Auditors should be able to identify when formal authorisation is required for a specific water use activity. Where registration or authorisation is required, auditors should evaluate the relevant documentation to assess whether the water-related activities the site engages in are legal.

All water uses in South Africa are governed by the National Water Act 36 of 1998 (NWA) to ensure the sustainable management of all water resources. The term “water use” refers to a specific water-related activity that is regulated by legislation. The NWA divides water use into four categories which form the basis of establishing legal compliance.


  • Schedule 1


These water use activities are usually low volume and/or has a minimal or no impact on water resources. It is deemed permissible water use and does not require a licence or registration. These activities include:

  • domestic water use
  • storing and using run-off water from a roof
  • small (non-commercial) gardening
  • using water for recreational use (e.g. boating or skiing)
  • using water for emergencies (e.g. firefighting and human consumption)


  • Existing Lawful Use


The previous legislation which governed water use in South Africa (the Water Act 54 of 1956), was replaced by the NWA in 1998. In most instances, all water uses that commenced before the implementation of the NWA are considered existing lawful use (ELU). However, all ELUs have to be validated and registered by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). During an audit, auditors should assess all relevant documentation and records to establish whether the water use was initiated prior to 1998.


  • General Authorisations


A general authorisation replaces the need for a water user to apply for a water use license authorisation (WULA) in terms of Section 21 of the NWA. Limits and conditions under which water use is permissible according to general authorisations, are published in Government Notices from time to time. Some of the general authorisations that are applicable to water use activities within the agricultural sector are as follows:

Auditors should familiarise themselves with the abovementioned general authorisations in order to accurately identify when a parameter has been exceeded and further authorisation is required.


  • Water use licences


A “water use license authorisation” (WULA) is an authorisation that is issued by the DWS for a specific water-use activity as set out in Chapter 4, Section 21 of the NWA. A WULA is usually required when:

  • the water use falls outside of the scope of Schedule 1
  • it is a new water use, i.e. initial implementation after 1998
  • the water use exceeds the parameters that are stipulated in the general authorisation

Within the context of South African agriculture, the most relevant water uses are as follows:

Section 21(a) – Taking water from a water resource

This is the most common water use type within the agricultural context as it refers to the abstraction of significant volumes of water from a water resource such as a river, dam, irrigation canal, borehole/aquifer, wetland, or lake. In the agricultural industry, it is often also referred to as “water rights”. Auditors should confirm the total volumes of water that a site is legally allowed to abstract from a water source. Confirmation documents from the DWS, relevant Catchment Management Agency (CMA), local Water User Association (WUA) or Irrigation Board (IB) can be accepted.

Section 21(b) – Storing water

This water use refers to the act of storing significant volumes of (clean) water in a water storage structure such as a dam or reservoir. According to the revised general authorisation for the taking and storing of water as published in Government Notice no. 538 in Government Gazette no. 40243, published on 2 September 2016, the storage of more than 10 000 m3 of water on a property must be registered with the responsible authority. This can either be with the DWS directly, via the relevant CMA, WUA or IB. Furthermore, dams that have a wall that is higher than 5 m and have a storage capacity of more than 50 000 m3, are deemed to pose a safety risk and should be registered with the Dam Safety Office within the DWS. Registration of the specific dam, as well as dam safety certificates should be assessed during the document review process.

Section 21(c) – Impeding or diverting the flow of water in a watercourse

This entails obstructing or diverting the natural flow of water within a watercourse, which will eventually be reverted back to the original watercourse. This could include the construction of in-stream dams or the construction of weirs and bridges. Auditors should take note of such activities during the site inspection and be able to identify whether formal authorisation would have been required.

Section 21(f) – Discharging waste or water containing waste into a water resource through a pipe, canal, sewer, sea outfall, or other conduit

This refers to directly discharging wastewater into an existing water source. For example, discharging packhouse or winery wastewater into a water resource. In most cases, this is regulated according to the general authorisation as published in Government Notice no. 665 of 6 September 2013.

Section 21(i) – Altering the bed, banks, course or characteristics of a watercourse

This can include making any physical changes to a watercourse, such as widening the channel of a river. When infrastructure is developed close to a river, it often necessitates the alteration of the riverbed or banks. For example, when a bridge is built over a river. Furthermore, any activity within 500 m of the boundary of a wetland or estuary, is also classified as a 21(i) water use and requires a WULA.