Due to a lack of adequate water and sanitation infrastructure, growing, unplanned urban settlements in South Africa and elsewhere have been linked to pollution of critical river systems. The same dynamics undermine local resilience, understood as the capacity to adapt and develop in response to changes, persistent social and ecological risks, and disasters. Water and sanitation challenges undermine resilience by causing and compounding risks to individuals, and to household and community health and livelihoods, in a complex context in which communities and local governments have limited capacity and resources to respond appropriately. Household and community resilience in informal settlements is drawing increasing policy focus, given the persistence of these kinds of neighbourhoods in cities and towns in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa, in particular. This case considers whether bottom-up responses that combine public and private sector resources, including community participation, and use an interdisciplinary approach can support the production of novel resilience-fostering solutions. This article presents an analysis of the case of Genius of Space waste and wastewater management infrastructure in the Western Cape, South Africa. While the process has been imperfect and slow to show results, this analysis reflects on the gains, lessons and potential for replication that this work has produced. The Genius of Space approach adds to a growing area of practice-based experimentation focussed on incrementalism and adaptive development practices in urban environments, particularly in developing countries.
According to UN-Habitat, approximately one-quarter of the global population lives in informal settlements or “slums” . Among the contested definitions of these kinds of neighbourhoods, informal settlements can be usefully characterised as settlements that develop outside of formal planning and authorisation processes, with features such as overcrowding and a lack of adequate access to essential or basic services like water and sanitation . Residents of informal settlements often live in “shacks,” wholly or partially self-made dwellings that are frequently located on land with insecure tenure. Governments can struggle to intervene successfully in informal neighbourhoods. Public sector structures and processes, being rigid, may struggle to interact with the bottom-up, improvised systems that emerge in response to local needs and context. Because the growth of such settlements frequently outpaces government planning and investment, they can undermine national and local sustainable development efforts, developing in ways that negatively impact ecosystems (networks of biological organisms interacting with their environments) and human well-being . Informal settlement residents, with limited economic means and left without critical services such as water and sanitation management, are vulnerable to a wide range of risks and are exposed to hazards and shocks impacting on their health and livelihoods [4, 5].
As people continue to move from rural areas to cities and towns in Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people living in informal settlements is expected to grow . Since 1994, the South African government has struggled to respond to the challenge of managing its expanding and evolving urban areas as people have migrated to centres of perceived economic opportunity . Local informal settlement development is shaped by the legacies of apartheid’s system of race and class-based urban planning that influence features such as demographics, location and proximity to employment . Despite the constraints brought about by their processes, governments working in informal settlements are still expected to find ways of mitigating risk, managing hazards and building resilience. Accordingly, they must simultaneously enhance the well-being of people and ensure the integrity of ecosystems that sustain human well-being. Municipal governments play a crucial role in this response because they are legally mandated to provide many of the essential services and public infrastructure that mitigates social and ecological risks in urban areas. Municipal responsibility extends to the provision of water and sanitation infrastructure, which comprises all the (usually large-scale) human-made physical structures that enable collective management of clean water supply, wastewater (sewerage, roads and storm drains) and solid waste. Local governments have fallen short in servicing informal settlements,1 which account approximately 13% of households and vary in critical aspects such as security of land tenure and employment rates . Budgetary and human resource capacity challenges hamper progress and also undermine related environmental management mandates. Some mandates remain unimplemented, despite policy commitments .
Langrug, a neighbourhood in Franschhoek situated along the Berg River, is an example of informal urbanism in the Western Cape Province, South Africa. Established in the 1990s, Langrug is a response to the lack of affordable housing for low-income workers and migrants to the region . Although it is surrounded by agricultural lands, there are few economic opportunities for its residents. This contrast is reflective of the country’s severe inequality. Most of the approximately 1,800 households live in improvised dwellings without access to adequate basic services such as running water . As an expedient water and sanitation solution, the local municipality has provided public ablution blocks with toilets and washbasins connected to local sewerage systems. However, the municipal ablution facilities are inadequate in number and function, with much of the infrastructure in disrepair. In response, Langrug’s community-based organisations have developed their own solutions to waste and wastewater challenges. They have also set up structures to interface with the local government about their needs.
This case study examines the Genius of Space (GOS), an experimental pilot project with a limited lifespan that aims to address waste and wastewater management in Langrug, through a collaborative, community-centred process to design and build a “green” infrastructure solution devised within the Western Cape Government (WCG). The GOS is one of several examples of innovative approaches to the delivery of energy, waste and water-focussed services in South Africa being studied as part of the international GREEN-WIN project. The case provides insight into interdisciplinary, intergovernmental cooperation to address complex social and ecological challenges and build resilience through creative approaches to “green” infrastructure development and community engagement in informal settlements. This article begins by introducing the concept of “resilience” as it is relevant to this case. This article, drawing on resilience thinking, rather than separating ecological and social issues, uses the concept of a social-ecological system as to describe the multiple, interconnected human-environment interactions in Langrug and the GOS . The social, ecological and institutional challenges related to water and sanitation in Langrug are explained and contextualised within the South African local government systems and intergovernmental relations. Within this context, the GOS project is presented as an innovative approach to basic service and infrastructure delivery challenges. The final section of this article briefly analyses the case through a “resilience” lens, using the resilience-based perspective to highlight the value of the GOS’s participatory and adaptive design.
Understanding “Positive Resilience”
The GOS’s project team views water and sanitation services and infrastructure provision in Langrug as issues that are embedded within interrelated social and ecological systems. The way that the GOS team has designed its response and potential solutions is based on this interconnected understanding. In so doing, it is aligned to a particular systems-based strand of resilience thinking. Recent resilience literature and policy briefings connect social and ecological challenges in the concept of a “social-ecological” system [12, 13]. Viewing social and ecological problems and actors as dynamically interconnected allows for new approaches to issues such as water and sanitation provision. Resilience thinking that begins with the concept of a dynamic social-ecological system tends to integrate many forms of knowledge and stakeholder perspectives. Resilience thinking values several dimensions of diversity as it relates to identity (race, ethnicity and gender) or experience of individuals and communities or to different modes of knowledge. This diversity is employed to develop robust descriptions and interventions that work for the multiple components of a particular system [5, 14–18]. The social-ecological perspective from resilience thinking provides a useful starting point for understanding the GOS project and its possible value to local governments and communities seeking to enable resilience capacity.
Some types of resilience thinking define resilience it as the ability of a social-ecological system, such as an informal settlement, to withstand different kinds of perturbation or change, by rebounding to its prior state . However, merely rebounding is not always adequate to achieve desired levels of human well-being. In the context of Langrug or other informal settlements with high levels of poverty and related challenges, existing patterns of interaction between people and their environment may limit or erode well-being. These patterns need to be surpassed, not maintained. Positive concepts of resilience are more useful than recovery-focussed understandings. Positive resilience allows for increased well-being in social-ecological systems over time, by responding to acute shocks and chronic stresses [13, 16, 19]. Positive resilience implies ongoing, possibly contested, normative judgements about what will improve well-being, when and for whom [14, 15]. The process of building positive resilience capacity also suggests that for a system to resilient, people in that systems must be able to both learn and adapt over time, to continuously create new options for future development that do not currently exist. Some views of resilience attribute more significant value to the long-term flexibility of development strategies than to the short-term efficacy of a particular technology . There is a degree of agreement in recently published resilience-based literature on the characteristics of effective development interventions. These resilience-focussed characteristics include diversity, participation, multi-stakeholder governance, learning and adaptation [16, 19]. These characteristics are evident in the design and implementation of the GOS project.
Social and Ecological Challenges Related to Poor Water and Sanitation Management in Langrug
inadequate access to water and sanitation infrastructure for langrug’s residents Stellenbosch Municipality, in which Langrug is situated, has not managed to facilitate equitable service delivery for all households of different income levels. Municipalities like Stellenbosch provide partially or fully subsidised infrastructure access to basic services and the bulk infrastructure (large-scale, public infrastructure). To fund these services, local governments use a combination of local revenue sources such as property rates and utilities, together with national grants . In particular, local electricity distribution and sales to relatively wealthier households are used to generate significant revenues to fund subsidised services. More recently, however, revenues have come under pressure, as municipalities struggle to keep pace with the increasing cost of electricity . Budgetary constraints, together with challenges ranging from human resource capacity to mismanagement, result in many basic needs remaining unmet for informal settlement communities. Electricity costs and water supply are among the five most significant perceived challenges facing local governments, as identified by Statistics South Africa . For residents of Langrug, the various constraints on municipal performance have meant long delays in the delivery of water and sanitation services. A lack of delivery undermined trust between residents and Stellenbosch Municipality [10, 22]. To supplement inadequate formal plumbing and sanitation systems, Langrug’s residents created and funded a greywater management system of open gullies and submerged pipes. Despite community efforts, water still lies stagnant in the gullies, catching litter that overflows from communal skips and creating an unpleasant odour and unsightly health hazard for residents.
managing ecological risks associated with poor water quality in the berg river When the winter rains arrive in Langrug, polluted wastewater washes into the stormwater system and down into the Berg River. The runoff carries nutrients, sediment and other pollutants (such as cleaning chemicals), along with litter, into the Berg River. Previous greywater samples show significantly high levels of faecal coliforms, Escherichia coli, ammonia, nitrogen, suspended solids and phosphorus, with high levels of turbidity . The WCG’s Berg River Improvement Plan (BRIP) identified the runoff from informal settlements like Langrug as a significant source of pollution for the Berg River.2 The impact of settlement development along the river is compounded by the fact that this critical waterway is already stressed by agricultural runoff, discharge from wastewater treatment and other adjacent development . There are several reasons that stakeholders would be concerned about declining water quality. For those stakeholders interested in conservation, the Berg estuary being among the largest estuaries in the country is the most important factor. For farmers, or individuals focussed on food production and links to economic growth, the chief issue is that poor water quality impacts directly on product quality. At the time that BRIP was drafted, 75% of crops produced in the Berg River catchment area were exported to the European Union and the United Kingdom, both of which have strict product quality requirements . In the case of BRIP, compliance with these international import standards was a serious economic concern for the region, and it therefore became a dominant economic driver for better environmental management.
creating institutional structures to address water and sanitation challenges in informal settlements along the berg river Working to address water and waste management in Langrug and other informal settlements is a test for typical government planning. At a municipal level, policy mandates for environmental management, climate adaptation or resilience responsibilities create additional burdens for stretched local governments. Regarding infrastructure provision, as local governments work to address infrastructure building and maintenance backlogs, they are also tasked to incorporate more sustainable or “green” infrastructure options . “Green infrastructure” includes “green” spaces or ecosystems such as forests or estuaries that provide services like fresh water supply or flood risk reduction . “Green infrastructure” also refers to the human-made infrastructure that mimics natural phenomena—an approach termed biomimicry—like a train design inspired by a bird’s beak, or a communications network that is inspired by fungal networks. An additional kind of “green infrastructure” includes investments in sustainable energy and other low-carbon, resource-efficient or climate-resilient infrastructure options. For governments, “green infrastructure” can provide new and better solutions to old problems, but it may also require specialised knowledge or a higher upfront capital investment than current mainstream options [27, 28]. As demonstrated in the GOS project, “green infrastructure” can be used to connect social, economic and environmental perspectives on infrastructure, by using infrastructure provisions to simultaneously addressing human well-being, generating economic opportunity and solving environmental management problems.
Administrative, governance and accounting measures prescribed for municipal, provincial and national governments tend to encourage a silo-based approach to problem-solving . However, the WCG, the relevant provincial authority, has created several interdepartmental governance structures that promote problem-driven collaboration required for “green infrastructure” and other integrated environmental and social solutions . The BRIP is a prime example of collaborative governance and planning. The plan, aligned to the province’s “green economy” strategy, aims to consolidate and augment actions to improve water quality in the Berg River. Formal governance structures were created to facilitate knowledge-sharing, cooperation and collaborative budgeting. The BRIP has drawn attention as a model for a “nexus” approach to government planning, institutional arrangements and stakeholder participation that simultaneously addresses food, energy, water, land and biodiversity concerns. Like a resilience-informed approach, a “nexus” approach simultaneously addresses interconnected social, economic and ecological issues and risks through similarly interconnected policy responses and projects . As such, actions implemented under BRIP involve various WCG departments, as well as national and local government departments .
The BRIP provided an interdepartmental, interdisciplinary policy frame for two WCG endeavours that laid the groundwork for GOS [31–34]. The first was the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning’s (DEADP’s) investigation of the potential of bioremediation solutions to improve water quality in the Berg River. The second was the Department of Economic Development and Tourism’s (DEDAT’s) Genius of Place project, which investigated the possibility of applying of biomimicry (mimicking nature to design systems, infrastructure or materials) and community participation to produce a “green” solution to water and sanitation issues in Langrug. Both projects intended to develop designs that could be delivered at scale by private companies. However, when the bioremediation and Genius of Place work ended in 2012, officials recognised that the novelty of a biomimicry approach, together with the dynamic challenges of working with communities in informal settlements made private investment unlikely. Subsequently, WCG officials defined the role of government as clarifying and mitigating risks before private investment could be attracted .
The GOS Solution
a project to design “green infrastructure” solution for greywater and waste management in langrug In 2013, DEADP initiated the GOS project, in which “space” stood for “Systems for People’s Access to a Clean Environment” . The project aimed to demonstrate the social, political, administrative and financial and technical viability of community-centred “green” infrastructure . Targeting more efficient water use and improved sanitation, the GOS project designed and implemented pilot systems for waste and water management that were guided by biomimicry. The pilot systems were implemented in part of Langrug. The neighbourhood is divided into sections or “blocks,” named with letters of the alphabet. The GOS pilot systems are located in blocks S and T, as shown in Figure 1. Responding simultaneously to inadequate water and sanitation access, and the environmental and economic impacts of poor water quality, the GOS project aims to create a replicable model for physical infrastructure and new configurations of relationships between stakeholders, which include public and private actors, local community stakeholders and civil society organisations [37, 38]. The budget, as well as strategic input and oversight, was provided by three different WCG departments: DEADP, DEDAT and DHS. All work proceeded with the supervision of a WCG interdepartmental steering committee that drew in expertise as required from various line departments and Stellenbosch Municipality.
The WCG procured the services of BiomimicrySA, a local network of professionals with diverse skills specialising in nature-based design [34, 40]. BiomimicrySA established a consortium to draw in vital capacity from engineers, water specialists, architects and urban infrastructure specialists together with the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), which had a history of community mobilisation and engagement in Langrug. Rather than impose a solution from outside, the team identified ways to improve the Langrug community’s greywater solution. Between 2013 and 2015, the team designed “green” prototypes based on bioremediation and biomimicry principles, drawing on natural water filtration systems to inspire the design. Construction and refinement of the final design of a greywater and waste management system began in 2016.
In the pilot system, residents dispose of greywater from household chores (washing and dishes) at designated points. Water flows through submerged pipes to be filtered through a tree garden. Once it has passed through the tree garden, it is fed into a human-made micro-wetland for the second round of filtration to remove sediment, nutrients and other pollutants such as chemicals from cleaning products. Water then passes through a final tree garden, before flowing into the stormwater system. The system is designed to accommodate the average household use of 49 l of water per day (15l per person) . It has been successfully implemented for 115 households, of which only 20 (18%) have private water connections as of October 2016 . Most of those connected households have washing machines. The pilot does not fully meet community needs; for example, it does not support night soil (waste from toilets). However, it is viewed as an incremental movement towards infrastructure that works for the local context. The GOS requires a large “Eco-Machine” that will provide an additional phase of nature-based treatment for water from the system . This “Eco-Machine” will improve the quality of stormwater to a level that is required to rehabilitate the Berg River and allow for local reuse. The land has been set aside for this purpose at the local government-owned primary school.
affordability, scale and replication Currently, the GOS project’s costs have been comparable to conventional water and sanitation infrastructure. Costs stand at ZAR15,000 per household, excluding design, and ZAR19,000 including design .3 In addition to design fees, this budget covers community engagement, construction materials and labour requirements. Conventional stormwater management and road costs for municipal governments are budgeted at ZAR4,000 per metre, and much of this spending previously ran over budget. WCG officials anticipate additional cost savings when infrastructure is extended to the entire settlement. Government officials are working to attract private or donor funds to supplement public resources as the project scales up, or is replicated. Based on the GOS experience, officials are confident that drawing in private sector service providers could allow municipalities to deliver services more effectively . However, it is still unclear what kind of private investment could be sought and how this would be structured to benefit investors while protecting community interests. While the GOS pilot demonstrates the potential benefit of public-private collaboration, there remains the risk that private sector partners will fail to meet the standard of local government legal obligations as well as communities’ needs. Despite its challenges, the GOS project’s perceived successes have motivated two biomimicry-inspired water treatment systems in other informal settlements in the Western Cape .
Building Resilience Capacity with Community-Centred “Green” Infrastructure
Noting the affordability of the project, its length and complexity still beg the question of why the government would opt for GOS or similar options over other standardised solutions. One answer is that the shift to “green” infrastructure provides new conceptual tools and alternative resources for governments and other stakeholders, allowing them to reconceive infrastructure more broadly than just environmental concerns. “Green infrastructure” may entail a change in building materials, as well as the scale and function of infrastructure. “Green infrastructure” may also require new forms of financing, and a transformed role and level of ownership of the communities that use it. By moving away from the idea of water and sanitation infrastructure as a centralised, large-scale system, the GOS’s nature-based pilot solution has demonstrated how multiple functions and benefits for different stakeholders can be derived from a single infrastructural solution. Resilience thinking provides a framework to understand how participatory, incremental, exploratory “green infrastructure” adds value in the context of social-ecological systems. Most relevant among the GOS resilience-fostering strategies is its social-ecological systems-based approach, as well as its focus on diversity, interdisciplinarity and broad participation, and continuous learning and adaptation.
interdisciplinarity and community participation in the gos The GOS has been designed from its conception to be interdisciplinary, integrating varied bodies of knowledge [34, 38, 41]. The project benefitted from diverse resources and varied expertise that resulted from interdepartmental collaboration within WCG together with the multidisciplinary team led by BiomimicrySA. Furthermore, project leaders see much of their success as resulting from participatory social processes and strengthened relationships between government and local actors . There are two aims of diversifying knowledge and broadening participation: the first is to develop a more locally appropriate and robust solution; and the second is to empower people by building their capacity to respond to their own resilience challenges, whether through skills transfer or enabling greater local agency in other ways. By combining social (housing and economic development) and environmental expertise and budgets, WCG officials also believe that all departments involved fulfilled their mandates more efficiently than when working in isolation .
Langrug residents formed a project steering committee, which evolved into the Langrug Community Project Committee (LCPC). The LCPC has been engaged in all aspect of GOS, including design, implementation, maintenance and funding . Langrug residents were appointed in formal project roles and included in all major decision-making. Project participants responded to issues and challenges, trying new ideas and adjusting in response to failure. Juxtaposed with community attitudes to the existing municipal ablution blocks, the team wanted to inculcate a sense of local ownership for the GOS. As the GOS process unfolded with no physical infrastructure until 2015, the engagement process was used to name and address sources of tension, as well as to develop a shared understanding of any behaviour change that would be necessary to ensure a functional system. Although community participation has been challenging, there have been notable observable outcomes. For example, Langrug residents have shared their learning acquired through GOS process by hosting a knowledge exchange with residents of Villiersdorp, experiencing similar waste and wastewater challenges . Members of the LCPC have also shared their experiences in government forums, educating public sector stakeholders on the benefits and challenges of contextually appropriate and innovative solutions that reimagine waste and wastewater infrastructure and service delivery. Echoing resilience thinking approaches, the GOS project manager and team argue that Langrug residents’ capacity to develop and respond to local challenges through experimentation is creating options for sustainable development that did not exist before the project [22, 37, 38, 41].
experimenting with multiple resilience benefits The process of developing the physical structures and the social organisation that makes the GOS work involved experimentation, failure, learning and adapting. As the GOS design evolves through incremental trial and error, the project team is cultivating multiple local social and ecological benefits . For people, farms and businesses dependent on the water-stressed Berg River system, more efficient water management is critical to resilience. Greywater management is an essential strategy for mitigating the water supply risks associated with droughts, which are expected to occur more frequently due to climate change . The environmental benefits associated with substituting natural materials for conventional building materials have not been quantified, but experiments like the GOS project provide a learning laboratory in which this quantification can take place. For Langrug’s residents, livelihood opportunities that support resilience at a household level are being created through employment in the GOS project’s pilot system construction and regular maintenance [22, 38]. There are also untested employment possibilities related to upcycling by-products from the waste collection and water treatment. Additional employment could be created through the establishment of a solid waste processing facility, as well as through micro-enterprises that upcycle collected organic and inorganic waste. One possibility is composting organic waste to create fertile soil to be used in small-scale farming for cut flowers. In these ways, by exploring local economic development opportunities, GOS project is attempting to connect municipal infrastructure investments to local needs and transactions.
To build resilience in informal neighbourhoods like Langrug, service delivery interventions must reduce the risks and related vulnerability of local people and ecosystems [5, 15]. But merely reducing risk exposure is not enough for “positive resilience.” Resilience-building services and infrastructure must also create new mechanisms to improve well-being and set communities on more sustainable trajectories over time. While the GOS has not fully solved water and sanitation issues in Langrug, its “green” infrastructure development has plausibly laid the foundations to do so, assuming the continuation of investment and incremental improvements over time. It has achieved this while incorporating a systems-based or “nexus” approach, broadening participation and building local capacity to adapt through experimentation and learning. Rather than imposing another rigid external development model onto Langrug and its residents, the GOS project’s approach included local residents to identify appropriate responses to both social and ecological challenges. The slow, adaptive process of cooperation helped to develop a solution that residents of Langrug want. Representatives from other informal neighbourhoods have expressed demand for a similarly inclusive approach, as well has the “green infrastructure.” The GOS project’s viability will be tested as the physical infrastructure scales, and its participatory is transposed in other, larger areas. However, its early success warrants further investigation and evaluation.
CASE STUDY QUESTIONS
How do interventions like “green” infrastructure provision that try to address interconnected social and ecological challenges in informal settlements in South Africa challenge the silos in government planning and budgeting processes?
What are some of the challenges of undertaking a consultative, participatory process when designing infrastructure for informal settlements?
What are some of the differences when planning large-scale infrastructure for formally planned settlements versus “green” infrastructure” informal planned settlements?
What might some indicators be of replicability for an incremental, community-centred development approach for green infrastructure solutions?
Lauren Hermanus (lead author) and Sean K. Andrew (supporting author) both undertook the conception and design of the study, acquisition of data, analysis and interpretation of data and drafting of the manuscripts. Approval of the version of the manuscript to be published was also undertaken by both Lauren Hermanus and Sean K. Andrew.
Gina Ziervogel reviewed the manuscript. Andrew Campbell helped to conceptualise and acquire some of the interview data that was used in this case.
Both authors are funded by the GREEN-WIN project, ”Green Growth and Win-Win Solutions for Sustainable Climate Action,” funded by the European Commission. Part of the data collection for this article was funded by the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University as part of the GRAID project.
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
This case study is one of several being investigated as part of the GREEN-WIN project’s South Africa-based research under Work Package 7 (Energy Poverty and Resilient Livelihoods) to identify business models that support sustainability and action on climate change.