Future Water Symposium 2017 — How to become hopeful in the midst of a crisis

On the 28th of July, the Future Water Research Institute at UCT hosted a one day symposium to discuss equity and efficiency in the water allocation of South Africa. Part of the topic for the day was to challenge existing attitudes and behaviour in the sector and the general population. As was pointed out early on, this comes at an important moment in our city and the country where we need to stop talking about a “looming water crisis” in South Africa — the crisis has actually arrived and we need to deal with it as such.

The reason for me to write a blog about the day is because it highlighted a couple of important aspects:

1. One should always harness a crisis. Rarely will we have more passion, urgency and commitment in a room, then when it does indeed look like water will be running out. Most of us will move from a blame-game to looking forward, since trying to find out who messed up becomes a tedious exercise (particularly when rainfall could be blamed…). The urgency of the crisis does not allow for dwelling in the past or naval gazing, some action is required.

2. The challenge with urgency can be that we ignore lessons learnt, stop reflecting and might not see the forest for the trees by being so focused on “finding a solution”.

3. The walls of academia might indeed fall, if we have a common goal that goes beyond the publication in a recognised journal. When we as academics literally feel the fear of not having enough water, the challenge moves from theory to practise. Socially responsive research becomes a reality on its own accord — without manufacturing a definition of what such research entails. Collaboration becomes a vehicle build by need, not by the theoretical notion of the potential benefits of interdisciplinary work.

When we sit in a room together to realise that not a single knowledge group or discipline has the answer, when the problems move beyond “wicked” to “scary” than it seems that all the good things of “putting our heads together” come out in the open.

In the midst of the crisis, I felt much hope when I drove home that evening. This might be a time for Cape Town where we change and claim our City to reflect our position in the country and the continent. Where we move from a green lawn colony to a space that is defined by fynbos and rock. Where we see the transformation from rolling lawns to the indigenous as a form of decolonisation that is important to us, rather than a terrible solution we had to take because we ran out of water. Where we do away with pavements and tar and move towards sustainable drainage systems. Where we have the clarity to recognise that water-born sanitation is not the future, independent if we can afford it or not. Perhaps this is the time we have all been waiting for?

For our own research in iCOMMS, I felt that the day will help us to identify some new avenues for the future and I would like to highlight some of my lessons learnt.

Early on in the day, Prof Alison Lewis, the Dean of the Engineering and Built Environment Faculty, raised the point that the current discussions of the plight and challenge of managing the water crisis, can equally be an opportunity that we can use to be creative and find solutions, to show leadership in a very complex territory. The water crisis is bigger than just the issue of having enough water — it affects many fields of research and as we often discussed in the iCOMMS team, this is an environment where humility and respect to different knowledge types will be paramount. This may be one of the few times in academia that challenges the conventional knowledge creation and distribution.

Water is needed for a variety of purposes as Dr Carden highlighted. In South Africa agriculture remains the highest consumer with a 63% water usage rate. Municipal and domestic water use lies at 26% and the industrial sector uses 11% of which between 2–5% are linked to the mining industry.

DVC Prof Loretta Ferris spoke to the notion of water security and water justice in the context of equitable distribution. Affordability and access to water in a water scarce country require us to think carefully about our institutional structures and how important an attitude to equitable distribution becomes in that context. She raised the point of cultural claims to water, a point that was picked up by the next speaker. Whilst the marine environment has looked into this in more detail, nothing has been done to engage with that particular topic in the general water access environment.

Nikiwe Solomon, a PhD candidate in the School of African & Gender Studies Anthropolgy and Linguistics, gave a fascinating talk on the ontologies of fluid relationships with water. The important message for me out of her talk was how our understanding of engagement with different stakeholder groups in a city result in creating new complexities. As the iCOMMS research team, we have experienced a similar phenomenon in multiple environments. Our language as academics, as technical experts separates us from people who should benefit from our knowledge but also — and potentially more importantly — share their knowledge with us. When we call something vandalism or protest, we have already taken an internal stance without reflecting on the bigger picture. Nikki used in a beautiful way the fable of the blind men and the elephant to create a picture for all of us what a river means to different people. We individually may only see one aspect of the river and describe the river by only describing the tusk.

Prof Martine Visser highglighted the notion of behavioural economics and its purpose in changing attitudes towards water use. In the context of demand water management behaviour change is what may in the end save us all. Behavioural economics combines insights from cognitive and social psychology to model human behaviour. Behavioural insights in the water demand context have shown that salience, social norm and recognition may impact the way we use water. Some of this sounds very similar to trying to bring up a child in a positive way, but true enough it does work for me. If someone in my neighbourhood saves more water, I do try harder to get better. Prof Visser highlighted the outcomes of a randomised control trial that was done in the City of Cape Town in which 400 000 households took part. Knowledge inserts in the water bill resulted in an average saving of 2–3.5%, but the interesting finding was that there was an additive response between a tariff change and the social nudges. I am looking forward to the release of the findings of this particular study.

Prof Horman Chitonge from the Centre of African Studies, gave an interesting presentation on water affordability and how we can and should assess the inviable burden for the poor. The invisible costs and burdens of access to water result in a disproportionally higher burden to the poor. He spoke about the link between sustainability, affordability and the impact on the end consumer. Based on the equity principle poorer households should not be disproportionately burdened with water expenses when compared to rich households. What gets often forgotten in the calculation of cost, is the size of the burden or invisible costs. For example, the time spent fetching water, the labour carrying water, the different levels of service, uncertainty in service supply and the physical risk to women and children in carrying heavy water buckets. Affordability assessments should speak to such social cost and not only reflect the cost of infrastructure and delivery. We need to rethink our understanding of who carries the largest burden in the water sector.

Vicki Shaw concluded the talks by speaking to the role of mining industry and the need to establish a collaborative platform to address the water challenge within that sector. A new approach has been developed by the mining companies based on the realisation that the existing water use models need to be overhauled. If the water use model can be changed, it could potentially result in water becoming available for other sectors, such as agriculture for example.

After the talks, a short engagement via the platform and lunch, we went into discussion and brainstorm sessions, in which the room was split into many subgroups discussing a variety of questions. Under #FutureWater the results were published using a new approach of knowledge distribution — Twitter! A refreshing end to a fantastic workshop.

All in all a day, where we got a bit of a better picture of the elephant, not a detailed picture and we might all still be stuck staring at the elephants tusk — but at least we are now aware that we are dealing with a rather big animal…

adopted South African, Academic at UCT and Mother of 2

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store