Motto in the drought

After being caught with a dirty house yet again when a film crew arrives, I decided to just embrace it ….

Embrace your inner scruffy. Design it well from the start.

It being anything from good quality odour absorbing clothes, low maintenance houses, rainwater collection devices …

Dry toilets for all, forever?

This post was developed as a submission for The Conversation. I have to rework it because “the article covers a huge amount of ground, and that there isn’t immediately a ‘golden thread’ that can be easily identified.” I like it, so it’s going to live here in its current form 🙂

When the probability of Day Zero was first announced in January 2018, the realisation that the extreme drought in Cape Town may affect the functioning of the sewer systems became apparent to everyday people. Through my work in [resource recovery from wastewaters]( and particularly how [sanitation can contribute to the circular economy]( I have been thinking about the benefits of dry sanitation. I am intrigued by the potential of biological means to recover value from diffuse pollution. But could they ever be introduced at large scale?

Continue reading “Dry toilets for all, forever?”

Experting in times of crisis: Ethics of care.

This piece brings together concerns that I have from observing responses to the Cape Town water crisis. It was developed as a talk (slides here) which I never got to give, so I would appreciate input to guide me to develop this further.

This talk is in 5 parts:

  1. if innovation is by poor people, does it count?
  2. experting 101: ethics of care
  3. expert #fail: how not to expert
  4. advanced experting: how to jouissance
  5. in closing

Continue reading “Experting in times of crisis: Ethics of care.”

Response to an interview request 16 Feb 2018

I wrote this for a journalist a while ago. I don’t have time to make it pretty right now, but wanted this out there for a stressful presentation in a  short while. 🙂

Marcel Hartmann, science reporter for Zero Hora

Bernelle Verster, Future Water institute, University of Cape Town 16 Feb 2018

  • What are the reasons for the water shortage in Cape Town? Global warming? Population growth? Lack of environmental politics? I’d like to explain each one of them to our Brazilian readers.

The basic reason is a prolonged extreme drought – very low rainfall.

This drought is in the context of increasing population into the Western Cape, the population has doubled in the last 30 years which has increased water demand to almost equal water supply even during good rainfall years. In addition our population’s overall wealth has been increasing since the advent of democracy, and increasing wealth inevitably leads to higher water consumption.

A changing climate is leading to more extreme weather events – in the bigger picture the Western Cape is getting drier, and when it rains it is more likely to flood.

We do have reasonably good environmental politics but this is also in the face of conflicting political and budgetary demands.

  • Why couldn’t the government prevent this crisis? Cape Town is known for its good water policies…

The government has long-term plans in place that is being implemented. The drought came earlier than the completion of the augmentation measures.

Slide 8 of this presentation shows the extra water supply visually:
The models we have available were not able to predict the extent of the drought. The water policies were able to cope with severe droughts, but this was worse that what they realistically could prepare for. Once the city knew they needed to take action, the inequalities in this country counted against us:

We are one of the most unequal cities in the world. Our middle and upper classes were wasteful water users and not willing to save water until the situation became truly dire. We have an average water use of 235 L per person per day in South Africa – a country whose annual average rainfall (490mm) is half the world average. The average daily water usage per capita in the world is 173 L.

(Sourced from )

At the same time, the rest of the population need to have services delivered – housing, roads, health and education, to improve their quality of life, their ability to contribute economically and build the overall resilience of the region.  Supplying more water had to compete with these needs, while people could save water but didn’t.

3)      Do you believe that the current measures imposed by the city of Cape Town are a good solution?

Yes. The demand reduction measures which include an increased tariff, and the supply augmentation measures are the best the City of Cape Town can do in the current complex mix of challenges and budgetary constraints they face.

The City could have done better with overall political engagement, governance structures, and overall communication – the City could have communicated earlier and their strategy could have been more people-centric. This is a common problem for bureaucracies who manage risk through ‘command and control’ and will have to change with a changing climate, where we cannot predict the best route of action anymore. Resilient cities have engaging communication with the people living and working in the city.

More about that here:

  • Cape Town is the first global city with a real chance of running out of water. May this happen to other cities around the world? Which ones? Why?

Yes.  The rest of South Africa is also in trouble. This is also a global problem that will get worse. We have moved so far out of our buffer zones, that we have very little room to find alternate solutions effectively. We’ve painted ourselves in a corner.

More info:
Top 10 megacities facing a water crisis
Cities ranked by seriousness of water crisis. Bars show population in millions
1 Chengdu, China
2 Lagos, Nigeria
3 Seoul, South Korea
4 Paris, France
5 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
6 Dhaka, Bangladesh
7 Mumbai, India
8 Sao Paulo, Brazil
9 Chennai, India
10 Shenzhen, China

  • São Paulo and Brasilia (Brazil’s capital) have already faced water cuts – not as Cape Town though. What would you say to politics and mostly to people who live in big cities and may face the same problem that people of Cape Town is dealing right now?

Learn from this and build resilient cities. Support and incentivize demand-side interventions by businesses and individuals. Change the income models to not rely on income from services where a decreasing demand (and hence revenue) is contradictory to improved resilience. Invest in green infrastructure – that is not just ‘trees and parks’; it could be engineered, concrete solutions. Green infrastructure is working with natural functions to allow cities and the people with them to work with nature. Green infrastructure appreciates over time, it increases in value and utility, and also increases nearby property values and investment potential. The potential higher upfront cost and possible increased maintenance is worth it. Cities need to communicate better with their constituents, and this takes time. Encourage relationships of care. Support more decentralized solutions, allowing people in their own neighbourhoods to implement solutions and take control over it. This requires a different way of monitoring risk, of creating awareness and managing people. Cities need to take more cognizance of ecosystem services, and the ecologies around cities, and take action to preserve them. We all need to learn and adapt together.

Some more info:

Scaling water interventions

Conversation with someone chatting to me after the UCT water crisis lecture today (by the way, this Future Water page has many interviews and chats about the crisis, in balances informed tones). I didn’t go. Was duckfood shopping with a brief stop to do retail therapy. (The stress to submit the thesis has caused insomnia and to get myself to fall asleep I have been watching, wait for it, nail art videos.) So I went buying nail art stuff. Yup. Glitterified.)

Neil’s been working on sustainable urban water management for a long time. –
His comment about the rainwater tanks (being: rain tanks are a waste of money for the amount of buffering they provide) comes from his PhD student Lloyd Fischer- Jeffes’s work, where they saw that rainwater is more expensive than stormwater harvesting and managed aquifer recharge – which is effectively a huuuuuuge rainwater tank underneath the city.

[another UCT researcher said “imagine if 1/2 a million people had 2000 litre rain tanks, that would be 1000 million litres of water buffered. ]

1000 million litres is two days of CT’s water supply under level 6 restrictions (Is my math correct here?). We get about 6 storms a year, so let’s say we multiply that by 6, gives 12 days of buffering. That’s a lot of effort for not much return. I do think we should encourage rainwater tanks because it’s an easy way to get people to understand their water use and visualise how much they’re using. From comments on FaceBook, this also holds more for a city than for way-out places, where the costs of getting the water there is different, and water security looks a bit different, perhaps.

If you think of the cost of a rainwater tank of 2 000L, what’s that, R5000? multiplied by 500 000 = R2.5 billion? That’s a lot of money for 12 days buffering, think we can do better.

Neil also said something else the other day – someone said we need dual piping to our homes with treated wastewater to flush the toilets. That’s a large cost for the extra set of pipes. There’s also risk of that water potentially being in contact with people, and cleaning wastewater to potable level is cheaper. But, Neil reminded us that the city is actually treating wastewater and reintroducing it into the system, and has done so for a while. This effectively achieves the same as the dual pipes would, for much cheaper. Of course, on the other hand this requires functioning infrastructure, good governance and institutional competence. As a city, we are doing OK with that, but we don’t trust the powers that be.

*** But this begs the question, if we have a certain amount of effort & resources to spend, should that go into innovations that is the equivalent of rainwater tanks, or should we rather work on improving the governance and institutions managing these things? ***

There’s a reason the world is urbanising. It’s more efficient. What we need to learn is how to apply this efficiency also in taking care of our environment and out social structures.

Keeping the loop in mind

Presentation at the UCT Summer School, the pdf is available on the Future Water Institute website.

Kevin asked me to present on Innovations in Urban Water Management, through talking about my house. Instead I wanted to talk about systems, and took a term from the start-up scene ‘keeping the end in mind’, as in, keep your goal in mind, what you want to achieve, or what you want to sell it for. But really, we’re working with systems, and I want to focus on where these systems, these loops come full circle.

Continue reading “Keeping the loop in mind”

Textile arts and crafts

Crochet is awesome – backstory, I picked up a crochet needle while walking the dogs, and thought, hmmm, maybe I should try this out (my partner at the time countered with – I picked up a hypodermic, think I should try cocaine? Well, whatever).

I also like sewing, my grandmother taught me and we share a blissful disregard for patterns.

While crochet and sewing is awesome there’s only so much I can wear. Turns out there is a whole world of people doing all sorts of creative things that have a blissful disregard for convention! This post is a collection for future inspiration.

Martine Celerin 3D dimensional weaving

These inspirations typically live on pinterest – let me know if you’ve found cool stuff!

Inter-generational dynamics

Quartz, my favourite international news-related website/newsletter shared this article about a management exercise about ‘user manuals’. I found it so beautiful, and so much to process, working across generations and being in relationship with someone in some other generation, and not quite fitting into/relating to whatever generation I’m supposed to be in… To me it speaks to the type of systems work, transdisciplinary work we’re doing, it’s not just about coping with people of different ages. As Leah mentions in her piece “The generational divide in today’s modern workplace is unavoidable. … But when generational frustration turns to judgment (which often leads to dismissiveness), no one wins.” I think even once we sort the generations out, or correct for this, different skills and personalities have the same issue.
The user manual has six questions, and I am definitely going to blog my answers:
  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How best to communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me
but the links within of some of the teammates’s perspectives are even better:
Corinne  works remotely and I relate to her strongly, not least aspirationally because of her superb writing and humour.
That question—what do people misunderstand about you?—is not really about other people. It is about how you see yourself.
Her comment about rereading what she shared illustrates the challenge we face with becoming more human at work:
The next day I wake up certain that I have overshared to a wildly inappropriate degree. I open the document in a mild panic and re-read what I wrote. To my surprise, it does not sound like the ranting of an emotional exhibitionist. It doesn’t sound shameful. It just sounds human.
And she concludes:
The point is, the things we find so shameful and embarrassing about ourselves are very rarely as embarrassing or shameful as we believe them to be. Everybody has their quirks. The ability to share those bugs, and to give others the space to share theirs, can actually be a really nice feature.
Leah is my younger self. This year, and the next – 2017 and 2018 – is the time I gave myself to transition to the next stage of my life. I’m not sure what that stage is, but it is definitely a more mature, reflective space – giving, where the previous stage was learning, absorbing, taking. So I am not sure what level of sharing is appropriate. This phrase struck me:
conversations that aren’t consensual.
I work in sanitation and get irate when people don’t want to break taboos around shit, menstruation, wastes, all the things we are evolved to avoid. Because not talking about this kills. At the same time I get equally irate about people sharing inane details about their children with me (I don’t like children) – something we have evolved to indulge. Surely then, we need some way of negotiating what can be talked about and when. I have never thought of conversations as being consensual – I just talk, take it or leave –  and realised my error when reading this. At the same time I am an ardent believer in sharing, vulnerability, I am a full-on Brené Brown disciple. My work and my life is the same thing.
Leah’s bluntness about how the user manual can just skim the surface “All useful to know. But meh.” mirrors my frustration at getting teams to open up, which often doesn’t go as planned, doesn’t go deep enough. But then she follows up with this comment, which also mirrors what I have learnt in the past three years:
It was easy to judge my colleagues’ “weak’ attempts at honesty. Harder was realizing that their silence and restraint was an even more profound form of vulnerability. In holding their cards close, my co-workers demonstrated the importance of moderation, a strength honed through experience and challenges I have not yet known. And in revealing their personalities to me, and to one another, over time, rather than laying themselves bare, they taught me an equally powerful truth—which we’re so deeply deluded about in the age of social media—that exposure doesn’t always equate to honesty.
Lastly, Oliver. To make no bones about it: I struggle tremendously with this archetype. On the one hand, these, what I imagine are mostly white, elder, privileged males trigger me, those are my issues but it’s really a thing, too. On the other, I know that they are very vulnerable in their own way, as Oliver says “These user manuals felt a like a trap, waiting to spring and expose my archaic views about work and life.”
In a previous intimate relationship a lifetime ago I wrote once that I felt hurt by his unwillingness to share, when, in reality, he was unable to. Now, in my current relationship I can see this for what it is, but am still a bit at sea about how to engage with this, to speak to both my and his needs. (I do need to shout out to my special person for being so willing to step out and be vulnerable and try to learn with me. Love.)
Oliver talks about doing what he is told: “instructions I felt I’d been given”.
 I just cannot relate to that. It irritates me that the man can’t think [feel!] for himself. As I said, I’m triggered. I don’t know Oliver and by all counts he’s great. This isn’t personal, and me even writing this is an acknowledgement that this is a generational/sex/class judgement from my side that is problematic, that I need to resolve within myself. To me, this feels like ramblings of an out-of-date generation struggling desperately to remain relevant. I am frustrated with myself for feeling this because it prevents me from tapping into the vast depths of knowledge and (still relevant) experience they can offer.
He scoffs about how millennials carry on about how they want to be treated. But, relating to millennials, we are trying to optimise how to get the best work done. This isn’t about how to treat/coddle us, this is about the best use of your investment into us. We are thinking about your ROI. I feel that Oliver struggles to see that how he defines a word is different from how ‘we’ define it. For example:
community: Oliver seems to think community is a place where we are all treated alike, identical (which isn’t even true, but, hey, triggered). To me, community is a grouping sharing the same vision, or values, and desired outcome, and work within an ecosystem of sorts. The most critical thing about an ecosystem is diversity, and diverse things behave differently (judging a fish by their ability to climb a tree and all that), and to get the ecosystem/community to perform the best, they should be treated differently. In our transdisciplinary work (to simplify horribly), we need the social scientists and the civil engineers to do their work best, and to talk to each other. But sending a social scientist a spreadsheet with a deadline and no context and then letting them get on with it is just dumb. And how about inviting that engineer for some story-boarding? Are you out of your mind? The social scientist and engineer may well share the same office, collaborate on the same documents, but their daily routine and how I talk to them looks very different indeed. Let’s not even get into that some people are morning people, in the office by 6am and some people like to get to work by 11am. I just don’t see why this can possibly be a bad thing. Both those groups are willing to pitch to Monday meetings at 8am, or site evaluations at 6pm, but the rest of the week they do their thing. It’s a conversation.
(yes, these are real examples. I love my job)
respect:  whoooh. I’m looking for a quote that doesn’t get my heckles up. It’s not this one:

 If you’ve read this far, you know I don’t mind writing about myself, and as with most first-person essays, I’m only revealing to you as much of myself as I want. That was true of the user manuals: I opened the door, but not more than I wanted.

I used mine to stake out some territory I felt important, about not making assumptions about what we think we all believe and know.


To me, respect is not ‘on my terms’. Respect about outside of my terms. Empathy. Coming to the party without the ‘only as much as I want’ bit. Or maybe that’s trust. Respect is opening the door as much as is needed. How much you want is a different issue. Respect is stepping back from what you feel is important and looking at what others may feel is important and only then making the informed decision. Yes, what you feel is important, of course, but it is not the only thing. Maybe Oliver gets this but writes it differently, but writing that already breaks me. My problem with this generation, and it’s really a pity that the example of this generation is male, because, you know, triggered, is the ambiguity. In that one sentence there is both ‘my territory’ and ‘not making assumptions about what we all believe’. With that sentence what I see is that “I don’t make assumptions about what you believe – I state what I believe and I don’t care about what you believe”. So it’s true you didn’t make assumptions, but that’s not helpful at all. At the same time, again, I can see that this is Oliver feeling very vulnerable indeed. I do feel sympathetic to that, I really do. I just also remember Margaret Atwood’s saying “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”


 It’s not this one either:
Our team often writes about politically sensitive topics, and it’s easy to assume we’re all on the same page. That’s a mistake, and if we’re not comfortable raising opposing views, we risk falling into group-think.
I’ve given up raising opposing viewpoints because our points of view are not ‘opposing’, they’re parallel worlds. Never the twain shall meet. We speak such different languages that I cannot get to a common point to even interrogate where we disagree.
Perhaps his point on a previous manager “Managers had no regard for my responsibilities away from work” indicates a lack of respect, but I’m not sure he sees this as a lack of respect. It’s something, sure, that caused trauma. But to me if someone bugs me, if I was a man, while my wife was in labour, that would be such a profound illustration of lack of respect I’d be out of there straight away. This would not be be to me a simple “using personal information as a cudgel against me”. Respect is not simply what tone and type of words one uses in communication.
Consider this. In Oliver’s defense against the user manual group exercise, he says “[previous employers] had expectations about how I was to do my job, and I had expectations about how they would perform theirs as a manager, and generally we agreed. ” But then he also says ” The phone could ring at night or on the weekend, and I would be expected to drop whatever plans I had and plunge into writing and reporting, often for hours. ” which caused him trauma. Expectations that were disrespectful, so in dire need of re-examining, of which the user manual exercise could be a useful tool. But he sees the user manual as a threatening thing that makes him “wary about blurring the lines between work and home”. I struggle to see why he doesn’t see that the user manual exercise is all about solidifying the line about what is work and what is home, by being more explicit and communicative about it!
He ends with “Ultimately I don’t know how much difference the manuals will make in our day-to-day work—I intended to treat my colleagues with respect and honesty before we began, and that won’t change”.  
To process Oliver’s point on respect, I want to come back to Corinne’s point ( a joke and red herring, apparently, but a real thing in my workplace over which I have exploded at least once before)
I strongly dislike the administrative busywork that tends to fall on women in a workplace, stuff like deciding who brings snacks to the meeting and planning Secret Santa. I express that I would rather not have Secret Santa than waste time talking about Secret Santa.
 To me, it feels like to Oliver, respectful engagement means you do the planning around Secret Santa because that is expected, and you never even engage with why it’s always women who end up doing this. Anyways, triggered. I’m going to need help on writing this post the way I need to, to make it useful.