Water crisis: Are bigger dams the answer?

World experts at International Urban Conference discuss the future of water supply

By Sean O'Toole

Photo of conference delegates
Delegates at the African Centre for Cities International Urban Conference currently underway at the University of Cape Town. Photo: Andy Mkosi

Why is Cape Town experiencing a water crisis? How does one answer that without ignoring history and simplifying the facts? Should frightened citizens of Cape Town, many now scrambling to become water literate, embrace the call to ‘decolonise narratives’ around water governance in order to rescue their city? Such questions energised debates on the first day of an international conference on urban research at the University of Cape Town.

Hosted by the African Centre for Cities (ACC), the three-day International Urban Conference runs until 3 February with over 70 panels and 16 roundtables to discuss the scale and breadth of African and southern urbanism.

ACC director Edgar Pieterse invited East London-born musician Asanda “Msaki” Mvana to warm up the 500 conference delegates from 26 countries. Msaki gave her audience a tutorial in recent campus politics. Her strummed songs of quiet rage were accompanied by visuals registering key moments of the Fallist Movement.

“I think I should sing a song about the rain,” said Msaki as she neared the end of her performance.

Water was a recurring theme on the first day. Former director-general of water (1997-2005) and a commissioner of South Africa’s first National Planning Commission (2010-15), Mike Muller, said, “I have a problem with European perspectives brought to Africa.” Africa’s urban population will grow by 720 million by 2050, whereas Europe will only add 36 million new urban citizens, he said. Europe’s green-friendly capitalist solutions do not square with Africa’s needs.

Muller, who is visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Graduate School of Governance, criticised his UCT colleagues’ promotion of various forms of water harvesting, some traditional, others like Sponge City in Harbin, China, at the forefront of new innovation.

“What we can’t afford in Africa is a bunch of hobby horses introduced,” said Muller. “The nature-based argument is a dangerous diversion.”

Muller’s arguments are based on the belief – forcefully argued in a 2015 article for US journal Science – that built water infrastructure will remain an integral part of socioeconomic development and moderniation. He ended his talk with a slide of the Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric gravity dam in China. “This is the scale of change and thinking we will need for Africa.”

Patrick Martel, a young environmental scholar from Durban, revisited his hometown’s turbulent water history, referring to key water “moments” rather than “crises”. These moments – or as architect and UCT senior lecturer Tom Sanya clarified, “episodic shocks in the system” – included the ad hoc approach to water capture by early settlers and later the technocratic takeover of water provisioning by national government.

This “hydro-modernist engineering approach” to the supply of water (such as those suggested by Muller), Martel said, fitted well with the ambitions of the apartheid state, whose “bio-politics” purposefully underwrote the unequal provisioning of water. Race biased rationing endures, notwithstanding the reform and social-justice agenda of post-apartheid governance.

In a panel focussing on water-smart cities, Kirsty Carden, a civil engineer and researcher with UCT’s Future Water institute, argued the case for a hybrid approach to water supply. “We can’t rely on one single source of water,” said Carden. “Cape Town has been caught out by that, relying only on water from dams.”

She rejected Muller’s scepticism about harnessing nature as a buffer to the risks and hazards of single sources like dams. “We need both engineering and bio-solutions,” she said.

“The technology is there,” said Carden. “We have pilot plants for desalination, which we developed.” The principle obstacle is financing.

Neil Armitage, a civil engineer who heads UCT’s Urban Water Management research unit, chimed in: “The issue is one of timing. We hit the perfect storm – without rain. What appeared at the time to be an extremely clever decision – to defer capital expenditure, because there was no need, because the security of water supply looked adequate until 2023 – was met by a one-in-a-thousand-years drought.”

“Our risk analysis has not worked,” he said. “Basing all our decisions on historical rainfall or data is dangerous. We have to change the paradigm and move to a more resilient city with multiple water sources and built in redundancies.”

“No one cares about water until it’s not there,” said Armitage.

GroundUp asked Armitage and Carden if the Three Gorges Dam was a viable model for a water-smart city? Our question was met with silence, then much laughter. Armitage described the project as an “old-fashioned, supply-driven approach” to water supply, albeit one that offered a quick fix for China’s rapid growth. “I think they are going to have major headaches in the time to come. But China is already into the next wave of solutions, which they call ecological urbanism.”

The water crisis has alerted a privileged minority in Cape Town to an enduring fact beyond the city and South Africa. “It is the urban majority that experience vulnerability,” said Bangalore-based researcher Gautam Bhan in his keynote address.

Conference delegates were given a mild taste of this precariousness; delegate packs included a tin canister for water. It was empty.

Sean O’Toole is co-editor of Cityscapes, a magazine project of the African Centre for Cities


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