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Another victory for environmental rights: Department of Water & Sanitation makes copies of water licences automatically available to the public

20 July 2016 at 9:48 am

In April 2016, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) praised the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) for its decision to make copies of environmental licences available to the public automatically, without requiring the submission of a request in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

At the time, we expressed our hope that the DEA’s decision would be  a significant first step towards automatic, online public access not only to environmental licences, including those held by the Department of Water & Sanitation and the Department of Mineral Resources, but also to reports and data that demonstrate whether companies are complying with the conditions of their environmental licences.

On 1 July 2016, the Department of Water & Sanitation (DWS) announced that it will now make copies of water use licences and audit and compliance reports available automatically to the public.

This decision, recorded in the DWS’s latest PAIA Manual, is a welcome improvement on the position under the DWS’s previous PAIA Manual, which indicated that water use licences were automatically available, but “subject to third party notification in terms of section 47 of PAIA”. In other words, the DWS would only release water use licences after the holders of those licences had been given an opportunity to make representations on why the licences should not be released. This position  undermined the purpose of section 15 of PAIA, which is to make records automatically available, and delayed the disclosure of documents that should be in the public domain. The DWS PAIA Manual now provides for unqualified, automatic access to water use licences.

Importantly, the DWS’s list of automatically available information also includes audit and compliance reports. The accessibility of these reports is as important as the accessibility of licences, and enables civil society to monitor environmentally harmful operations.

The DWS’s 2016 PAIA Manual indicates that members of the public can email Mr Puseletso Loselo ([email protected]) for copies of these documents. When requesting access to water use licences, it will assist the DWS to locate the documents if you provide the name of the licence holder, and indicate the region or province in which the licence was issued.

The CER continues to campaign for online publication of licences and compliance monitoring and auditing reports. Voluntary, proactive disclosure of this information by regulators, as well as requiring licence holders to make these documents available to the public, will greatly minimise the volume of PAIA requests submitted to the state and will foster transparency and the realisation of environmental and other Constitutional rights.