Why Weather Service Amendment Bill is necessary - Dept

Albi Modise says with climate change hoax warnings could cause real harm

Concerns over severe weather or air pollution-related warning provisions of the current South African Weather Service Amendment Bill

12 Jan 2012

In May 2011, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs published the South African Weather Service Amendment Bill for public comment. Having taken into account the few public comments, a revised bill was introduced in the National Assembly of Parliament and an explanatory summary of the bill was published at the end of September last year.

Although the formal public comment period on the initial draft Bill closed some time ago, the bill is now being considered by Parliament and Parliament is planning to hold public hearings in the next few weeks.

Over the last two weeks, the amendments to the South African Weather Service (SAWS) Act proposed in the SAWS Amendment Bill appear to have become the subject of concern.

In particular, the concerns appear to relate specifically to a proposed provision that prohibits the issue of "...a severe weather or air pollution-related warning without the necessary written permission from the Weather Service" and especially the possible penalty of up to R10 million or 10 years imprisonment for persons found guilty of contravening this provision.

These provisions are sincere attempts to ensure that all South Africans are protected against false, misleading and/or hoax warnings that can result, and have resulted, in undue public panic, related stress and injury, evacuations and/or the mobilisation of emergency services and subsequent fruitless and wasteful expenditure. 

Furthermore, since its establishment, the South African Weather Services has always been the only official provider of "...severe weather-related warnings for South Africa in order to ensure that there is a single authoritative voice in this regard". 

Indeed, it is only the proposal to make this 11 year old provision enforceable that is now causing concern. In other words, although it has effectively been illegal for anyone other than SAWS to issue severe weather-related warnings for South Africa since 2001, it is only now that there are possible criminal consequences for illegal warnings that are being proposed, that concerns are being raised.

To further put these provisions into our current context - one of the accepted impacts of climate change is the possible increase in the frequency, intensity and range of extreme weather events. In order to ensure that we build our resilience to these impacts, we must ensure that our warning systems are efficient, effective and, most importantly, credible. With the real possibility of increasing extreme weather events, the potential for false, misleading and/or hoax warnings significantly undermining public confidence in, and/or appropriate public reaction to, warnings is of real concern.

However, it is also clear from various comments that these proposed provisions are perceived in some quarters as going way beyond its intention as indicated above. It is suggested by commentators that the proposed amendment may actually limit access to weather and air pollution-related information that is in the interest of the general public's health, safety and well-being.

As Parliament has now called for another round of public comment by 12 January 2012, it is highly likely, given these recent concerns around the Bill, that Parliament will request the department to review the perceived problem provisions. Naturally the department will then take a very close look at these concerns and will revert to Parliament with its findings and recommendations. 

One of the important lessons from this is that active public participation is fundamental to good law-making and, if indeed the Bill's honest attempts to protect South Africans from the potential harmful impacts of false, misleading and/or hoax warnings turn out to have unintended negative consequences that can be addressed in the final amendment, then it will be the public who must be thanked for their interest and involvement.

Members of the public are accordingly urged to not only criticise the current draft, but to possibly propose alternative wording to ensure that the intention as indicated above is achieved.

Statement issued by Albi Modise, Department of Environmental Affairs, January 13 2012

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