Friday, December 21, 2018

What’s it Take for Cape Town to Clean Up Its Mess? Let’s Start By Rethinking Waste

“The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don’t.” -Joseph Jenkins

It’s no secret that Cape Town’s picturesque beaches are some of its crown jewels, their images plastered on the front of many a tourist pamphlet and magazine cover. Spread out over long arching coasts, tucked within coves, or squeezed between the vastness of converging oceans and exponentially rising mountains, they provide a stunning contrast to the blues and greens of the water on one side and opposing urban landscape and undulating terrain on the other. Their allure brings thousands of residents and tourists alike to them for enjoyment and adventure. Beyond them, the water stretches out towards the horizon, as if to the ends of the earth.

Perhaps it is because the ocean seems like a limitless entity that we choose to treat it as such. Ironically, some of Cape Town’s most coveted and fetching beaches--Camps Bay, Green Point, Hout Bay--look out onto what are essentially the city’s septic system. By design, massive pipes located at these arresting areas pump millions of litres of the city’s raw sewage out into the ocean.

If you spend time along Cape Town’s coastline, you can sense these systems, literally. It’s a fairly normal occurrence for me, depending on the winds, to take in the smell of sewage while passing along a certain point in the Green Point promenade. The smell’s general location marks the proximity of the otherwise innocuous or cleverly hidden shoreline infrastructure, the departure point for our sewage’s seabound voyage. Kayakers and professional photographers know its indicia by sight, apparently, having documented great brown plumes from both near and afar (after all, a picture is worth a thousand words).

Contrary to the illusion engineered by the architects and designers of our infrastructure, the byproducts of our consumption don’t disappear altogether when they leave our sight. Almost unthinkingly, we use the ocean as a massive repository for many things we’d rather not deal with, including the unmentionable contribution that every one of us makes basically daily: our excrement. Every day, the City of Cape Town helps us flush hundreds of millions of litres of water soiled with our literal crap (and many other more metaphorical types of crap) into the ocean. Much of it passes through water treatment facilities, which separate out solids that are deposited in massive detention lagoons. However, water treated at these facilities retains polluting concentrations of nitrates, phosphates, salts, and organic particulates, which cause environmental damage in the volume and form we dispatch them. Treated water may also include, at lower levels, whatever other non-biological materials we decide to pour down our drains or stormwater ditches, as well as the chemicals used at the treatment facilities themselves. A smaller fraction of our used water, still tens of millions of litres a day, flows untreated directly out into the open ocean. Sometimes, predictably, it promptly flows right back to the sandy shore. Although the City asserts that the impacts are undetectable, local scientists have found otherwise.

And that’s the system when its working properly. At times, particularly during flooding, Cape Town’s water treatment facilities overflow, releasing raw sewage into rivers and ultimately to the sea. In high density and under-serviced informal settlement areas, lack of adequate sanitation combined with vulnerability to flooding means that untreated sewage runs freely from these areas as well.

Urban water use isn’t even the worst contributor to water pollution. In areas of farming, which includes much of the Western Cape, the exodus of materials flowing into the ocean include artificially produced fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and the topsoil itself, which drains away due to farming techniques that untether it from the ground. These contributions, in the concentrations that we create, are a leading cause of water pollution and can dramatically alter the terrestrial and marine ecosystems through which they run.

But in many ways the closest and most intimate of these pollutants, to me and to you, is our own excrement. Our modern sanitation system is an incredible thing--and I mean incredible in its most horrendous, ridiculous, insane sense. Modern sanitation systems use massive amounts of clean water, a critical and limited resource, to flush away our byproducts in unmanageable concentrations to places unequipped to deal with them, through a complex and highly centralized system over which we have virtually no direct control. And we hardly even notice. “The flush toilet,” the ecocentrist Paul Kingsnorth writes, “is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. . . . You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food that created it in the first place” (92).

The system, once revealed and considered, appears highly problematic, at least to me. But, you might respond, our human waste, my waste, must go somewhere. Where should it go?

Embedded in that question (which I have admittedly attributed to you, my dear straw man/woman), is a central fallacy at the heart of our waste problem: the concept waste itself. In fact, there is no such thing. Or at least, there need not be, if one reframes how we perceive nasties such as urine and feces. As Joesph Jenkins notes, “waste is not found in nature — it’s strictly a human concept, a result of our own ignorance” (22). We characterize our byproducts as “material with no inherent value that is discarded and has no further use” (25). In fact, there is incredible value in our urine and feces, as Jenkins explores in depth in his book The Humanure Handbook.

The key to unlocking this value? Composting. Composting, when properly conducted, converts all forms of biological matter into nutrient rich soil that sustains healthy plant life, and thus, our lives. In the process it destroys harmful bacteria, viruses, and other possible pathogens more effectively and economically than any other commercially feasible and practically accessible system. This is done largely, although not completely, through prolonged exposure to heat generated internally through aerobic bacterial activity. Like a large mass of people steaming up the inside of a car or room, the activity of microbes in compost heaps will warm up the internal temperature to surprising levels. “Hot” composting, i.e. compost heaps generally of a sufficiently large mass (e.g. square meter or larger), under the right conditions will easily generate sufficient heat to kill off pathogens. Constant temperatures at or above the 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit), will kill practically all pathogens within a month, and 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) will do so in a day (see Jenkins, 167, 174). Hot compost bins can often far exceed these temperatures. Smaller composting piles at lower temperatures can also effectively break down organic material and remove pathogens, although the time scale will likely be much longer. In any event, in order to cycle through the full gamut of biochemical processes and obtain the complete transformational benefits, it is important to maintain a compost pile for one to two years before use for planting, particularly if composting potentially pathogenic materials.

While composting in conventionally “modern” contexts is often narrowly aimed at kitchen scraps and yard cuttings, it is entirely effective for converting all types of organic matter (again, when properly done). Human feces and urine can be unhealthy and dangerous to us and the environment if not handled correctly. But if treated correctly as a potential resource, it can be, as Jenkins says “a valuable organic resource material rich in soil nutrients” that “originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil” (28). Of course, it is especially important to compost excrement correctly, due to the particularly harmful potential of pathogens that reside in our feces (fresh urine is generally sterile). This means maintaining the right mass, composition, air circulation, temperature, and dampness. But the potential for completely eliminating this and other organic waste-streams from our lives, while saving water and producing something of high value, all at relatively low cost, seems incredibly promising.

So, why aren’t we moving towards this? For one, there are the social conventions about cleanliness and propriety that prevent us from even publicly discussing our own crap, let alone actively handling it in an environmentally responsible way. This limitation, which is tied up in our conceptualization of waste, is both self-induced as well as socially-reinforced. Fortunately, the water crisis inched many in Cape Town towards a more serious consideration of how to reframe waste as resource. How to handle waste has become an acceptable (if still not comfortable) public topic of conversation, and writers, businesses, and public figures have done their part to normalize it (my favorite example is Cape Town writer and poet Helen Moffet). Local groups like the Guerilla House have also stepped up, providing classes on humanuring and composting (which I have yet to attend but am looking forward to in the future). However, the taboo factor is still massive, as are issues of racism and social equity embedded in the city’s waste management system that, as always, complicate the issue further.

The other factor, of course, is the practical constraints of operating in a highly centralized system designed around a water-intensive waste removal model. The infrastructure systems that supply us with resources and remove our byproducts are hardwired around the mindset of waste and plentiful water supply. Nearly all formal homes and buildings have been designed to accommodate the toilet and trash bin, not the compost heap. Meanwhile, the densities of many townships limit the amount of land available. Building and health codes combine to reinforce the physical infrastructure, as do municipal budgets, policing, health services, etc. Our food systems, from our diets to our packaging, similarly militate against composting.

This is the frustrating part—feeling trapped, wanting to make a change, willing to make a commitment, but unable to see how to act within a largely incompatible system. The entire city is locked into the system, needing to devote huge resources to a system that demands them, and making impractical serious investment in supporting an alternative compost-based system.

This is, really, the modern predicament, and it’s difficult to see a way out. A prerequisite, however, is the shift in our minds from thinking waste to thinking resource. There’s no other way, because the system itself is built on a mindset that makes fundamentally flawed assumptions about the value of our resources and the capacity to sustain our lifestyle. Until we allow ourselves to reconceptualize our waste, we will lack the incentive and perspective to retool our systems. Cape Town’s enormous resource and service challenges, spawning both from environmental limitations and massive societal inequality, provide the opportunity, and potentially the incentive, to support this mind shift. On the other hand, it also complicates these processes.

Where does all this leave me? At the moment, peeing in the compost bin, guiltily trashbagging my cat’s litter, and pondering whether my eight square meter balcony could handle humanuring (which I doubt, although I still daydream). I’ve got no good answers, except to continually reflect on my place in this mess, and to search for opportunities where I can assert control over my own metabolic cycle. And potentially second-guessing whether to test the water the next time I’m at the beach...

[Disclaimer: Please do your own research on composting, including humanure composting, before trying it yourself.]

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!

Friday, May 4, 2018

New PHA Study - Salvation or Political Cover?

It has the best agricultural conditions within 120 km of Cape Town, but it isn’t the vineyards of Constantia or Somerset West. It contains fragments of some of the most critically endangered natural habitat in the region, but it isn’t found at the peaks of Table Mountain National Park. It holds among the best, most stable supply of usable water in the metropolitan area, but it isn’t Silvermine Dam or Newlands Springs. It is the southern portion of Cape Town’s Philippi Horticultural Area (“PHA”), and, unlike these other iconic features of Cape Town, it is the site for proposed and approved developments that would destroy these unique qualities.

That’s what the Western Province Department of Agriculture’s newest study focusing on the PHA confirmed last week. And while it’s findings reflect these key insights, the conclusions and strategy proposed going forward fails to advocate for full protection of this area. Instead, the study defers to land use decisions made by the City of Cape Town to allow redevelopment of nearly a third of this land into suburban development.

The study highlights the PHA’s unique importance as an agricultural and natural oasis within the metropolitan area of the Cape Town. With respect to agriculture, the area’s unique combination of climate, water and soil make it ideal for farming. The area also sits on top of the thickest and deepest part of the Cape Flats Aquifer, which holds billions of litres of water and has largely been untapped.

Within the PHA, the southernmost portion, which abuts the community of Strandfontein Village and False Bay, is the best of the best in terms of agricultural, natural, and water resources. According to the study, the southern PHA contains the best aquifer recharge areas in the City. That is also where the last remaining fragments of the intricate dune system that once covered most of the Cape Flats remain. The study finds that the dune thicket flora located in this area helps provide “an ecological link within the Cape Flats District.”

The study flags that the City’s land use decisions, particularly the approval of two major development applications in the south, has destabilised the policy certainty around the area. The Oaklands City development, which encompasses 470 hectares in the southeast PHA and has been fully approved by the City, and the UVest development in the southeast PHA, reflect the attractiveness of the PHA for greenfield urban development. The fact that the City rezoned the area to benefit these developments indicates that it is trailing developers, rather than leading development decisions in the City. Changes to the City’s spatial planning documents in 2011 and 2014 carved out large chunks of the PHA exactly where these developments were to take place. The City’s most recent Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework reflects this course of action, designating these areas as “urban development” rather than “high potential and unique agricultural land” as is the case with the rest of the PHA.

Given the study’s findings regarding the agricultural, environmental, and socio-economic importance of the PHA, and particularly the southern portion under threat of development, it is unsurprising that its findings conflict with the urban development activity occurring in this area. The study notes that “[t]he southern portion of the PHA has the highest agricultural potential and its loss to non-agricultural-related development is of serious concern and is not supported by the findings of this Study.” Regarding future plans for the city that focus urban development in areas other than the PHA, the study registers its “strong concern over planned private sector development in the southern portion of the PHA as they appear to fall outside of the City’s spatial investment targets and are located far from any planned public transport infrastructure.”

And yet, notwithstanding the contradiction between the study’s findings and the City’s conduct with respect to the southern PHA, the study incoherently states that “[t]he protection of the PHA for horticultural and sand mining purposes is consistent with the spatial development plans of the CCT and the WCG.” How is the City’s decision to allow suburban development of a third of the PHA, and its most agriculturally valuable portion, consistent with the study’s findings?

In public presentations, the Province and its consultants have argued that nothing can be done with respect to developments in the south that have already been approved. As a result, they contend that this area is already, unfortunately, lost. DA Provincial MPP and standing committee chairperson on economic opportunity and agriculture Beverley Shafer, commenting on the Oaklands City development, contended that nothing could be done in a “free market” to stop these developments once approval had been given, and inferred that to suggest otherwise would be to advocate authoritarianism.

This argument reflects the government’s abdication of its regulatory role in urban development for the benefit of its citizens, a core element of its mandate. The City’s poor planning and land use management decisions in the past with respect to the PHA does not mean it or the Province must stay the course. Land use and zoning re-designations, such as overlay zones protecting existing undeveloped land, are one viable option. Another would be conditions on provision of infrastructure, which will inevitably burden the City’s taxpayers significantly if development proceeds.

The City and Province would like you to believe that their hands are tied with respect to protecting and preserving the PHA’s most valuable lands. By stating that the City’s reprehensible conduct is consistent with protection of the PHA, the Province’s study provides cover for the City to continue down the wrong course.

The Province is still accepting comments for the next week, so leave a comment and let them know what you think. And feel free to read my comments to them.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

More on Cape Town's Aquifers

Last week published another article of mine on the Cape Town water situation. This time I focused on the city’s plan to tap the region’s aquifers. Here I’d like to add to and expand upon a couple of points I make in that article:

Not all aquifers are created equal
The Western Cape’s TMG Aquifer is a generally deep and slower recharge aquifer charged from precipitation caught primarily in the area’s mountain regions. These mountains therefore serve both as a sort of net for catching moister brought in from the ocean and as aquifer recharge areas.

In contrast, the low-lying coastal areas around Cape Town contain shallower aquifers that generally recharge more quickly. These areas were historically covered in sand dune formations over the soft Malmesbury shale layer. Nebo, the scientist from CSIR who I reference in the article, estimates that water travels at a pace of around one to two hundred meters per year in the Atlantis Aquifer recharge area. While these aquifers are very complex and variable, it seems reasonable to estimate the same rate in the Cape Flats Aquifer. (Please note that I don’t profess to be a hydrologist, geologist, or any other sort of professional scientist. This is from the literature I’ve read, which I encourage you to read as well if you are interested.)

Incredible biodiversity, unknown impacts
Just to add some numbers, the Cape floristic region, which includes Cape Town and much of the rest of the Western Cape, has the highest concentration of diverse plant species in the world, with seventy percent of an estimated 9500 plant species found only there. That’s why in 2004, in order to protect this unique diversity, some of the remaining natural areas within the Western Cape were designated a Unesco World Heritage site.

The impact of aquifer extraction on this biodiversity is not well understood. Speaking to a local news outlet, University of Cape Town Associate Professor Edmund February cautioned: “I really worry about just tapping into [the aquifer] and drawing down on [it] without actually understanding what the ecological reserve is necessary to maintain those unique species that are sitting on those wetlands.” His university colleague Adam West, agreed, also noting that drilling construction and operation could also have unknown impacts on affected areas. Last month, West and several other scientists submitted a letter to local Western Cape governments voicing these concerns. Jasper Slingsby has a great quote in his GroundUp article from February. “In short,” Slingsby writes, “this is taking the very same water that replenishes our water supply system, feeds groundwater, supports biodiversity in the catchments and supplies the rivers that feed towns and farm dams.” Slingsby argues City’s plan to drill for water in these areas is effectively “cancelling the insurance policy we need since rainfall is predicted to become ever less certain.”

Atlantis could show Cape Town the way
Atlantis’ managed aquifer recharge program, which was born out of a need to serve the water needs of a remote apartheid-era settlement, has provided the City of Cape Town with an ideal template for recycling Cape Town’s water on a larger scale. An isolated near-coastal community with a population of around seventy thousand, Atlantis has benefited from one of the oldest MAR systems on the continent. For over 40 years, Atlantis residents have largely depended on effluent and stormwater that is treated, filtered, and recycled through its shallow aquifer to supply it with potable water.

The regional drought has brought renewed interest in Atlantis’s system as a model for larger-scale extraction for the greater metropolitan area. While lack of investment over the years meant that the Atlantis system’s efficiency had been on the decline, the current drought has provided the City with the impetus to restore its capacity. “The drought actually woke us up,” Atlantis’s wastewater treatment plant manager John Charles notes. Currently one hundred percent of Atlantis’s water needs, around 15 megalitres per day, are being met through its MAR system.

Like many others, I’m concerned about the idea of putting wastewater down into the aquifers. However, in the Cape Flats I’ve come to believe it is not just workable but probably necessary. Given the level of pollution that is already occurring in the Cape Flats aquifer, shifting towards use of this water will work to focus attention on stopping this pollution. The amount of water Cape Town discharges into the ocean is incredible, and should be reused. The Cape Flats aquifer is the only place where we are going to be able to recycle this water on the level that we need. It’s also a much better option than desalination or tapping the TMG aquifer. Granted, the best option by far is to become much more efficient with the water that we use, and better management of the riverine system. A sustainable MAR in the Cape Flats area would be a perfect complement to these actions.

Friday, March 16, 2018


Yesterday I had the honor of presenting a talk about the Philippi Horticultural Area and Cape Town’s water future at the University of Cape Town School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics (“APG”). UCT’s APG is hosting a series on the water crisis here in Cape Town, and invited the PHA Food and Farming Campaign to come speak. After an initial presentation by PHA FFC’s chairman, Nazeer Sonday, my colleague Megan Parker and I presented the work we have been doing to better plan, design, and manage the PHA. Megan and I are part of PHA Food and Farming Campaign’s planning subcommittee, a group consisting of other recent APG graduates. Two other members in particular, Jens Horber and Louise Brukman, helped out tremendously in putting together the presentation.

I’m pretty proud of the work we have done so far, and am hoping we can take it forward and really start persuading the City to do a better job of managing the PHA. It is so vital to our water and food future, as well as to preserving the Western Cape’s unique and diverse ecology. Let’s make it happen!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

PHA and Cape Town's Farming and Water Future

The past weeks have been busy with a number of projects, most prominently with work for the PHA Food and Farming Campaign (“PHA FFC”). PHA FFC is a local grassroots organisation that advocates for the protection of agricultural and natural lands in the Philippi Horticultural Area (“PHA”). The PHA is a large tract of mostly agricultural land set within Cape Town’s metropolitan area. Originally part of a much larger area of dune formations that made up the Cape Flats, this area was mined and farmed, so that the landscape is very changed from what it was 150 years ago. Today it largely consists of farmland, mostly farmed by large scale farms but also by a number of small scale farmers. There are also some remnants of the dunes and natural vegetation on parts of it.

The PHA is a major contributor to the City’s fresh produce. It is also a critical aquifer recharge area. This second attribute has become particularly important given the region’s ongoing drought crisis (although the immediate impending crisis has dissipated a little) and the City’s plans to tap into the aquifers. Housing, sand mining, illegal dumping, and other urban uses also threaten the PHA’s use for agriculture. Contrary to many studies and plans, including their own, the City has approved new housing and sand mining developments in the PHA, which would affect nearly a third of the 3000 hectares of farming land and natural vegetation.

The PHA FFC defends use of the land for farming, but also promotes equitable land redistribution, bringing in black farmers, increasing the number of farmers and farm workers, and better integrating the PHA with the rest of the city. PHA FFC has a strong commitment to sustainable practices, and promotes smallholder farming, permaculture and reduction or elimination of chemical fertilizers. It accepts calls for municipal aquifer extraction (many farmers already do this through private wells), but only sustainably and hand-in-hand with aquifer recharge. Endangering the aquifer could endanger the agricultural, economic, and environmental sustainability of the PHA.

I first attended a site visit organized by one of my UCT professors, Tania Katzschner, and hosted by PHA FFC a few months ago. There I listened to PHA FFC’s chairman, Nazeer Sonday, and its Treasurer, Susanna Coleman. They both spoke eloquently and forcefully for their cause. I was so taken by their presentation that in November I sought them out to volunteer. I’m now part of PHA FFC’s planning committee, where myself and a few former UCT classmates are working on articulating a spatial design and management plan for the PHA that can contest the development plans of developers and lay the groundwork for better and more engaged management by the City.

Last week members of PHA FFC attended a site visit to Atlantis in northern Cape Town to learn more about that community’s innovative managed aquifer recharge system. All of Atlantis’s water is sourced from aquifers that are recharged with treated and filtered water used by the community itself. This system has been functioning for 40 years, and could serve as a template for a larger managed aquifer recharge program for the rest of the City.

I’m really excited about the prospects of closing the loop on Cape Town’s water cycle. While I’m very concerned about the threat of drying up or polluting our aquifer system, I also think that managed aquifer recharge can be done in a sustainable manner, and that doing so is more environmental than the open linear water system we currently have. Piping in water from hundreds of kilometres away, and then flushing it out into the ocean is not sustainable. Managed aquifer recharge may be the solution, if done right.

Excited to share more about my PHA FFC work soon!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Water Continued

I suggested in my last post that I had been thinking a fair amount about the water crisis in Cape Town. Here is a link to the article I wrote about it for that was published yesterday (thanks to my friend Ari for inviting me to write on the subject).

It will be interesting to dig more into this crisis both here and hopefully in at least one or two more articles. The situation is so fluid--the City has already moved the date for "Day Zero" up again. There is still a lot to digest. One element that I think is particularly interesting is the personal process of adapting to limits to water. One of the big issues I see is the City's plan to go from 100% to zero, i.e. from free-flowing taps to taps turned off. Surely it would make more sense to have a progression, such as rolling black- or brown-outs, as Cape Town had a few years back during its energy crisis. This all or nothing approach has the potential to really catch a lot of people off guard. I imagine the City was just hoping we would get through without any sort of mandated limitations, but that strategy is looking pretty bad now.

Looking forward to discussing this more soon.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Water Problems

While this blog hasn’t reflected it yet, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the drought and water crisis in Cape Town. Actually, lots of people have. The City’s predictions for the date for “Day Zero”, which is expected to come right around Earth Day, are frighteningly close. Even scarier are the City’s plans for what happens afterwards: taps turned off, water rations provided at centralized locations, police and national defense forces brought in to secure water stations and the city more generally. WWF South Africa is launching a new weekly pamphlet discussing details about conservation. It mentions some of the practicalities, such as dry toilet strategies and assisting the elderly with carrying water rations. This could go on for months, until there is enough water in the dams, or until the city’s desalination and borehole projects are completed. Honestly, it sounds like the setting for a Hollywood dystopian movie.

The cynic deep in me fears that a Day Zero type situation is the only thing that will lead to a radical readjustment in our urban water use. As long as the taps continue to run, and water appears to be a limitless and effortless resource, many people will act accordingly. Even people who are very water conscious can’t help but use water needlessly by virtue of being integrated into the larger water system. Our whole system, from the water and wastewater infrastructure, to urban design and architecture, to the toilets, showers, and sinks installed in our homes, were all built based on the premise that water would always be abundant. Changing that will take more than a few (or even lots) of individuals acting alone; it takes a societal shift in thinking about water resources.

And sadly, a deeper cynic in me doesn’t believe that even a Day Zero will change the ability of the wealthiest among us to avoid the consequences of this crisis and maintain wasteful habits. Those who can afford their own boreholes, who can afford to take a vacation somewhere else, or to skip visiting their summer home in Cape Town, won’t feel the impact in the same way that most Capetonians will. I anticipate that the gap in wealth in this country, which colors so much else, will also deeply affect how this crisis plays out.

More to come on this...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Permaculture-Based Regional Planning Principles

Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (1988, 2012) is often described as the “bible” for permanent agriculture, or “permaculture”, theory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mollison co-formulated the practice of permaculture, which he describes as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems” (2012:ix). There is an incredible amount of information in this book, too much for me to cover in one go. Instead, here I’ll briefly attempt to adapt Mollison’s theory of patterning (Chapter 2) for the purposes of crafting a set of principles to guide regional planning. I am motivated to do so because of the apparent (to me) suitability of natural patterning theory to planning. I’m not aware of any other explicit attempt to apply Mollison’s pattern principles to planning, although I would not be surprised if someone else has already done so.

To start, I will briefly note the ethical bases underpinning permaculture:

  • Care for the Earth
  • Care for people
  • Setting limits to population and consumption (2012:34)

I won’t dwell on these, although I will note that the third ethical bases is obviously the most controversial. Mollison states that this principle is in actuality a product of the first two principles.

In addition to these ethical guideposts, Mollison notes more specific permaculture principles:

  • Work with nature
  • The problem is the solution
  • Make the least change for the greatest possible effect
  • The yield of a system is only limited by the information and imagination of the designer
  • Everything has an effect on its environment (2012:35)

Likewise, I won’t reflect on these here. Rather I want to make sure to properly ground Mollison’s discussion of patterns.

According to Mollison, patterns are an essential element in designing human habitats within Nature, and thus permaculture: “[p]atterning is the way we frame our design, the template into which we fit the information, entities, and objects assembled from observation, map overlays, the analytic divination of connections, and the selection of specific materials and technologies. . . . The pattern is design, and design is the subject of permaculture.” (2012:70, 94). Consequently, Mollison puts great emphasis on our ability to learn from and use patterns: “If we are to reach an understanding of the basic, underlying patterns of natural phenomena, we will have evolved a powerful tool for design, and found a linking science applicable to many disciplines” (2012:70).

Mollison starts his discussion of patterns by reviewing a broad set of shapes that are found in nature. These include waves, streamlines, cloud forms, spirals, lobes, branches, scatters, nets, fractals, to name some of the most common ones. Mollison notes that, in contrast to modernist Euclidean shapes, nature is “imperfectly round, never flat or square, linear only for infinitesimal distances, and stubbornly abnormal” (2012:71). Importantly, the patterns found in nature, and in Mollison’s own model, have the ability to both “tile” next to (tessellate) and nest within (annidate) each other to form natural matrices or mosaics. Tessellation and annidation serve as natural strategies that promote complexity (connections) and efficiency (2012:72-74; see also 30-31 for discussion of complexity).

Patterns result from shapes that are created and change through action of physical materials and organisms over time (Mollison formulates it slightly differently while discussing the concept of pulsation: “Pulsers plus patterns account for shapes” (2012:82)). The force of change over time has profound implications on patterns, as is demonstrated by what Mollison describes as “edge harmonics” and “boundary conditions”, which occur on the edges of a particular substance or media. “[B]oundaries, surfaces, or perceptible difference present a place for things to happen, for events to locate” (2012:76). It is along boundaries where substances are transformed, accumulated, or exchanged. At times boundaries separate organisms, materials, or media that are incompatible with one another to some extent, leading to tension or conflict, known as a “stress condition”. At the same time, these situations may also provide niche habitats and opportunities for other media to mediate and mitigate conflict. “Thus, boundaries present an opportunity for us to place a translatory element in a design, or to deform the surface for specific flow or translation to occur” (2012:76). In particular, the edge effect suggests design strategies that:

“increase interface between particular habitats to a maximum. A landscape with a complex edge mosaic is interesting and beautiful; it can be considered the basis of the art of productive landscape design. And most certainly, increased edge makes for a more stimulating landscape. As designers we can also create harmonic edge[s] with plants, water, or buildings” (2012:77).

With respect to human habitats and edges, Mollison writes that “[o]ur dwellings and activities benefit from placement at edges, so that designing differences into a system is a resource-building strategy, whereas smoothing out differences or landscapes [is] a deprivation of potential resources” (2012:79). As a consequence, Mollison advocates for “edge cropping” and “productive crop mosaics” that invite productive and self-reinforcing boundary conditions between a diversity of species (polycultures). Intentional design can further promote the overwhelming interdependence found in nature. This leads to his “golden rule” of permaculture design: “keep it small, and keep it varied” (2012:81), a teaching that is in stark contrast to the conventional monoculture that is widespread within today’s commercial agriculture.

More broadly, Mollison advocates for designs that reflect or imitate natural patterns. For instance, he notes the benefits of drawing jurisdictional lines along natural boundaries such as water catchment areas (known as a “bioregional” approach), since it is likely easier for a group of people to maintain the health of an entire catchment area.

Mollison also urges us to consider the full range of implications that ensue from decisions regarding patterning design. For instance, he states that “[a]s designers we need to study and apply branching patterns to roads or trails, and to be aware of the stable orders of such things as human settlements, or we may be in conflict both with orderly flow (can we increase the size of a highway and not alter all roads?), with settlement size . . . , and even with the numbers of people admitted to functional hierarchies where information is passed in both directions” (2012:93). He notes that “[a] bird’s-eye view of centralised and disempowered societies will reveal a strictly rectilinear network of streets, farms, and property boundaries. It is as though we have patterned the earth to suit our survey instruments rather than to serve human or environmental needs” (2012:95).

Mollison’s teachings regarding patterning are broad and deep, but from a planning perspective I would sum up his general philosophy and principles with respect to patterns as follows:

General Philosophy:

  • Design is the process and art of successful (harmonic) patterning.
  • Patterning is the activity of shaping media (substances, materials, organisms) over time (processes).
  • Nature demonstrates a plentitude of successful patterns (through shapes such as fractals and processes such as pulsars) that should be studied, understood, replicated, and reinforced.

Principles Regarding Pattern in Design

  • Patterns that promote connections, such as tessellation (tiling), and efficiency, such as annidation (nesting), are preferable.
  • Shapes that account for patterns of change over time are preferable.
  • Edges (edge harmonics) and boundaries (boundary conditions) are critical for understanding and guiding beneficial exchange and efficient accumulation.
  • Patterns should correspond with and respond to each other through appropriate scales and orders.

Principles Regarding Application to Human Settlement Design

  • The relationships in nature between orders and forms must be reflected in the design of human settlements.
  • Settlement design should reflect the natural patterns of the location in order to harness and direct resources on the site (sun, wind, water, soils) in the most efficient manner.
  • Settlement design should maximizing access to and use of edges and boundaries.
  • The maxim “keep it small, and keep it varied” generally promotes the principles noted above, namely tessellation, annidation, edge harmonics, and boundary conditions.

The above lists are my own interpretations of Mollison’s principles, but I believe they reflect his thinking.

The examples that Mollison provides regarding permaculture patterning are generally confined to smaller scale and site-specific examples. So how can we imagine the implementation of these principles on a scale more appropriate to planning (read: city or regional scale)? While I’m not aware of any large-scale landscapes that are attributed as consciously constructed permaculture landscapes, I imagine that permaculture experts would point to the many landscapes that reflect traditional societies’ agricultural practices, since Mollison and others often point to traditional societies as the model for harmonious agricultural practices. Perhaps such landscapes resemble the narrow small-holder farmlands of Quebec, Canada, an example to which Mollison refers. Or maybe they reflect the contours of the ridge-line villages of Bali, Indonesia. Hopefully sometime in the (near) future I can share some examples. In any event, I think these principles can transcend scales, just as in nature. The results will be both as unique as the natural patterns intertwined within the landscape, and as universal as the recurring shapes and movements that Mollison reflects upon.

Mollison includes in his review of patterns with some inspiring and, I think, poetic language: “We are the universe attempting to define its processes. A Kalahari bushman would say we are the dreams of a dreamer” (2012:95). I find this a beautiful summation of human engagement in understanding Nature and our role within it, and the ultimate pronouncement of our embedded existence within the Cosmos. Finding a means of applying this philosophy to planning seems, to me, a worthwhile endeavor.

All drawings based on or inspired by Mollison (2012).