The landmark 1998 Water Act provided for the progressive establishment of 19 Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) in key water management areas across the country.
But these were later whittled down to nine, and todaY, only two CMAs exist, the Breede-Gouritz and ! Inkomati-Usuthu.
"The CMA delay is very concerning," remarks Anthony Turton, a water expert and professor at the University of the Free State. "It reflects two things ailing us. Firstly, the lack of capacity in the state, even two decades after democracy. Secondly, a deep-seated disregard for the law that has crept into everything under President (Jacob) Zuma." CMAs are required by law and their absence is a clear violation.
"While we've tolerated excuses for two decades, maybe the current crisis of confidence in the ruling party creates a window of opportunity for the public to demand the law be applied."
Even the Department of Water and Sanitation. (DWS), in its new proposed Water Quality Management Strategy and Policy, bemoans the delay.
"While there are significant challenges at the international and national levels, potentially our most significant issues from a water quality perspective reside at the more local levels. The delays in establishing, capacitating and delegating powers and duties to CMAs has meant that there has not been sufficient on-the-ground management."
Municipalities, it says, are a major source of waste water containing pollution.
CMAs and the catchment management forums are important institutional structures for engaging at the municipal level "despite the challenges that exist due to misalignment of operational boundaries, differingplanning cycles and an array of institutional complexities".
"It's nearly 20 years later, and we still don't have the government institutions in place that are designed to look after our catchments," remarks Christine Colvin, the senior freshwater manager at WWF-SA. And we need them more than ever. We need them to be functional and effective, and part of the conversation around water and economic development."
Turton, who agrees, says: "We've just been through the worst drought on record and it has shown up many weaknesses in our water resources planning and implementation. In truth, we've not yet recovered from that drought, with the Western Cape still in its grip, and the rest of the country vulnerable even if some of the dams are full.''
The purpose of CMAs is to implement catchment management strategies. "These are important because they reconcile the political aspirations on the one hand (let's build more dams and double irrigated agriculture as specified by the second National Water Resources Strategy) with the harsh reality of water availability on the other (we can't build dams and double irrigated agriculture because we simply don't have enough water).
"Without a functioning CMA, no effective long-term planning can be implemented, so no lessons from the current (recent past) drought will be learnt and we will be forced to relive the distress," says Turton.
In a 2013 paper 'Why has the South African National Water Act been so difficult to Implement?' Barbara Schreiner of Pegasys Strategy and Development says two critical factors allowed the creation of CMAs to fall behind schedule.
"The first was that those responsible for the establishment of the CMAs - heads of regional offices were not held accountable for not achieving their targets. Lack of capacity was often cited as a reason for not achieving targets but proper 'performance management and accountability were weak. The second (reason) was the questioning of decisions taken.''
DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau says the process to establish institutions is "extremely complex and requires a thorough change management process. As a result, the process to establish CMAs ... has taken time. The department is working on the rationalisation of entities to ensure improvement of governance and the financial viability of such state entities" .
This is envisaged to be completed by the end of March, he says. "The fact that there are two operational.
CMAs does belie the fact that processes to establish the other CMAs have been ongoing. There are another four that have been legally established. Business cases for the establishment of the remaining three CMAs are being completed."
Institutional reforms and realignment to rationalise the number of water management areas and CMAs were amended and "did require some of the institutional processes to be restarted.
"There have been ongoing concerns about the sustainability of these institutions and ongoing discussions about further changes to the institutional model. The department is still committed to institutional reform to strengthen our management of water resources.
"The pressure upon our water resources is increasing, and will only become worse as our country develops its social economy."
In its new policy, the DWS outlines how CMAs will be in charge of water quality monitoring, with oversight from the DWS. Through the CMAs citizen-based water monitoring programmes will be strengthened.
But environmental activist Mariette Liefferink says too often the level of community involvement in catchment management forums is low or non-existent. "It raises concerns whether civil society has a genuine influence in CMFs or only the appearance of participation."
CMFs are embedded within a political context, she believes.
"The overwhelming majority of participants are from the national, provincial and local government.
"Officials of the DWS, Rand Water and local government fail to escalate ongoing pollution incidences, which are brought to the attention of the forums, to the director-general and minister of water and sanitation because of fear of being indicted for their alleged failure of duty of care"
On the future of CMAs, Ratat says issues of non-payment of water resource charges might be a challenge to CMAs as one of their funding sources is revenue from the users.
"Issues of capacity are also a concern and the ability to attract staff with the skills and experience for managing water resources."
Hugo Retief, from the Association of Water and Rural Development, which works to protect the Olifants River catchment, agrees.
"It's a challenge to find staff with the background needed in water management. The big challenges are the scale of a catchment like the Olifants. There are over 360 monitoring
points and you have to go out once a month to take samples with limited staff."