Friday, January 17, 2020

South Africa’s Energy Grid Wake-Up Call, Part 1: Planning for Failure

The climate crisis and corruption are making the case for switching South Africa to a distributed network powered by renewable energy. This is the first of a three-part series that tells that story.

The warning was as sudden as it was shocking. “We regret and sincerely apologise that stage 4 load shedding will move to Stage 6 load shedding as from 18:00 today, as a result of a shortage of capacity,” South Africa’s national electric utility Eskom announced via social media late one Monday afternoon last month. The cause: damage to infrastructure and coal supplies from heavy rains and flooding in parts of the country. With that, South Africans were given twenty minutes’ notice that Eskom was turning off the lights on more than a third of the country for the indefinite future. Residents, companies, and even municipal utilities for large cities such as Johannesburg were left scrambling to prepare and locate undisclosed schedules for when their areas would experience outages. And, predictably, people took to Twitter to vent their frustration—often, as is the case here in South Africa, through gallows humor.

The cascading effects of a major power shortage were made obvious immediately after Eskom’s announcement. The major telecommunications company Vodacom notified the public that the batteries backing up its cell phone towers might not bridge the gap between load shedding events at a Stage 6 level, potentially leaving people without their primary means of communicating and obtaining information. The byzantine nature of Eskom’s scheduled outages prompted news outlets and app developers to produce their own maps and features to help people figure out how long they would be in the dark.

Here in the City of Cape Town, where I reside and which is recovering from a historic drought, City officials warned that the outages could affect the metropolitan water supply. Portions of the city’s water system were in fact shut down for hours just as people started fixing dinner, as I later heard from a friend in another part of the city with firsthand experience.

Eskom, a massive South African state-owned enterprise, implements intentional rolling power outages, known as load shedding, as a precautionary measure when it determines that demand will outstrip supply, thereby avoiding an overdraw on system capacity that would trigger an unplanned total power failure of the national grid, a calamity that it says would take weeks to rectify. The unique nature of electrical power grids necessitates a minute-by-minute, country-wide assessment of the balance between power generation and largely predictable swings in consumption, which are dictated by the rhythms of daily life. It is an admittedly delicate dance that necessitates quick reactions. Hence the laughably short warning provided to the public last month.

Load shedding has become a burdensome, if occasional, part of life for South Africans over the past decade. However, December’s Stage 6 event was unprecedented in scale and duration, resulting in large swaths of the country experiencing no power for much of a night. Designated load shedding levels beyond Stage 4 hadn’t even been discussed publicly until earlier this year. Stage 8, theoretically the highest and most painful level provided for, would result in half of the country being without power, although some experts say that full system failure could occur even before Stage 8 is reached.

Foremost in the minds of many South Africans is the impact on the economy and livelihoods. South Africa’s economy, the second largest in Africa, has been wobbly over the past several years, hampered by security issues, high income inequality, and corruption. Its electricity woes are not helping. The World Economic Forum has noted the country’s inefficient electricity supply as a challenge to its economy. Load shedding brings an acute dimension to this shortcoming. Altogether, estimates of the impact of load shedding events on South Africa’s economy put the cost in the tens of billions of Rands (billions of U.S. dollars) last year.

In order to get a better sense of the economic impact at the ground level, I got in touch with Paul Rubin, the owner of a local organic bulk foods grocery that I shop at in Cape Town’s City Bowl. When I asked him if he had a minute to share his experience with load shedding as a business owner, he asked if I had an hour. Rubin called the effects of the load shedding crippling, particularly for local stores like his. While a grocery might not strike someone as the most electricity-dependent enterprise, an outage can affect critical elements such a refrigeration and payment systems.  “There’s no warning. It just starts… and it’s a mad scurry to try and survive.” Another local business manager I spoke with echoed Rubin’s sentiment.

The toll is not just economic, but also social and even psychological. Hospitals, schools, and libraries all may be drastically impacted. Traffic lights and streetlamps darken, impacting safety and security. People look on with dread as their cell phone batteries drain down. The modern city and modern life, fueled by electricity, can feel isolating and hostile without it.

The perils of infrastructure failure are distributed unequally in an unequal society. South Africa, you may have heard, has an economic inequality problem. It is in the unenviable position of being world’s reigning Gini Coefficient champion (a common measure inequality). As with other types of infrastructure and public service delivery, the burden of Eskom’s power cuts is borne disproportionately by South Africa’s poor. Larger companies and those living in upscale apartments or in households that can afford diesel generators or solar panels are able to ride out load shedding, albeit with an impact on their wallets. South Africa’s impoverished communities, which were poorly served as a point of policy under the Apartheid era, are now facing power cuts without the resources to mitigate the impacts. Inequality is now enforced by the market as well as the grid.

Eskom’s December foray into uncharted territory was short lived. By the next day, Eskom had reduced the load shedding schedule to Stage 4, and it kept it at a now tame-seeming Stage 2 for most of the remaining week before returning to normal by the weekend. However, industry and official forecasts predict that load shedding will continue to occur for the foreseeable future. As predicted, the country has continued to experience load shedding events, including for much of early January.

In today’s society, where electricity literally powers our way of life, the suddenness of load shedding is more than an inconvenience. Power outages have real consequences on people’s livelihoods, well-being, health, and safety, and their increased frequency and intensity suggests dramatic changes are needed. In order to get there, South Africans need to heed the wake-up call and learn what we can from the past in order to change course. It’s time to stop planning for failure, and instead start planning for the future.

Up next: Part 2, Circuit Overload.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Confronting the City of Cape Town’s PHA “Myths”

What level of condescension is implied in calling something a myth? In his arguments before the Western Cape’s High Court on 15 October, the City of Cape Town’s advocate Ron Paschke laid out a series of what he called myths that he argued underly the case against a proposal to develop 472 hectares of land located in the southern portion of Cape Town’s Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA).

The dispute at issue is between a developer proposing to turn the site into a 15,000-home mixed use community called Oakland City, and the PHA Food and Farming Campaign (PHA Campaign), a grassroots farmers’ organisation that is contesting the proposal. The City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Province are also parties to the case, having sided with the developer in opposition to the PHA Campaign in court. The City and Province both deny that they inappropriately approved aspects of the Oakland City proposal.

All of advocate Paschke’s asserted “myths” are rebuttable, but the following ones in particular (slightly rearranged) reveal fundamental misconceptions regarding the essence of the PHA Campaign’s arguments.

“The Oakland City site is part of the PHA”

Incredibly, the City argued in court that the Oakland City site is not actually part of the PHA, despite a long history of documentation, and even the City’s current proposed heritage zone designation, that indicate otherwise. The Province’s own study describes how since the 1960s the PHA, including the Oakland City site, has been designated as horticultural land.

It was not until the past few years that the City and Province took a number of actions to chip away at the PHA’s boundaries. In particular, the City hangs its hat primarily on a change to its Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework in 2012, presaged by a similar 2011 Provincial decision, that shifted the “urban edge” of the city to include the Oakland City site, thereby severing it from the PHA territory. These actions, the PHA Campaign contends, were unlawful and contrary to national law and policy.

The City’s reliance on the 2011/2012 urban edge shift to support the Oakland City site’s deletion from the PHA is akin to renaming District Six. The City cannot so easily erase the site’s historical and physical, not to mention legal, connection to the PHA. The Oakland City site is by no extent of the imagination urban; rather its use and features follow the trajectory, now disrupted, of the rest of the PHA.

“The Oakland City site is farmland that provides food for Cape Town”

The City and Province argued that none of the Oakland City site has been farmed, verbally footnoting that there has previously been “illegal” farming on a small portion of the land. One reason the land isn’t being farmed right now is that the owner—the developer—will not permit it. This is in contrast to farmed areas on adjacent land also held by developers.

What the City and Province also did not note was that a significant portion of the Oakland City site has been sand dune mined and then neglected, rather than rehabilitated to productive farmland as required under the law. Historically, PHA farmland has been established according to a process of sand dune mining followed by rehabilitation for farming purposes. This process has slowly progressed in patchwork form over the decades. It is therefore unsurprising that portions of the PHA have not yet been farmed.

The City made much in its arguments before the court that the Oakland City site is not currently producing food or jobs, and that it is not suitable for farming. The Oakland City site shares the same general physical, hydrological, and climatic features as the rest of the PHA, including what the Province’s own study states is the best suited land for agriculture within 120 kilometres of the city. Portions of the PHA has been farmed for well over 100 years, long before the introduction of modern fertilizers and water systems that the City argues is necessary for its cultivation. Governmental and non-governmental studies alike demonstrate the importance that the PHA plays in food production for the city, as a producer for particularly food-insecure populations and as regulator of broader market prices for the city.

“Farming is beneficial for the aquifer”

The City argued that farming the Oakland City site would pollute the aquifer with fertilizer and chemical runoff. The City never actually conducted an assessment regarding farming as an alternative to the proposed development. Instead, the government relied on the Oakland City site’s reinvention as an “urban” area to avoid considering farming uses, thanks to the previously mentioned urban edge shift in 2011/2012. This means neither the City nor the Province has properly weighed the costs and benefits of urban development versus farming.

There is evidence that the aquifer is impacted by ecologically damaging farming practices. This is not a reason to stop farming, but instead to shift our farming practices to more sustainable means. Claims that small-scale commercial organic farming cannot work sound very similar to the arguments against the shift to carbon neutrality. To say that we must take action to avoid imperiling the environment and our future is not to say it will be easy, but that does not mean it cannot or should not be done. Moreover, such a shift in farming practices is possible. For example, in Munich, city officials have engaged in a decades-long project to protect their aquifer and source of water through sustainable farming practices above its recharge zone.

“Development is undesirable and will endanger the aquifer”

The City’s advocate made much of the benefit that the development proposal’s 15,000 homes would bring to the city. But are these homes for the poor? Will they house the thousands of people living in informal settlements within and around the PHA? Are they located near existing infrastructure? Will they be efficiently located and address Cape Town’s spatial fragmentation and traffic congestion?

The answer is no. The City’s own analysis concludes that the PHA’s high water table effectively makes subsidized housing on the site cost-prohibitive, and developers are under no obligation to provide any. The development will require completely new infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage pipes, and electrical lines. In a city with 10,000 other well located housing opportunities, and with a damning legacy in spatial segregation, poor service delivery, traffic congestion, and strained public coffers, putting houses in the middle of designated farmland seems like a particularly unsuitable option.

In truth, this development proposal follows a line of poorly planned developments offered under the guise of solving the City’s housing problems, but which in fact perpetuate the social and spatial dislocation of the city. In this manner the Oakland City project mirror’s the ill-fated Wescape project, which proposed thousands of homes in Cape Town’s hinterland within a nuclear fallout area. The PHA, including the Oakland City site, is similarly unsuitable for largescale urban development. One need only to read Crispian Olver’s new book on corruption in Cape Town to get a sense of the fishiness of the Oakland City project proposal.

“The High Court can decide to protect the PHA”

Finally, the City’s counsel also argued that the judge sitting hearing the case is not empowered to question the City’s policy decision with respect to the designation of the Oakland City site as “urban”. This runs in direct contrast to the position the City takes in its most recent amendment to the Municipal Spatial Development Framework, in which essentially defers to the court, stating that if the court rules in the PHA Campaign’s favor, the site should be considered again to be part of the PHA. More broadly, the City and the Province have committed in writing to protecting and investing in the PHA. Their arguments in court suggest otherwise.

Critics of the PHA Campaign complain that it doesn’t represent all farming interests in the PHA. They are correct on that point. The PHA Campaign isn’t interested in repeating mistakes of the past, either with respect to the city’s urban development or harmful farming practices. What the PHA Campaign does embody is a vision for the PHA as supporting Cape Town at the vanguard of sustainable, food-secure, socially just cities.

The City’s asserted myths about the PHA do not hold up against the weight of evidence. More than that, they themselves distort and obscure the harm the City’s actions continue to perpetuate against the interests of its people. Who is really peddling in myths?

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Cape Argus on 17 November, 2019. The full version was subsequently published by BizCommunity on 19 November, 2019.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Reflections on PHA's Day at the Cape Town High Court

It’s been a little over two weeks since the PHA Food and Farming Campaign had its day in court against the developer seeking to develop 472 hectares of the Philippi Horticultural Area. The Cape Town High Court heard both sides in a saga that has been going on for about a decade. In court on the side of the developer were the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Provincial government, who were denying that they inappropriately approved land use decisions regarding the proposed development.

I sat in for both days of the trial. As a PHA Campaign supporter, at times it felt like watching your favorite football team playing, wanting your sheer will to push them to victory. It was hard sitting through the government’s statements. The City in particular made much about the so-called “myths” underlying the PHA Campaign’s case, which of course I found very biased in favor of the City’s position. Fortunately, they allow phones in the courtroom here, and social media provided an outlet during the hearing. (I’ll hopefully be able to share a rebuttal of the City’s arguments soon.)

The PHA Campaign had a healthy presence outside of the court, making clear that there is broad support for its cause. While the PHA Campaign itself organized a strong showing, a number of people answered the general call to the public to show up, which was really heartening to see. There were some creative outlets for protest.

Shortly after the case ended, some commercial farmers from the PHA published a piece clarifying that the PHA Campaign does not represent them. Unsurprisingly, opinions regarding the PHA, even within PHA residents and farmers themselves, is fractious. Nazeer Sonday, the small-scale farmer behind the PHA Campaign, does not ascribe to the mono-crop farming systems used by current commercial farmers, and for that he is often derided as insignificant or not taken seriously. Discounting small-scale farming is a common theme in Big Ag, as is eloquently put by two PHA activists in this recent piece from the Argus. I don’t hold it against these other farmers to clarify their position, and I understand their own hardship farming within the PHA, which, like much of the rest of Cape Town, faces significant security risks. These are compounded in the PHA, which is rural and therefore less monitored, by neglect by the state charged with protecting its people.

I do believe that there is an opportunity to not just save the PHA, but to cultivate it into an example for sustainable peri-urban agriculture. In doing so, I think there is room for everyone to benefit. Hopefully the Cape Town High Court will take the first step by throwing out a speculative attempt to chip away at the PHA.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Could There Be an Environmental Silver Lining in Trade War Disputes?

Its incredible what this bizarro upside-down world of US and global politics will do to someone. Lately I’ve been pondering President Trump’s decisions to impose trade tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports to the US. Not that I take any decision he makes too seriously, given his habit of flip flopping on decisions and making bellicose announcements as negotiation tactics. However, all the press around it has made it hard to avoid (yes, this belies my continued overconsumption of US media from down here in Cape Town).

The point I’ve been considering, though, is whether one can make (or go along with) the “right” decision for the “wrong” reasons. I’ve been pondering this as Trump has reversed course on many policies and institutions that are suspect from the perspective of certain elements within the environmental movement—from over-reliance on foreign imports to deference to the WTO. This mirrors the Brexit question in the sense that exit from the EU could potentially provide the UK with more sovereignty over national decisions, including those concerning the environment (although admittedly UK environmental policy has probably benefited from EU nudging).

The strain of environmentalism that potentially (perhaps only theoretically) aligns with some of these isolationist policies is bioregionalism and the self-reliance movements, which argue for increased control of and reliance over local resources, goods, and services. In this way, the re-assertion of local (or national) control over political and economic decisions, and state support—directly or indirectly—of local economies seems to align bioregionalism and isolationist thinking against neoliberalist globalization. Could it be that enviros might get behind some of these economic “isolationist” policies, or at least leverage their outcomes?

It can be a little concerning to consider how fine a line there might be between hyper-nationalism and bioregionalism. I recently came across reference to “Swadeshi”, an Indian anti-colonial movement advocated for by Gandhi that argued for domestic production of goods rather than reliance on British imports. Molly Scott Cato discusses the deeper meaning of the term, which literally means “of one’s own country” in Sanskrit. Cato quotes Gandhi as describing a far broader interpretation: “It does not mean merely the use of what is produced in one’s own country. That meaning is certainly there in swadeshi. But there is another meaning implied in it which is far greater and much more important. Swadeshi means ‘reliance on our own strength’”. (Cato, 133). [Note: I don’t pretend to be an expert on Swadeshi or its nationalist or political implications—I speak largely from a place of ignorance but curiosity regarding the term’s etymology.]

That seems like a nice interpretation, but how can we be sure people don’t make use of the literal meaning in a xenophobic manner? Cato anticipates the potentially isolationist, nationalist, or even xenophobic implications of a bioregional or swadeshi approach by distinguishing between globalization, which essentially focuses on exploitation and competition, and internationalism, which is more cooperative and collaborative while preserving self-reliance. Again, its an important (and good!) distinction, but not one clearly derived from the literal meaning of the words used to label these concepts.

Back to Trump’s tariffs. Using them to extract trade concessions that allow the US to export products such as industrial mono-cropped soybeans and corn-fed beef is probably not the most environmentally friendly policy (snark). The measures that seek to help US farmers weather the storm aren’t any better, which, as I understand them, essentially incentivize farmers to plant whatever tariff-affected crop the government has agreed to purchase at market rate only to get the subsidy! This is insanity, and the farmers know it. As one US farmer on the radio recently put it, he doesn’t want a subsidy, he wants a market for his crops.

So why can’t we use the tariff war as an opportunity to create local markets that incentivize farmers to plant crops that are consumed in the US, rather than crops that we can’t export to China and instead have the US government buy to destroy? Is there potential for partnership on this polarizing issue?

I’m concerned that many Democrats and liberals who might otherwise take advantage of this are blinded by its Trumpian glaze. Certainly in the media, the focus is on the harm to farmers and the potential economic chaos that tariffs will create, rather than the opportunities. Of course, there is good reason for this, given that any economic downturn could hurt large swaths of the US. Beyond that, I’m also concerned that supporting the tariffs is supporting Trump’s economic policies more broadly, which are decidedly not (or are they anti?) environmentally or socially enlightened. Even still, it seems too defensive and simplistic to focus on the harm to the economy without considering, and even working towards, dismantling some of the global capitalist system that, at least in its current form, is so environmentally destructive.

Thus, back to my initial quandary: could I support tariffs if I thought they could be used to promote self-reliance, or swadeshi principles, as those concepts are understood by bioregionalists? Should I be looking at the tariff war in this light, rather than in reaction to Trump’s self-serving motives? Presidential nominee and former vice-president Joe Biden recently included the prospect of using tariffs as part of his climate change strategy. Perhaps Trump has opened a door previously jammed shut. Perhaps this is the silver lining to the havoc he is wreaking on the “establishment”. Or perhaps to go along is just doing a deal with the devil.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Happy Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! There's a lot of reason to worry about Mother Earth and our relationship with her, but I think its also important to inspire hope and celebrate success (as incomplete and limited as it might be) when it comes to our environmental plight. For that reason, I'm linking to my recent article for CityLab covering how Cape Town survived Day Zero last year. I have found inspiration in the progress Capetonians have made in reducing water consumption, and in how people can adapt behaviorally to reduce over-consumption. Lessons like this are important for us. Afterall, Earth will likely be around a lot longer than we will--we're the ones we need to save!