African Centre for Cities International Urban Conference: Day 1

Why is Cape Town experiencing a water crisis? How does one offer a rounded answer without ignoring history and simplifying the facts? Building on these questions, should frightened citizens of Cape Town, many now scrambling to become water literate, embrace a call to decolonise narratives around water governance?

While not explicitly framed as broad talking points, these questions energised debates during panel sessions of the first day of an international urban conference hosted by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The three-day conference was an expression of this decade-old research and teaching institute’s mission to “figure out the folds of the urban world”. Speaking at the launch of the conference, ACC’s charismatic director Edgar Pieterse further underscored the importance of interdisciplinary research in developing a coherent theory of southern urbanism.

This, he suggested, entails certain duties. Critique, a key tool of academic practice, needs to be linked to proposal, stated Pieterse. Dispassionate thinking, another a virtue of scholars, should allow for the influence of poetics. To prove his point, Pieterse invited East London-born musician Asanda “Msaki” Mvana to warm up the 502 delegates from 26 countries.

Rather than park her “we-want-our-land-back feeling” – a complaint Msaki registered about playing at majority white music festivals – this accomplished folk singer 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.

There were a number of panels at the conference that focused on water, a scarce resource in South Africa and an urgent theme in drought-wracked Cape Town.

Mike Muller, a former director-general of water (1997-2005) and a commissioner of South Africa’s first National Planning Commission (2010-15), defined one strand of thinking to emerge out of the conference.

“I have a problem with European perspectives brought to Africa,” said Muller early into his presentation. Muller’s presentation to a small group during a breakaway panel argued for the need to decouple water planning from European models.

The crux of Muller’s complaint is numeric: Africa’s urban population will grow by 720 million by 2050, whereas Europe will only add 36 million new urban citizens. Europe’s green-friendly capitalist solutions do not square with Africa’s needs.

Muller, a visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Graduate School of Governance, criticised his UCT colleague’s promotion of various forms water harvesting, some traditional, others (like Sponge City in Harbin, China) at the forefront of new innovations in urban design.

“What we can’t afford in Africa is a bunch of hobby horses introduced,” said Muller. “The nature-based argument is a dangerous diversion.” While pitched as a “rant,” Muller’s arguments are predicated on a belief – forcefully argued in a 2015 article for US journal Science – that built water infrastructure will remain an integral part of socioeconomic development and modernization.

He provocatively 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,” stated Muller.

Muller is a hydro-modernist. This term, used by in books by geographers like Erik Swyngedouw and environmental scientist Eiman Karar, speaks to a wholly formalised development framework. The term was referenced in a paper presented by Patrick Martel, a young environmental scholar from Durban who spoke just before Muller.

Martel’s paper offered a historical analysis of Durban’s turbulent water history. His longue durée approach also provided a useful overview of the history of water provision in South Africa.

According to Martel, Durban’s “water moments” – or as architect and UCT senior lecturer Tom Sanya preferred, “episodic shocks in the system” – included the ad hoc scrambling to capture water by early settlers. This was followed by the technocratic takeover of water provisioning by national government, a “hydro-modernist engineering approach” preferred by Muller.

The top-down mechanisms of this grand-scale approach, explained Martel, dovetailed well with the ambitions of the apartheid state, whose “bio-politics” purposefully underwrote the unequal provisioning of water. Another moment. This race-based rationing endures, notwithstanding the reform and social-justice agenda of our post-apartheid water moment.

Martel’s broad overview highlighted the complexities of water literacy. For a lay citizen in search of answers to insufficiency and lack, an attribute of city life across Africa, the discursive language around water can be unfathomable. This is because citizen expectation coincides with the disparate and sometimes antagonistic worlds of governance, finance, engineering and town planning, to flag some of the more obvious disciplines involved in water supply.

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 – bemusedly as much as politely – Muller’s scepticism of initiatives to harness nature as buffer to the risks and hazards of single sources like dams.

“I don’t think we have to ignore or ‘decolonise’ the green urban narrative,” said Carden. “We need both engineering and bio-solutions.”

On the feasibility of the latter, Carden stated: “It is not an issue whether we can or can’t do these things – the technology is there. We have pilot plants for desalination, which were developed in South Africa.”

The principle obstacle, one that even Muller acknowledged, is financing.

Neil Armitage, a civil engineer who heads a research unit at UCT called Urban Water Management, chimed in on the debate.

“The issue is one of timing,” said Armitage. “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-1000-years drought.”

Armitage conceded that water experts had been found out. “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.”

Just as water experts have to adapt, so too will ordinary citizens. It starts with water literacy. It is a tough ask.

“As a community we struggle to invest in things that are not here and present,” said Alexis Schaffler, a doctoral student in urban water systems and infrastructure at the University of California, Berkeley, who also attended the panel in which Carden spoke.

“No one cares about water until its not there,” agreed Armitage.

I asked Armitage and Carden, not unfamiliar names in the press (“We are like rock stars,” joked Armitage), if the Three Gorges Dam was a viable model for a water-smart city? My 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.”

Whether any of this back and forth about appropriate water policy and planning for Cape Town necessarily contributes to a robust “vocabulary of southern practice” and “an ethos of southern enquiry,” to quote Bangalore-based researcher Gautam Bhan from his opening keynote address, is a moot point.

Cape Town’s water policy remains deeply entrenched in a neo-liberal paradigm. At the same time, the water crisis has alerted a privileged minority to an enduring fact, one that not only dogs this divided city, but many cities across the urban south.

“It is the urban majority that experience vulnerability,” said Bhan.

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

A version of this article by Sean O’Toole was published on GroundUp on 2 February 2018.