Local bylaws and the plumber

By: Vollie Brink

Why are the water services bylaws important and how can they be properly interpreted and followed?

I’ve told you my story of the high court judge who parked in my parking space every time when I left my office for a meeting or other business. He told the caretaker that he did not know it was wrong to park in my space and the caretaker responded that he always reads about judges telling people that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

We are often confronted with the law and the actual interpretation of implementation is not always what we understand it to be.

I am often amazed at how the law is used only when it suits some people and how it is sometimes bent the other way to suit other people.

I was always under the impression that a law must be followed, that it applies to all people, and that public officials must apply it without prejudice. I also was under the impression that, if a public official does not apply the law, then it is an offence which is punishable if necessary.

In my understanding, it is negligence if an official does not diligently apply the rules and regulations of an act, but it seems I am mistaken. Perhaps I am wrong since I am not a learned lawyer, but merely an engineer. Although, one of the past presidents of the South African Institute of Civil Engineers did say that he was proud to be an engineer.

Advocate Jeannette Botha, an expert on the National Building Regulations (NBR), has produced a document to explain the hierarchy of the institutional set-up from the act down to the deem-to-satisfy-rules (DTSR), including the local water services by-laws (WSBL). Botha also explained which level in the hierarchy trumps what.

This is a very informative document and perhaps Rory Macnamara must arrange with Advocate Botha that her document be presented in Plumbing Africa sometime soon. This valuable information could be of great help to understand better how the law cascades form the Act down to regulations and eventually the rules that effect the daily lives of you and me.

I have studied the NBR carefully because it basically rules our lives and what we do every day, even when we are under pressure to deliver drawings or complete an installation.

To come back to understanding and interpretation of the various levels of the law: somewhere in the hierarchy there is a level of governing which is called the local WSBLs and I have found that many plumbers and designers are ignorant of the contents, what is important in terms of design and construction, and how it affects what we do (or have to do).

To me this sounds like ignorance of the law.

As far as I understand, this is a compulsory document that local authorities must apply.

This document addresses water, fire and sanitation as part of the responsibility of the local council. It is a very important document with serious potential legal implications if its contents are not managed and implemented. It also contains very valuable technical information and requirements.

This document cross-references all the other related documents such as the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS)’s standards and regulations, but it also contains important information related to local requirements that suit local conditions.

For example, in Cape Town, you are not allowed to use galvanised mild steel piping and, in Durban, the overflow of a toilet should discharge from the cistern to an external wall “so that the council can see if a cistern is leaking”. It boggles my mind!

The local WSBL originate from the national model WSBLs, which all local authorities modified to suit local conditions, and then applied.

The ‘applied’ part seems to be a problem.

These local WSBLs clearly require that, for all buildings other than houses, drawings of the water installation shall be submitted to the council and all that goes with it. It also requires that these systems shall be inspected and eventually, upon completion, compliance certificates shall be submitted for record purposes.

I have never come across a council that required such drawings, except in Durban. I believe there are now a few others.

There are many large buildings and special buildings such as hospitals, shopping centres and large government buildings for which no drawings are required and no records are kept.

We are facing a water crisis and yet we do not where the pipes are – so how can we maintain them?

It seems the problem is that there is no connection between the water departments of the local councils and the Building Control Office (BCO). Also, the so-called water regulations were promulgated under the wrong act and the wrong government department, when they should be under the mandate of the BCO.

However, whether the regulations were wrongly promulgated under the wrong act or department and whether the councils apply them or not, the document contains valuable technical information and other institutional information and requirements. It is worthwhile to study it and apply it.

You will not be able to plead ignorance if you end up in court and in front of my friend the judge who parked in my parking space.

I have been trying for many years to influence ‘the powers that be’ to rectify this anomaly and to normalise the situation. It has eventually come to the point where it will be addressed and hopefully we will soon have a section for domestic water combined with fire water in the NBR and in South African National Standard (SANS) 10400.

The wonderful thing about life is that everything always changes, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. I believe we are on our way for the better.