Livable waterways for Cape Town

Published: 3 October 2018

Deltares is platform partner since 2015 of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative (100RC) pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. This initiative is supporting cities across the world to face up to the physical, social and economic challenges of the 21st century. This is not just a question of resilience to ‘shocks’ such as earthquakes, landslides and floods but also to stress factors like food and water shortages. Recently Dimmie Hendriks (groundwater and drought specialist) and Hans Gehrels (urban water resilience expert) on behalf of Deltares, joined the Collaborative Workshop (CoLab) Cape Town organized by 100RC. Herewith they explain the situation and provide a view of the way out.

Water is key

The City of Cape Town has suffered from extreme drought for the last three years in a row. As a result, the major surface water reservoirs that form the main water supply for the city were nearly exhausted in the first months of 2018. Severe water use restrictions were imposed on the citizens of Cape Town (limit of 50 litres per person per day) as well as on the industry.

As a response to the water shortage, large amounts of private boreholes were installed. These boreholes can lead to additional ecological risks because of the occurrence of uncontrolled groundwater abstraction and groundwater pollution. From a social point of view the same boreholes can also exacerbating the inequality between those who can and cannot afford the installation.

This demonstrates that the problem is not only the issue of insufficient water availability resulting from too heavy reliance on a single source of drinking water, being the reservoirs. But very much a wider, societal problem of increasing water demand, lack of social cohesion and equity, slowed down economic development, ad-hoc planning and decision making, and absence of sustainable funding mechanisms.

Well aware of the possibility that such droughts are likely to hit again, the city of Cape Town therefore wants to improve water resilience for the increasing number of citizens and industries. Beyond the very successful short term communication campaign, water use restrictions and smart water metering, the city of Cape Town feels the urge to develop long term solution strategies for urban resilience that includes a sustainable balance between water availability and the demand for water. Important ingredients are inclusiveness, collective responsibility and combined efforts of the municipality, the citizens, businesses and the industries. Moreover, another way of experiencing and perceiving urban water is needed to make Cape Town a water resilient or water sensitive city. Richard Nell (hydrologist at the city of Cape Town,): “We have to integrate the rivers into the urban planning and design of the city, including linkages to green spaces.”

For example, currently houses are built with the backside to the river and the infrastructure for example roads, sidewalks, recreation areas and parks are not aligned with the waterways. Many citizens regard the rivers and canals of Cape Town as waste pits. Because of this, all kind of waste is accumulating in the waterbodies. Next to the water management challenge this is also a health issue for the municipality.

Promising propositions

During the 100RC CoLab, teams of experts have developed various promising propositions that can help the city of Cape Town to reduce drought risks and to deal with negative side effects. One of the teams (University of Cape Town, City of Cape Town, Umvoto, 100RC and Deltares) suggested that an overall framework for urban development is needed that fundamentally restructures and redefines the approach to urban water in Cape Town.

Ffion Atkins (groundwater expert, Umvoto,): “This year we have been working very hard with the city of Cape Town to delineate the local Cape Flat aquifer and to design deep artificial groundwater recharge systems along the coast. Overall, more effort is needed to design and implement shallow groundwater recharge and to make a long term plan for our groundwater resources.”

From left to right: Richard Nell (Head Stormwater, City of Cape Town), Fitsumbrhan Tsegaye (CRO Addis Ababa), Dimmie Hendriks (Deltares), Ffion Atkins (Scientist, Umvoto Africa)

Central in such framework are increasing space for waterways and natural habitats in Cape Towns’ 13 catchments. The ideas are harvesting and cleaning of polluted storm water and collective local water buffering, including ground water. Such developments can supply water in dry periods, improve water quality, increase the liveability of the city and create opportunities for small local businesses such as vegetable gardens. This way Cape Town is making the waterways as the skeleton of a water sensitive city and also creates possibilities for healthy urban mobility.

Engagement with the citizens

Building a water resilient city should be done step by step, starting with the construction of an overall framework and some local show cases as alluring examples for other city quarters and districts. Gareth Morgen (Deputy Resilience Officer of Cape Town): “The municipality tried to do too much by itself. Everybody in the city has a responsibility. We have to talk about roles and responsibilities”.

The initiative of locals and local communities is very important for successful development and engagement; the framework should not be imposed upon the citizens in a top down manner, rather should the city of Cape Town enable citizens to develop their area in accordance with a flexible overall framework. Kevin Winter (professor at the University of Cape Town): “The city should not overinvest in rolling out a water resilience framework over the city. It is better to enable the people to come up with good plans in their community and give them space to realize it.”

Radical change

The idea described by the team of experts was well received by Cape Town officials, 100RC resilience officials, other CoLab participants, including resilience officers from Los Angeles, Mexico City and Addis Ababa. These positive responses encouraged the expert group to formulate a project proposal and start realizing the ambitions of Cape Town and its citizens to become a water sensitive and resilient city. The proposed approach may have potential not only for Cape Town, but also for other cities that face water risks in South Africa and around the world, such as Los Angeles and Mexico City or the 53 other cities that were identified previously as facing similar drought risks as the city of Cape Town.

From left to right: Martine Sobey ( 100RC), Kevin Winter (University of Cape Town), Dimmie Hendriks and Hans Gehrels (Deltares), Richard Nell (Head Stormwater, City of Cape Town)