The coastal city of Cape Town in South Africa’s Western Cape faces a unique set of challenges as its past and future meet. Its sprawling and underserviced townships — a legacy of South Africa’s history of apartheid — are at risk as climate change adds to sea level rise, the intensity of storms, and rainfall variability.
Over the past two decades, the city’s pace of development has almost doubled, much of it along the coast and in low-lying inland areas where many of the city's poorest live. In July 2009, up to 20,000 residents of informal settlements were driven from their waterlogged homes by heavy rains. The flooding — and the destruction it has brought to poor neighbourhoods — has increased tensions between residents and city officials.
From 2010 to 2013, research led by the University of Cape Town, in collaboration with the Stockholm Environment Institute and the City of Cape Town, focused on how decisions are made in response to inland flooding. Using the township of Philippi as a local case study, the team looked at residents groups and city departments. They also used geographic information system (GIS) technologies and surveys to map risk and resilience in the study areas. Their aim? To strengthen decision-making and reduce conflict through a well-grounded diagnosis of the problems, taking on board the views and the dynamics of all key stakeholders.
Social factors affect resilience
Vulnerability mapping was carried out in three flood prone areas within Philippi: Graveyard Pond, Egoli, and Europe. Satellite data and community-based information were collected and interpreted in such a way that results can be integrated into a GIS database that the Cape Town City Council uses for risk assessment.
The mapping illustrated not just areas at greatest risk from flooding, but also how exposed various households were to a range of hazards. It documented social factors, such as employment and family status, which made some households more resilient, or less so. The mapping highlights key infrastructure and geographic features, such as roads and drainage systems, that determine residents' level of vulnerability.
To explore the city response, researchers interviewed officials in various departments in 2010 and engaged with the city’s Flood and Storms Planning Task Team over a two-and-a-half-year period. They found that, given their different mandates, each department had its own understanding of flood risk. This posed coordination challenges. Most departments also lacked sufficient staff.
Better communication, less conflict
The project has led to a number of concrete improvements in communication between the city and settlement representatives. The Flood and Storms Planning Task Team is to become a single point of contact with residents, to reduce conflicting lines of communication. Communities and city departments have clarified their respective roles and responsibilities in preparing for and responding to floods. Community representatives now better understand the city’s efforts, and are more willing to discuss how best to implement adaptation plans at the community level. One important sign of progress is the fact that these discussions will take place in the settlements, facilitated by the University of Cape Town. The city had earlier feared that dialogue held in communities would invite protest.
The research is also bringing proposed improvements in coastal management closer to reality. Members of the team played an important role in garnering input on bylaws to enact the city’s integrated coastal management policy and coastal zone management act. The bylaws are now awaiting final approval.
Mary O'Neill is an Ottawa-based writer.
This article profiles a project supported by IDRC’s Climate Change and Water program, The Power of Collaborative Governance: Managing the Risks Associated with Inland Flooding in the City of Cape Town. You'll find more results from this project here.
Watch an interview with researcher Anton Cartwright: