We walked along a river in Cape Town

Cape Town has a strange relationship to its rivers. In colonial years streams from Table Mountain were canalised as ‘graghts’ (to which a few city centre streets are still named after) to provide trading ships with fresh water and produce. Two hundred years later entire wetland bodies were filled to create townships under the oppressive apartheid regime. These days urban developments have tended to entrench this antagonistic relationship to rivers which continue to be treated as open sewers of Waste Treatment sites and unchecked stormwater culverts. There is also zero recreational or aesthetic value to our urban rivers.

 The high residential density in townships have results to land occupations near sensitive wetlands. Photo: Walter Fieuw

The high residential density in townships have results to land occupations near sensitive wetlands. Photo: Walter Fieuw

Over the years, citizen groups such as Reclaim ‘Camissa’ ('the place of sweet waters', the Khoi name for Cape Town) have emerged to re-established our forgotten connection to water, and the recent drought has brought a level of sobriety of our use of scarce natural resources, despite the political mudslinging. Environmental watchdogs, interest groups and international NGOs have continued to warn of the ongoing neglect.

Cape Town has some of the most unhealthy rivers in the country. Kuils River is one of these and was declared a ‘health hazard’ by the local government in 2013. This river runs for approximately 30km from the Durbanville Hills through middle-income neighbourhoods of Bellville and Kuilsriver, through the Driftsands Nature Reserve, past lower-income neighbourhoods of Delft and Belhar to the township communities of Mfuleni and Khayelitsha (wetland parks) before it joins the ocean in False Bay near Macassar. It drains an area of approximately 300 square kilometres.

 Basic GIS mapping of river section (2/3rds) in relation to wetlands and water quality monitoring points. Source: Making of Cities, for EDP

Basic GIS mapping of river section (2/3rds) in relation to wetlands and water quality monitoring points. Source: Making of Cities, for EDP

Working for and with the Economic Development Partnership, Making of Cities has been supporting the establishment of the Metro Central Partnership. This is a new area-based initiative supporting the inter-departmental and inter-governmental joint planning of major infrastructure projects including 8km Blue Downs Rail Link, major pre-built and incremental housing projects, planning and development of a 5km2 strategic site (Swartklip) and smaller economic development opportunities around the informal economy. The MCP also plays a vital role in building credible relationships with affected interest groups and communities.

There is potential to turn around this antagonism against rivers in Cape Town. Today, the MCP hosted a diverse group from local and provincial government, the national transport authority and community groups to explore the various users near the river. We visited a new industrial expansion built in the past five years, neighbourhoods at canalised areas (canalisation took place early 1990s), and saw how the natural flow (in stormy weather) passed through communities into the Khayelitsha Wetland Parks, an excellent example of a socio-environmental response to a complex river system.

Meeting with community residents in Wesbank was a highlight. Wesbank is a neighbourhood on the western bank of the Kuils River comprised of a very young population (61% under 29 years old) and high very unemployment (see Wazi Map, Ward 19 for a demographic profile). Local community organiser Hilton Davids is working to educate youth about their natural environment and runs a monthly local river clean-up event in hotspots where illegal dumping frequently occurs.

Wesbank is spatially segregated from the city, with a river to one side and a motorway (R300) to the other side. A few pedestrian bridges connect it. Gang territories are real in lower-income communities, and just yesterday a gang gunned down a man on one of these bridges. In 2012, at the height of gang battles, 50 casualties were recorded in 38 weeks.

Hilton explained how his community group pursued a local gang to relinquish an abandoned building used as a drug trade hotspot. This abandoned building site is being improved incrementally and is now the Happiness Haven Centre which has a recycling centre, feeding scheme area and after school activities. The persuasion was simple and so effective: these are also your children, and here you have an opportunity to become whole again also. The vision was so compelling that the gang gave up a part of their territory. Hilton wants to see children back in school, considering the high drop out rates, and has partnered with a large food retailer Shoprite to feed 150 children at school daily, and 600 adults once weekly.

Planning with rivers recognises the variety of needs of users, biodiversity value, water quality and many other indicators which makes cities with positive relationships to their rivers so appealing. In Cape Town, there is a very long way to go, but positive community initiatives and government-led ecological planning are certainly steps in the right direction.

Further reading:

  • Water Research Council: Exploring landscape green innovations to improve aquatic ecosystem services for the benefit of urban and peri-urban communities: A case study of the Khayelitsha Wetlands. 2017 Report

  • ICLEI: Sustainable River-based Urban Planning for Sub-Saharan Africa Website 

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