In today’s historically altered and ever changing anthropogenic and natural environment, developing infrastructure and other land-uses is becoming harder and harder to do without interacting with the aquatic ecosystems flowing through the landscape. Even a simple pedestrian bridge crossing over a small stream may result in slight impact, or disturbance, to the aquatic ecosystem and as we all know, South Africa and the global water resources are becoming increasingly essential in the headlights of Global Warming and a human population that is increasing at an exponential rate. This makes the conservation and preservation of the current water resources (surface and groundwater) vital to the implementation of sustainable development and support of the generations to come.

In an attempt to achieve symbiosis between the human population, including the sustainable development of infrastructure to support an ever-growing economy, and the aquatic biota present within the stream and wetlands of our country the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has published General Notice (GN) 509. GN 509, which was published in Government Gazette (GG) no. 40229 under Section 39 of the National Water Act (Act no. 36 of 1998) in August 2016, was drafted to streamline the application for, and granting of, a Water Use Licence (WUL) in terms of Section 21(c) & (i) water uses. The aforementioned water uses are associated with the; c) impeding or diverting of the flow of water within a watercourse (streams and wetlands) and i) the altering of the bed, banks, course or characteristics of a watercourse (streams and wetlands).

The primary objective of GN 509 was to allow water users, or potential water uses, to apply for a WUL for Section 21(c) & (i) under a General Authorisation (GA), as opposed to a full Water Use Licence Application (WULA). These water uses may include general construction, maintenance and/or emergency work, river and stormwater management activities and undertaking wetland or river rehabilitation works within the regulated area of a watercourse, as defined within GN 509. In order for a water use (or potential) to qualify for a GA under GN 509, the proposed water use/activity must be subject to analysis by a suitably qualified natural scientist that is professional registered with the South Africa Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP) using the DWS Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM).

The RAM is used to determine the risk of the proposed water use/activity to the receiving aquatic ecosystem in terms of Section 21 (c) & (i), in a post-mitigation state. The three risk categories are; low, moderate and high risk. If the water use is determined to be of a low risk to the watercourse, then it may fall under the ambit of a GA, subject to a discussion with the relevant DWS case officer. However, if is it calculated to fall within the moderate or high-risk category then the water use/activity will be subject to authorisation via a full WULA process. The difference between the two processes being the timeline of assessment and subsequent decision, as the full WULA process can take up to 153-300days, whereas a GA process has the potential to be concluded within 30-60days.

Before the professionally register scientist can undertake the RAM, the following documents and procedures must be implemented by a suitably qualified wetland and/or aquatic ecologist:
  1. An infield delineation of the potentially at-risk watercourses using ‘a practical field procedure for delineation of wetlands and riparian areas’ (DWA, 2008);
  2. Calculation of the Present Ecological State (PES) score and Ecological Importance and Sensitivity (EIS) of the potentially at-risk watercourses using the relevant tools for wetlands and riverine systems;
  3. Analysis of the draft ‘guideline: Assessment of activities/developments affecting wetlands’ (DWS, 2013); and finally, the
  4. Calculation of the project-specific buffer zones for each at-risk watercourse using the ‘buffer zone guidelines for rivers, wetlands and estuaries’ (Macfarlane & Bredin, 2016).
Subsequent to the above documents/guidelines being utilised and the techniques applied by a suitably qualified professional, the results may then be used to populate the DWS required RAM. The RAM assesses the risk significance of various aspects that are related to a specific activity, for example: the activity can be the upgrading of an existing bridge structure, and the aspects associated it, in terms of Section 21(c) & (i), may include 1) alteration of drainage patterns due to change in ground-level, 2) Cut and fill within the riparian area for wingwall and pillar extension, 3) instream piling and 4) the clearing of vegetation. Although these aspects may come across as moderate to high risk to the reader, it must be noted that the scoring within the RAM must be conducted with the specialist-recommended mitigation and/or rehabilitation measures in mind (e.g. vegetation clearing mitigation measures may involve: landscaping, tillage of soil and planting of a mixture of indigenous poaceae species, as well as subsequent maintenance and monitoring).

The severity of each aspect of the activity is then calculated by analysing how severe the impact may be on the receiving aquatic environment (post-mitigation), during the design, construction, operation and decommissioning/rehabilitation phases, via a series of drivers and responses. The primary being the flow regime, aquatic biota, physicochemical water quality and habitat (geomorphology and vegetation). Thereafter, the spatial scale, duration and legal context of each aspect is considered to ultimately determine the overall significance, and thus risk category of each aspect associated with the activity. The risk category (low, moderate, or high), in conjunction with the proposed mitigation and/or rehabilitation measures, as well as the PES, EIS and buffer zone results, are then used to justify whether the water use/activity may be subject to either a GA, or full WULA process.

The adaption/alteration of the original WULA process by the DWS to account for the need to streamline the authorisation process is commendable, and this must be seen as a step in the right direction toward a more efficient and sustainable approach to the conservation of watercourses prior to, and during, construction.
If ever you may require a proposal for professionally registered scientists to conduct the entire RAM, GA/WULA and Environmental Authorisation (EA) process for a proposed development from start to finish, including specialist studies, please do not hesitate to contact Environmental Assurance (Pty) Ltd. (ENVASS) at, or call us on 012 460 9768.

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