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The current state of water regulations in South Africa

Written Eamonn Ryan


Discussions with the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS), and the Building Control Officer (BCO) reveals that his/her staff are only responsible for drainage and the sanware connections that dispose of waste – that is, toilets and waste going into the sewer system.

To quote, “The BCO cannot enforce anything not allowed for in the Act, Regulations and the SANS 10400 series. Regulation A13 describes materials as: material used in the erection of a building shall be suitable for the purpose for which it is to be used.” Therefore, the SABS mark is not prescribed within the National Building Regulations & Building Standards (NBR&BS) Act.

Due to there being no requirement in the NBR&BS Act, the regulation of brassware, piping in buildings, geysers, solar and other such plumbing applications does not form part of the BCO/Inspectors jurisdiction nor his role.

PIRB and IOPSA have long urged that this situation be remedied by the introduction of water supply into the NBR&BS. It is believed that this is currently under discussion.

Herman Strauss, head of the PIRB’s audit department, gives the background to this regulatory gap and how it affects the plumbing industry.

“Municipalities are given the responsibility to provide fresh water and sanitation to all residents within their jurisdiction. This responsibility is laid down in the Constitution, granting municipalities ‘executive power’ to do so. Local authority is where the detail is implemented via bylaws, in accordance with provincial and national legislation, which they cannot overrule,” he explains.

“There is common misinterpretation of the law that municipal bylaws overrule standards. Wrong: compulsory standards supersede bylaws. There can be adaptation around the soil and water conditions, pressure and such but the standard makes allowance for these. The only exception is where circumstances on the ground in a municipality make it impossible to comply with national or provincial legislation – and there has been a court ruling to this effect. Circumstances like the lockdown may bring about such a situation, whereby the lockdown was implemented at national level and affects the ability of local authorities to deliver services they are required by local regulations to perform,” says Strauss.

One graphic example of government departments in South Africa working in silos is the building and water departments. Building regulations are managed under the Department of Trade and Industry, while water supply is managed under the Water Services Act by the Department of Water and Sanitation which imposes a duty to make sure water is supplied to all communities.

“There is an overlap between the two. Firstly, water supply ends up inside the house, but is not governed under building regulations. Secondly, a lot of water is lost inside houses, and water loss is the responsibility of the municipality. Within the building regulations, only water supply and sewerage is addressed – not the water supply plumbing installations. The only reference to this in the NBR&BS is that only a ‘qualified plumber’ may do plumbing work – and that applies to all plumbing across the board, not just water supply and sewerage,” says Strauss.

Furthermore, while there is “fairly good” enforcement of building regulations, there is little practical enforcement of water supply. “Most municipalities have a BCO who will not issue a certificate of occupation unless the building conforms to the NBR&BS. The BCO gets his powers from the building regulations which tell him what he may and may not do, regulations which permit comment on the water drainage but not on the water supply installations. As powers relating to inspecting installations are not specified the consensus is that it is not included within the scope of the BCO’s powers.

“In practice, BCOs do not look at water installations such as the geyser. This means you can have a hazardous geyser installation in a new building and the BCO will nonetheless issue the owner an occupation certificate. The BCO is unlikely to recognise the danger. In turn, the municipality’s water inspector operating under the Water Services Act does not have the authority to enter a person’s property to inspect the water supply. This leaves a massive gap,” explains Strauss. The water supply regulations state that all municipalities must have bylaws covering this (but only at most 80 out of 256 municipalities do, according to latest IOPSA research). In some local authorities, it may be the case that the municipality has a bylaw instructing a water engineer to go onto premises and inspect it before a certificate of occupation is issued.

“But even then it would still be the case that this process is independent of the BCO function.” The recent IOPSA report on the state of bylaws in municipalities shows that very few, practically speaking, have a functioning verification system for this, or even bylaws.

“This is despite the fact the Water Services Act has for decades required municipalities to have bylaws and to implement them. They are consequently breaking their own laws. I have personally researched this and could only identify bylaws relating to water supply from a fraction of municipalities. The IOPSA research demonstrates that even where a municipality has bylaws, the local plumbers don’t know about it, points out Strauss.

“All the evidence we have suggests that policing and control of water supply installations are severely limited. The PIRB COC system was never intended to replace the process of municipal oversight, or to do it on behalf of the local authorities. What it does is provide a platform for the benefit of consumers and that can be used by local authorities: if each plumber issues a COC for each job done, then a system of control is in place, at least for work done by qualified plumbers.

“Furthermore, it currently is a legal requirement that a COC should be issued to verify that a geyser, heat pump and solar water heater installation is performed according to the relevant SANS standards. This legal requirement is of enormous comfort to the consumer to know plumbing work is done to standard, especially given that in large areas of the country the building regulations do not catch this factor. This means that any consumer, anywhere in the country and irrespective of the state of his local authority, can have the reassurance that a plumbing job has been done safely by insisting on the plumber issuing a COC. It is a verification that the plumber at least knows what the regulations require and gives the consumer recourse if the plumbing has not been done to standard.”

Strauss emphases that the introduction of water supply into the building regulations “should in theory not change anything, other than enforcing policing”.

“Plumbers are already required to comply with standards, and if they are doing so (in compliance with the law) then nothing changes with regard to how an installation should look or even the cost of doing an installation. What new regulations would be about is accountability, and a form of policing,” he adds.


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