Durban water management

Durban plans to keep it informal

“There is enormous hope at the moment, and enormous opportunity, but it requires us all to do extraordinary things.” Dr Debra Roberts, head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit at eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa, is a woman of wise words. She is also the city’s first Chief Resilience Officer, and spoke to me about development plans, and hopes, for this city. It’s completely different than anything that I’ve heard before.

This was also by far my favourite interview of all that I conducted for the book on Water Resilient Cities that I wrote for the Water Research Commission (WRC). It changed the way I looked at my home country, and how I choose to live there.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

Dr Debra Roberts
Dr Debra Roberts, head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit at eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa

In the words of Dr Debra Roberts

“The 21st century is increasingly characterised by a set of unpredictable and complex challenges facing human and natural communities around the globe. Water stress and climate change are just the tip of the iceberg. We need to think about what is driving these changes if we are to be able to transform the way we respond to the causes and the impacts of this new set of multidimensional challenges. As a society, across the world, we have established a development model that’s no longer safe for us or the planet we live on.

If we truly want cities where we have water, food security, equal access to opportunity and equity, places that are resilient and adapted to climate change and that are low carbon, we’re going to have to do a host of things, very differently.

Durban’s road to a stronger city

“We developed our first Resilience Strategy, which was approved in August 2017. That was a really interesting journey for us. It took us over three years of hearing different views from a range of different stakeholders, including religious groups; cultural groups; municipal employees; the business community and a range of critical thinkers. We started with the idea that we were going to pursue the nexus of biodiversity, water and climate change adaptation as the key resilience approach in the city, but our stakeholders took us in an entirely different pathway.

“We ended up with informality and especially settlements as the key issue that the city faces in dealing with resilience. The point that was made by our stakeholders was that if we don’t find a new way of dealing with informality, it literally has the potential to undermine everything else.

The second issue that was highlighted is how to better manage the twin forms of governance in the city i.e. municipal and traditional governance.

“We were quite surprised initially when these issues were prioritised. But when we stood back and looked at it, we realised that our stakeholders had a very clear view of the challenges facing African urbanisation.

In fact, those two things, informality, and the intersection between westernised governance systems and traditional governance systems, are some of the key problems being experienced in African cities.”

Debra points out that this sort of work highlights the causes rather than just the symptoms of a lack of resilience, and provides cities with the opportunity to ask bigger questions.

“Can we use the opportunity of protecting biodiversity to create jobs through catchment management and allow people in informal settlements to protect their own water supply and reduce their own risk from flooding?

“We could, for example, offer people employment in managing the vast natural systems that Durban still has. It’s an enormous resource base and we have to think about how we use that to lay the foundation of the green economy, and to allow poor, unemployed people to enter it.”

At the time of writing, eThekwini Municipality was putting the finishing touches on the implementation plan to go with the Resilience Strategy.

“We’re largely focusing on the issue of informal settlements. The focus on the governance nexus will move more slowly as we continue to develop a better understanding of that issue. A strong initial focus of the implementation plan is on reconfiguring the governance structure of the municipality in order to enable greater transversal management, in order to facilitate the delivery of more resilient outcomes.

“One of the important steps forward is the creation of a unit focused on sustainability and resilience, placed at the office of the city manager so these issues can get the prioritisation required.

“Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but in five to ten years’ time I would like to see informal settlements as a cross-cutting priority for every single line-function in the municipality. I would like to see a new approach to the way in which we handle in situ upgrading, considering new technologies and innovative materials and new ways of providing services so that our informal settlements become places where people can find a foothold in the city which is safe and less risky than the current; to give them the respect that every South African deserves. At the same time, to reduce their negative impact on the overall urban system.

The transformation of informal settlements and the acknowledgement that they are part of our urbanisation path is really what’s involved. Informal settlements should not be things that everyone wants removed but rather a vibrant constructive, sustainable part of our urban fabric. This new perspective must be used to reimagine what the African city is going to look like.”

A resilient city in Africa is a place that embraces informality

“Informality is the clearest message we have as a society that the kind of urbanisation path that we are following is simply not sustainable and resilient. Why do people build informal settlements? Because the city is not working for them. It’s not allowing them access or affordable options in terms of housing and servicing.

“So people are literally building the city themselves. The poor and vulnerable are literally voting with their feet. The pattern of urban development that we’ve followed in the past mimicked development patterns in the global north, and it’s just not going to meet the needs of the African city of the future. When we talk about cities, be they water resilient, climate resilient or safe and sustainable cities we are generally thinking about the traditional 20th century vision of what a city should be, that is, with formal systems, roads, a city hall and a mayor. However, many cities in Africa are not going to be like that.

Africa has this confounding megatrend of informalisation happening at a macro scale. We have to get rid of all of the sacred cows of urban planning when engaging with what a sustainable and resilient African city should look like and rethink it within this new model. That’s quite challenging. We have to re-envision the way we plan our cities.

A resilient city in Africa is a place that embraces nature

“For much of the evolution of cities they’ve been places that exclude nature, not places that embrace nature.

“From the work that we’ve done in Durban it’s become very clear that if you’re interested in increased adaptive capacity across a whole range of threats, you’re going to have to improve the foundation on which the city is built. Cities, whether it’s Durban, Cape Town, Khartoum, New York or London, are all built on natural ecosystems.

“We now understand that if you want to have a hope of a sustainable, adaptive, resilient future you’re going to have to have cities that are built to include nature and natural systems. This does not just entail trees alongside streets, but viable indigenous ecosystems.

In order to survive, we must protect the ecosystems that deliver the ecosystem services that we rely on. That’s particularly important in a city like Durban where a large majority of our municipal area is rural in nature. Communities are very directly dependent on these natural systems for services and often, rural communities get better services from the environment than they do from local government.”

Durban water management
Durban’s famous beach front.

A resilient city of the future calls for dramatic transformation

“We know that there’s got to be dramatic transformations in the way we approach urban development in Africa, but no one yet has been able to piece together the entire picture of what that looks like. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Global Warming of 1.5 °C special report identifies four big systems that have to be transformed for a sustainable, resilient, safe, low risk world. They are energy, urban, land use and industry.

“Very often urban areas provide the geography for energy, land use and industrial related activities, so the message is that if you’re interested in water resilience, climate resilience and cities then you must think about entire transformation of urban systems at an unprecedented scale. That requires an entire rethink of the role and nature of cities and their infrastructure.

The greatest opportunity exists in the cities of the global south – in places like Asia and Africa – because we don’t have carbon heavy infrastructural lock-in yet. We can skip some of the development mistakes of the global north and take entirely different urban development paths.”

Governments need to change, but so do the people they govern

The global economy is anchored in the geography of cities. Most future infrastructure is going to be built in cities, particularly those in Africa and Asia. Local government has to become a very different thing if it is going to harness the opportunity of this global scale infrastructural build. It has to become like a responsible big corporate, thinking about how to deploy the latest science, funding research and development, ensuring data management and playing a custodial role over the knowledge it generates. In many cases this is a new set of expectations for local government, especially in Africa, and many local governments have not thought about themselves in that way.

As much as we expect governments, including our own, to change, you and I are also going to have to transform our lives. We have to look at the role that we play across those four transformative systems of energy, land use, urban and industry. For example, what am I doing about ensuring that the energy that I use is as sustainable and renewable as possible? And, if you don’t have those options you will need to vote people in that will create those options for you.”

Different cities, different visions

“This vision of urban resilience is a very different to the status quo we have now. It means creating a very different South Africa with a new pattern of urban development. Many voices need to be heard in creating this new resilience pathway. There is no standard recipe for achieving resilience, but rather there are many forms of resilience. Though there are common threads the move to resilience will probably be unique for most cities around the world.

“There is enormous hope at the moment, and enormous opportunity, but it requires us all to do extraordinary things. There’s nothing within the physical makeup of this planet that stops us achieving a world that is safer and more resilient, across climate and water.

“The big challenge and opportunity lies in the social and political will to change our systems, and to take risks. That’s what we will live and die by. It’s basically all on our shoulders now.”


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