Engineers: we need to talk.

Something happened today which made me think about how we deal with ‘respect’, and the ‘old guard’ and ‘engineers’. I’m still processing what happened and many of the people I am discussing this with requests confidentiality, so maybe I’ll update this later once we agree on it all and have their permission. It did remind me of a few things, most notably a workshop on complexity we had in March 2018.

Sometimes when people ask me why Future Water exists, before I go into the transdisciplinary blah blah company line, I say that we’re trying to teach engineers to talk to other people. It started as a joke, because it was launched by a team who consisted mostly of engineers, and is currently hosted in the Engineering Faculty, but I am more and more convinced that is what our true purpose is.

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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?

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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.

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