Tuesday, December 4, 2018

From Water to Electricity - The Resource-Constrained Future of South Africa (and the Globe)?

Sunday evening. I sat out on my apartment’s back patio, watching a silent armada of silver clouds move slowly over Table Mountain, shielding the city from the setting sun. Dusk comes fairly late to Cape Town at this time of the year, but still early enough that, at half past seven, the City Bowl’s street lights began to awaken from their daylong slumber. Slowly, as the bluish glow of the sky gave way to dark, a comforting smattering of twinkling yellow specks of light emerged from the urban landscape.

Although I often enjoy this view, my observation that night wasn’t completely casual. Earlier in the weekend, the City of Cape Town and news outlets had warned that the city, like the rest of the country, would face rolling blackouts due to insufficient power supply to the national electricity grid. According to the City’s loadshedding schedule, power to Cape Town’s city centre would be shut off at 8pm that night.

Taking a big picture view, the timing was incredible. Based on the first healthy rainy season in several years, the City had just announced a reduction in severe water use restrictions that had hung over the city for nearly a year. Within the same day, South Africa’s parastatal electricity provider, Eskom, announced new rolling blackouts across the country due to coal shortages and maintenance issues. While the cause of Eskom’s dwindling coal supplies are largely due to government and corporate corruption, the consequences, as with the Western Cape’s drought, are likely longterm and bring into focus the real possibility of a future with tightening resource constraints. It appears that just as one resource crisis loosened its grip, another is coming into focus.

As I sat, I wondered what exactly I was about to experience. How much of the glistening lights I was viewing would disappear? Would the blackout happen all at once, or in stages? Which parts would go completely black, and which ones, for reasons of governmental priority or private investment, would stay alight? Failures like these, planned or not, are a unique opportunity for observing the infrastructure networks that otherwise remain largely hidden from our view. As with water, food, and other basic resources, we take for granted the system of electrical power upon which our modern lives are totally dependent. It is only when a link in the chain fails and these systems stumble are we compelled to contemplate how they work... or don’t.

Infrastructure failures can also reveal the power dynamics, wealth distribution, and political priorities of a place. To what extent, I wondered, would the back up batteries and generators pick up the slack in this, the economic and political center of the city? How prepared, how energy self-sufficient, how well resourced were the properties around me? To what extent could elements of this city insulate themselves from the crisis?

The severe drought of earlier this year reflected both the best and the most troubling aspects of our relationship with our environment and each other. Capetonians mustered admirably to cut their water consumption in half, while the municipal government (belatedly) wrestled with a city-wide contingency plan and (more commendably) sought to inform the public about the nature of the crisis. Sadly--or perhaps fortunately?--all areas of the city faced the threat of water shortage that normally only the poorest areas regularly face. For many, dealing with the drought meant resorting to private boreholes, a somehow typically South African solution to the failure of government service: protecting those with means while impoverishing the collective resources available to those without.

Would access to electricity would play out the same way? Thankfully, the City has said it will take into account the impact of electricity failure on the areas of Cape Town most exposed to crime and violent gang activity. But uncertainty regarding the provision of power will likely drive those who can afford it to find their own way out of darkness, which I imagine means less collective dependence on public provision of resources. Something about that, likely the potential for unequal access, strikes me as troubling.

This all says a lot about the future. The future is likely to be a place where resources such as electricity and water cannot be taken for granted and are in more sporadic supply. It is also a period that, as it stands, will be experienced by a country, and a global population, with radically extreme economic and developmental vantage points. Where public infrastructure systems fail, where government institutions cannot deliver services, and where wealthy interests feel safer depending on self-sufficiency, we may expect a schism between those who are insulated from the increasing pressure on resources and those who are more vulnerable. Unfortunately, it seems to me, insulating the wealthy from the resource constraints facing the rest raises the long-term social, economic, environmental and psychological costs for everyone. In South Africa, the impacts of and responses to environmental crises preface what a more unequal world can expect when the pressures of climate change and resource extraction hit other more stable parts of the world with greater force.

As it turned out, my wait on Sunday night was, happily, for naught. Lights continued to ping on, and I began to realize that, for whatever reason, the loadshedding was not reaching this corner of South Africa (although it did others). I watched a television screen flicker through a far-off apartment window. In the distance, at the base of Table Mountain, the lights of residential areas continued to twinkle. I watched the normal traffic (its own resource story) continue busily along. But with the long-term threat of more loadshedding to come, I’m guessing this won’t be my last chance.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Paths Towards Technological Innovation and Sustainability in Rural Rwanda

Ironic (or perhaps karmic?) that my last post was on the Metrorail. Things have only seemed to get worse for passenger rail in Cape Town. Last week there were more apparently coordinated arson attacks, which came along with coverage of atrocious on-time performance. My own experience getting robbed at gunpoint midday during the week on the Southern Line a few weeks back has very much contributed to a personal pessimism regarding PRASA’s ability to serve passengers safely and efficiently.

But rather than dwelling on that, I’d like to share some thoughts about the trip to Rwanda I’ve just returned from, where I was working on research looking at the implementation of drone technology there. While the focus of that research does not precisely line up with this this blog, I nevertheless found myself considering afresh some themes around sustainability and development, particularly in the context of self-suffciency.

Rwanda is an interesting country for many reasons, not least because of the government’s mission to turn around the narrative regarding Africa and development. As I saw throughout my trip, the government there is working to promote new technologies that can, in the cliche’d parlance of development-speak, “leapfrog” the path of technological development followed in Global North countries. The mobile phone is held up as the best example of this--this technology is ubiquitous in Africa, which never developed the landline infrastructure that presaged mobile communications technology in places like the US and Europe. From common wifi access throughout the capital Kigali, to an expanding medical drone network serving rural areas, Rwanda is chasing the concept of technological leapfrogging, and seems to be succeeding due in part to the unified and centralized hard and soft power that the ruling party exerts.

On the other hand, it is clear, particularly in the country’s rural areas, how poor Rwanda is by conventional standards. Subsistence agriculture is the dominant form of living in the country, and access to capital very limited. I learned in the rural area I visited that a primary savings/investment vehicle is the keeping of farm animals, who are not kept to be eaten but to be sold if a life event requires cash. Living is very basic, difficult, and often tenuous.

In many ways, rural life in Rwanda could be said to reflect an ideal of "deep" ecological movements, including a self-provisional economic approach best advocated for (in my opinion) by Molly Scott Cato. A self-provisional economy is one in which people primarily take care of their own basic human needs. The idea is that this sort of living reduces consumption and avoids over-dependence on outside resources, goods, and services, thereby reducing the ecological impact and economic cost of sustaining massive centralized markets, practices, and systems. For instance, this style reduces or eliminates reliance on industrialized monocrop agriculture, while can be supported only through enormous resources inputs and result in similarly enormous outputs, that contribute to imbalanced ecologies.

I like to think that I’m not naive about the costs of moving towards a self-provisioning lifestyle, and I believe that many of these costs are offset by the benefits that urbanites like myself have lost in the transition towards modern lifestyles. However, it is hard for me to say that I would trade my modern life of convenience in for the tough lifestyle of rural Rwanda (although, then again, I may not know it well enough to judge). Part of this, no doubt, is highly cultural, but part of it is the real benefits I have enjoyed through centralized modern structures, including education, access to technologies, access to capital, etc.

Can the best of both these worlds be merged? Can they be made complementary in a manner that allows us to move towards self-sufficiency and an environmentally sound needs-based approach while not giving up the value, and yes, some of the convenience, of our technologically sophisticated modernity? I’m still optimistic, that it can be done, but I’m less certain about how it can be done practically, transitionally, and equitably. I’m also aware of the enormous obstacles, practical and psychological, that we have put up in our way.

As to whether the Rwandan government and Rwandan society at large sees this, I am also uncertain. Are technologically-advanced projects such as Rwanda’s medical drone network seen as a vehicle for supporting or replacing Rwanda’s rural and self-provisioning character? From my conversations with Rwandan stakeholders it appears that there is a dedication to serving rural populations, but there is also a desire to respond to demographic changes that are urbanizing Rwanda’s population. There is also the siren call of modern living, with its convenience and luxury, which I saw plenty of in Kigali. The extent to which Rwandan officials would like to protect what I would call its its self-sufficiency developmental advantage is unclear to me, but is something I would like to follow up on as the research progresses.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Metrorail up in flames

Cape Town’s rail public transport is literally going up in flames. For the second Saturday in a row, in the historic heart of Cape Town, billowing clouds of tar-black smoke have marred the otherwise clear blue winter sky. The source: arson attacks on passenger trains at Cape Town Station. This latest fire marks the sixth act of arson on Cape Town’s Metrorail system in the six weeks, and the third event in the past week.

The impact of the fire damage has been tremendous. Dozens of railcars, tens of millions of Rands of damage, and a 30%+ reduction in passengers over the past year, which will create even more issues for the struggling parastatal agency. Metrorail’s failure will also have a huge impact on the City’s long-term plans to address important issues of congestion, climate change, and economic activity. Earlier this year, the City came out with a Municipal Spatial Planning Framework whose long-term vision was premised on a functional rail system. While some questioned why the City would plan around a rail system that has long operated inadequately, I agree with the City that any long-term vision must be built around the rail system. It is an asset too valuable to discard, particularly in light of the imperative to move towards public transport and away from private automobiles.

There are a number of theories regarding who is behind the attacks. One, promoted by the civic organization #UniteBehind, is that elements within Metrorail itself are trying to destabilize the organization in order to enable continued corruption within the organization. Another is that the minibus taxi organizations, many of whom at times have used mafia-like strongarm tactics to maintain their economic power, are seeking a competitive advantage. It is hard for me to not look towards the minibus taxi organizations, which are well-placed to benefit from a hamstrung rail network, the only effective alternative for many people commuting from the township areas to the economic centers of Cape Town.

Arson isn’t Metrorail’s only problem, with vandalism and theft also having a big impact on operations. However, the acts of arson, I would argue, are in a different category. While there may be an economic motivation for them, and a desire to sabotage Metrorail, these acts seem more akin to terrorism. The symbolism of huge black smoke clouds emanating from Cape Town Station, for the City’s political and economic elite to see, seems intended to elicit a sense of fear, a threat, an assertion of power and control.

In addition to horror, I watched these clouds from my balcony this Saturday with a great sense of sadness. The people who are hurt most by this are marginalized, hardworking people who can least afford it. Whatever shortsighted goals this machiavellian act will achieve, it will almost surely also deepen the entrenched economically and racially based transportation segregation in Cape Town, which in turn will make it even harder to move towards an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable future. One can only hope this may instead serve as the nadir for rail in Cape Town, and galvanize reform and support for this much-needed service.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Let’s Make Cape Town’s Current Water Restrictions Permanent

The skies have opened over Cape Town and the rest of the Western Cape during the past few weeks, providing much needed relief from the ongoing severe drought the region has faced over the last several years. Lush green fields and forests and streaming waterfalls off of Table Mountain signal a return to rainfall patterns that are more normal for this time of year. This month’s rains have catapulted dam levels to over 42% capacity, higher than this time last year and 2016, although still far below recent historical levels.

The auspicious weather has resulted in the hopeful, if guarded, pronouncement by the City of Cape Town’s Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson that ‘Day Zero’ will likely be avoided in both 2018 and 2019. This is assuming, however, that the rains continue and that existing water restriction levels are maintained.

The City’s current water restrictions are, by many standards, exceptional within a modern developed context. For residential households, whose usage constitutes up to 70 percent of the City’s overall usage, these restrictions mean limiting daily consumption to 50 litres of water per person per day. While the City’s population has yet to achieve this goal, it has consistently come close over the past calendar year, halving domestic water consumption compared to before the drought. For the sake of comparison, in the wake of California’s own historic drought a few years ago, Californians’ daily consumption in 2017 averaged between 272-363 litres, roughly five times that of Capetonians.

Notwithstanding the recovering dam levels and Capetonians’ heroic conservation measures, short-term projections and long-term scientific forecasts indicate that returning to previous water consumption levels would likely imperil Cape Town’s water security. Even under current consumption levels, improbably high sustained rainfall would be needed over the next year in order to erase the impact of the recent drought. Capetonian poet and water writer Helen Moffett writes that expecting this amount of rain would be “like rolling the dice, coming up with six, and assuming that the next eleven times it rolls, it's going to come up six again.” Yet some observers expect only an averagely wet winter, meaning the odds look even worse for gambling that this will be an exceptional year. More likely, it will take years of “average” rainfall to return to normal dam levels. In the longer term, the climatologists forecast a 2-17 percent reduction in annual run-off by 2050, meaning that the Western Cape could see a reduction in daily yield of 160 million litres, the equivalent to roughly one quarter to one third of daily output today.

With these predictions of the future, and with the experience and knowledge that the past six months of drought restrictions have brought, why not take the bold move to establish the current restrictions as the new normal? The restrictions, along with an impressive citywide advertising campaign, have helped bring about behavioural changes in the way individuals and households manage water, changes that could be reinforced by making the current expectations permanent.

The City and Provincial governments may risk losing these water conservation gains based on near-term policy decisions. A return to more lenient water restriction levels will undoubtedly lower expectations about conservation and lead to increased consumption. On the other hand, continuing to justify the current restrictions as part of an emergency response to the unprecedented drought may fatigue citizens as they tire of maintaining a perpetual sense of urgency about water resources. Now is the time for the government to pivot from framing the current restrictions as extraordinary to establishing them as the expected baseline. Re-writing the water regulations to require current conservation efforts as the new normal will help to do this.

Obviously some of the current 6b restrictions would have to be adjusted in order to allow for responsible activities once the immediate severity of the drought has been overcome. The City has already shown its ability to adapt its regulatory approach in response to lessons learned during this drought. In addition, adoption of regulations is not sufficient; enforcement, publicity and investment must follow, while the government must also prioritize improving water access to those communities who lack it. However, now is the time to take the momentum that has propelled the City to the forefront of water conservation stewardship and leverage it to establish a new standard for water responsibility.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Designs for peri-urban agricultural settlements

A few weeks ago I was inspired to draw up some spatial designs related to my work with the PHA Food and Farming Campaign (see my previous post for background on the Campaign). This occurred while listening to a landless farmer at a Campaign meeting as she related that people in her community wanted to know for who or what we were protecting the Philippi Horticultural Area. Her concern about potential confusion over ultimate goals of the Campaign prompted me to want to depict one of the Campaign’s primary proposals, which is providing smallholding farms to black landless farmers in the area.

As a basis for investigation I took a roughly 75 hectare area in the southwest corner of the PHA (previously approved for suburban development) and drew what the farms/homes/erfs might look like from several different scales and perspectives, using the existing physical context, the Campaign’s proposal criteria, and a few guiding spatial principles (derived from permaculture and urban/rural development design sources).

This sort of exercise is a really useful process to evaluate certain spatial design proposals and to convey a vision. There are a lot of assumptions built in here that others in the Campaign will have to evaluate and critique, but to me it seems important to be able to start articulating some of the discussed counter-proposals to suburban sprawl, both to test the ideas and to (hopefully!) provide inspiration. Obviously there is a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere!