1997, and the National Water Act of 1998. The National Water Act is to be implemented through the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS) (ORASECOM 2007a).

The Water Services Act and the National Water Act significantly altered South Africa’s institutional structure for the management of water resources. These acts promote integrated management with the catchment as the basic unit of management; 19 water management areas (WMAs) are delineated in South Africa, with each WMA intended to become the responsibility of a Catchment Management Agency (CMA). Currently, the WMAs are the responsibility of the DWA South Africa (ORASECOM 2007a). The National Water Act also provides for Water User Associations (WUAs) to be set up within a particular WMA.

Other institutions that maintain responsibility for different aspects of water management include (ORASECOM 2007a):

  • The Water Tribunal, an independent body established by the Minister under the NWA, to address appeals against any administrative decisions made by water management institutions.
  • The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) has links to water resources, since the provisions of the National Water Act must accord with environmental policy under the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 1998.
  • District Municipalities, through Water Services Authorities (WSAs), have the responsibility for delivering water supply and sanitation services under the Municipal Structures Act of 1998.
  • Advisory bodies that can be established to advise the Minister on specific issues, such as the Board of a CMA, or the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Dams.

Chapter 10 of the National Water Act establishes rules and guidelines for establishing bi-national or multi-national bodies to implement international agreements related to the management and development of transboundary water resources (ORASACOM 2007b).

The institutional structures in South Africa are presented in the diagram below.

National laws and institutions in South Africa. Source: Kranz et al. 2005; Department of Water Affairs (DWA) South Africa 2004; Department of Water Affairs South Africa 2009


Regulatory Framework for Transboundary Water Management

South Africa has ratified both the UN Convention and the Revised SADC Protocol. International Water Management is addressed in Chapter 10 of the National Water Act. This Chapter establishes guidelines for bi-national or multi-national bodies to be established to implement international agreements related to the management and development of transboundary water resources (ORASACOM 2007b). Existing bodies, such as, the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, the Komati Basin Water Authority and the Vioolsdrift Noordoewer Joint Irrigation Authority, are also discussed in Chapter 10 of the Water Act.


Regulatory Framework for Disaster Management

The Disaster Management Act was approved in 2002. The National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) within the Department of Provincial and Local Government is the institution that implements policy directives through its provincial and district offices (UN Habitat/UNEP 2007). DWAF runs early warning system through monitoring river flows while Meteorological Services deal with rainfalls.

Of interest is the section of the Water Policy on Public Safety and Disaster Prevention, which acknowledges the disastrous nature of extreme events (i.e. floods and droughts) on environmental and socio-economic systems if not provided for in integrated water resources development and management.



South Africa is in the process of reviewing policies and laws that aim to introduce second generation reforms (LBPTC 2010). The country’s institutional setup is quite complex and there are multiple institutions involved in water management (SADC 2003a). There are also capacity concerns in the complex licensing system envisaged in South Africa and concerns that the process may become too bureaucratic and costly (SADC 2003a). DWA performs the role of an operator and a regulator and it has been recommended that these roles be separated (SADC 2003a).

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken