Climate compatible urban development: building healthier relationships between people, water and carbon across Africa

What does it entail to make African cities climate compatible and climate resilient? Many African urban residents, businesses and public facilities currently face a scarcity of clean water, chronic energy shortages, disease outbreaks and storm damages. This needs to be addressed, while adding 950 million new residents to African cities over the next 30 years[1], and contributing to achieving the Paris Agreement on keeping global temperature increases to well-below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5⁰C[2]. We are at a pivot point. Historically, urban people have earned more, consumed more and had a bigger ecological footprint (including carbon footprint). Can we break this correlation? We need new ways of being urban and building our cities. We need to mainstream and scale out these new sustainable urban practices and infrastructures within the next two decades.

We need to be part of shifting to renewable energy sources, restorative water flows and recyclable materials, in ways that create jobs, livelihood opportunities and healthy living conditions for all. Our cities can no longer be sprawling generators of pollution from which people feel excluded and get sick. We have ideas of urban climate resilience, zero carbon cities, sustainable urban infrastructure and urban transitions. Who can we learn from about how this works in practice, in various urban contexts across Africa?

We can learn from the Gahanga Health Centre in the City of Kigali, Rwanda, where rainwater harvesting tanks connected to the internal reticulation system, and a number of energy-efficient lighting solutions, including solar streetlights, energy-efficient bulbs and high-pressure solar water heaters, are being installed to improve the sustainability and quality of healthcare services, especially obstetrics and maternal healthcare[3]. Water and energy meters are also being installed to collect the data required to make an evidence-based case for scaling out these pilot projects.

We can learn from the piloting of small-scale embedded energy generation in Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality, South Africa, that connected a small-scale wind and solar energy generation pilot site[4] to the energy grid using a simple system for net metering[5]. This informed the development and approval by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) of Standard Conditions for Small-Scale (<100kW) Embedded Generation (SSEG) within Municipal Boundaries.

We can learn from the Kigamboni decentralized wastewater treatment plant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and research done on the social acceptance of new technologies that present an alternative to (the lack of) large-scale, centralized water-borne sewage systems, and thereby reduce risks of cholera and diarrheal disease outbreaks[6]. Similarly, we can learn from efforts in Accra, Ghana, to develop and test localized, on-site toilet waste digesters to reduce the contamination of waterways and coastal waters from the disposal of sewage into the sea[7].

We can learn from the N1 City Mall in Cape Town, South Africa, where a waste digester has been installed to process food waste from grocery shops and restaurants in the mall and turn it into methane gas and fertilizer[8]. The methane is used to produce green electricity and hot water for the shopping centre. The fertilizer is used on the gardens surrounding the mall. This keeps waste out of landfill and reduces waste transportation requirements and thereby carbon and methane emissions into the atmosphere.

We can learn from the Sihlanzimvelo, Transformative Riverine Management and Green Corridors initiatives in Durban, South Africa, in which community-based cooperatives are contracted and upskilled to unblock and rehabilitate local stretches of streams and rivers by removing solid waste and invasive plants, thereby reducing flood risks, and upcycling reclaimed materials[9]. Green Corridor sites provide youth training and development programmes and eco-tourism opportunities, to create income-generating opportunities from ecological restoration efforts[10].

We can learn from the Eco-Village in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, that provides families with low-cost, affordable housing that is energy-efficient, self-cooling and fitted with solar panels to provide electricity and pump groundwater[11].

When thinking about how to aggregate and scale out such initiatives, and prioritize interventions and investments at the city scale, what can we learn from those African city governments that have already made considerable headway in embedding climate change policies and plans. What can Cape Town and Durban’s processes of developing a Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan aligned with the 1.5⁰C ambition of the Paris Agreement teach us? What can we learn from the City of Windhoek’s efforts at consultatively developing their Integrated Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan[12]?

Many of these initiatives have their shortcomings and limitations. Incumbent building standards, loan requirements, property rates schemes, municipal boundaries and the financialization of public assets act as constraints and inhibitors. But these initiatives are a start. They demonstrate alternative practices and technologies that offer a glimpse into a more sustainable and inclusive development trajectory for African cities. They show potential for providing more and better livelihood options and living conditions to millions of urban residents across Africa in ways that minimize greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, and reduce risks associated with flooding, water and energy shortages, water contamination and disease outbreaks. They hint at a radical re-imagining of urban infrastructure, such that they make better use of resources, provide better services, create more jobs and work more closely with natural systems.

What will it take for more cities across Africa to be taking shape in this way? We cannot copy and paste, so we need to invest in the innovation ecosystems and partnership platforms that can incubate and sustain the necessary processes of redesign, financing, implementation, maintenance and ongoing adaptation. City actors cannot do this alone. National, regional and international actors, including utility companies and state-owned enterprises, also have a key role to play in developing infrastructure and providing services to rapidly growing cities that are sustainable, low-carbon and climate resilient. There will have to be radical innovation and strong alignment between industrial, energy, economic, climate and urban policies. The Masters in Sustainable Urban Practice offers an opportunity for mid-career professionals to build and sharpen the knowledge, skills and networks required to be a key player in the sustainable cities innovation ecosystem.

Climate Change and the City, convened by Dr Anna Taylor is one of the elective modules of the new Masters in Sustainable Practice. Applications for 2022 are open. The deadline for applications is 31 January 2022. For more information go to the programme page.







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