Beyond the Water Crisis : How a new model of government can lead us to a water secure future

by Jodi Allemeier

One of the major “reasons” provided for Cape Town’s current water crisis is that National government didn’t do its job. Its job being to fulfill its mandate around bulk supply (BS) of water.

It didn’t, and South Africa needs to talk about that. But, I also suggest that we move “Beyond BS” as our “post-new-normal”. This was possible years ago*, and is still possible now.

Its true that local and provincial government do not hold the mandate for building big dams. But they, through local government’s planning regulations and mandate, and provincial’s environmental oversight role could have, and should going forward, shifted the paradigm from one of bulk services, to one of decentralised water collection, treatment, use and re-use.

This is what Anthony Turton refers to as the “abundance paradigm” and what Lesley Green beautifully articulates in her call for localised solutions to water and sewage.

What this means in practice is:

  • Recognizing that there is an abundance of water — what rains on the city (our roofs, and streets), what flows from our mountains, what flows in our natural rivers — can be captured, used, re-used, re-used…
  • All new developments, regardless of size, to have rain water collection and grey-water systems
  • All new large developments to have rain water collection, onsite treatment to potable, grey-water systems and on-site effluent treatment and reticulation
  • All new precinct-scale developments to have the above at even larger scales
  • Existing neighbourhoods and households incentivised to invest in on-site collection, treatment and micro-grids
A project in Portland where on-site sewage treatment was turned into a beautiful cascading series of gardens, with a boardwalk and tanks, that, while could have been fulled sunken, were left visible and are used for lighting at night, and art work installations. We can marry ecology and placemaking. Source:

Imagine if Century City**, Parklands, countless state housing projects and all the other large new developments (estates, precincts and infill) had been built with this approach? We would have significant portions of the metro “off-the grid” (at the very least for the winter months) and putting entirely less pressure and reliance on the bulk services.

The great thing is, we CAN actually achieve this. I have written before about Cape Town’s Abundance Collective — we have a lot of the know-how to do this.

From a direct bulk service delivery model to an enabled, unscaled, service access model

One challenge to this is that our government has been built on capabilities and mind-sets that assumes the only way for citizens to have equitable access to water, sanitation, energy, transport (and more recently, broadband) is through government directly supplying, through bulk infrastructure, services. Not to mention a government (especially local) fiscal model where it funds itself through charging consumption of those services.

A new model of government would interpret its role as enabling access to water, mobility, energy, broadband more broadly. I’ve written about this disruption before. Government’s role then shifts to establishing standards, regulations and incentives that enable micro-grids that are inter-operable with another, and with an underlying bulk-services system.

This is not to say that our current bulk system becomes totally redundant (yet), but rather that the “baseload” of demand and reliance on that system is drastically reduced.

We live in an era where scale has become a risk, and where we have the technical competency, examples, and (Day Zero) motivation to make a shift. Let’s do this.

How does this work for the poor?

I got asked this question:

“How do we do this and avoid (a) middle-class and wealthy households able to afford the retrofits from opting further out of society and (b) the serious drops in revenue collected from BS water used to pay for other essential services? Yes — public buildings, state subsidized housing, etc could be fitted with tanks etc but what about the hundreds of thousands of private working class homes who likely wouldn’t be able to afford this even with heavy subsidies?”

My response:

Thanks for the question it’s so key.

Your question is why part of the state still has a huge role — in how it shapes standards and regulations that ensure equity. One example I’ve seen in this is a direct subsidization model — where if you get a license (to have off grid energy or to be an ISP or whatever), you have to provide technology or services to a less privileged area ongoing. Tricky e and monitor. Or a once off contribution (like a development contribution), but hard to calculate.

I favor a mix of three principles:

1) inclusionary zoning, to minimize future spatialised inequality which is really the root of the problem you raise

2) Govt adopting the same standards for its projects (GBCSA has worked on guidelines for low income households and precincts, and it actually makes a lot of sense from a medium to long term operational costs perspective to have these technologies and designs in areas that would other have indigent status receive free but costly services — upfront cost Vs perpetuity cost stuff)

3) a relook at our local government financing models all together, which HAVE to change from consumption charging and capital transfers only for multiple reasons — a convo far bigger than water — it’s about how land is used, and rates are calculated (green developments globally tend to attract higher value…), how private sector is leveraged, how bonds are raised etc etc.

**For a political party that based its campaign to govern on the incompetency, corruption and failure of National, I am disappointed that local government didn’t do more to use its planning powers to de-risk our reliance on national mandates being fulfilled.

  • *Century City got part way there with its wetland conservatory and more recent green buildings.More thoughts on the current water crisis:

More articles on the water crisis by Jodi Allemeier :

There are 2 comments

  1. Dave Patrick Bills

    Jodi Allemeier Reading your article turns my blood cold.What you propose is wishful thinking .I and I believe many others are tired of listening to unpractical , expensive,unworkable , so called solutions that come no where near to solving the water problem. First lets Define the Problem . Western Cape because of good management is Enticing more and more Immigrants from the north and Abroad. Farms need more water to increase food production while the 6 dams in the Western Cape ,even if full at the end of the rainy season cannot fully cover the Capes Water Needs. Boreholes Acquafers Grey water Recycling , Household Water tanks , natural springs are all short term solutions and in any case also need rain for replenishment. There is no area for building more Dams even if we wanted to..We don’t just need a little more water we need a H.—L of a lot more water. Asking Government to restructure to form more efficient water Boards and throw more money at the problem is very Noble ,but in the end with all good intentions will not be able to procure more Water. When are we going to understand that even with more rain and all the many solutions put forward there is just not going to be enough water from natural resources. Secondly Yes there is only 1 yes one long term answer for the western province and that is Sea water Desalination using Reverse osmosis technology. I am not going to debate the pros and a few cons here ,as this subject has been covered in its entirety by our various Groups. Needless to say 1/ Yes it is highly feasible .2/ Most of the world is Using Desalination. 3 /It is not too expensive especially if written off over 10 to 20 years. 4/ Plants are readily available or can be constructed at short notice 5/ Problems of electricity Disposal of Salt Environmental evaluation,site for installation have all been discussed at length and overcome. 6/ Manufacturers have offered to Capitalise , Construct and operate a large plant, and sell bulk water to the Council at no higher price than the Citizens are currently paying. More water from dams would then also be available to Farms.7/ Considering what we are currently paying for 5 kl of water in cans ,Putting down Boreholes, receiving astronomical fines from the council as well as constant water and sanitation price increases , then surely having as much water as we need and can once again fill up our swimming pools would be well worth paying possibly a little more than we were previously paying for water.

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