Many residents in Cape Town’s townships and informal settlements are frustrated with the limited access to water and sanitation services. To understand these experiences and gather information to present to decision-makers, ACDI researchers Gina Ziervogel and Johan Enqvist teamed up with the Western Cape Water Caucus (WCWC). The aim was to conduct a study that will help WCWC’s work to improve conditions in communities, support its members to learn how to do “citizen science”, and to produce qualified and relevant academic research.
The project was named Community Resilience in Cape Town (CoReCT) and was possible thanks to critical support from Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG, a local NGO) as well as researchers John van Breda and Luke Metelerkamp at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST). The team relied on a powerful tool called SenseMaker, which is used to collect stories to describe people’s own experiences and problems. Working together, WCWC members and the researchers designed a SenseMaker approach for the purpose of understanding water-related issues in urban low-income areas. WCWC then worked over three months in 2019 to collect 311 stories from the neighbourhoods where some of its members lived: Mitchells Plain, Du Noon, Makhaza, Joe Slovo, Green Park, Kraaifontein, as well as other areas (see map).
A map showing the number of stories collected at each site.
The CoReCT project is an example of transdisciplinary research, in which both academic scholars, community members and other stakeholders are seen as legitimate holders and producers of knowledge. Combining different perspectives builds a better understanding especially of complex problems. For this purpose, WCWC appointed 12 members who worked with ACDI researchers to decide what questions the project should try to answer, and how to best find residents with stories to share.
The WCWC members then went to their own communities as ‘story collectors’, interviewing people about water issued they had faced and tried to address. By using this approach and their own familiarity with the areas, the story collectors were able to have open, honest conversations about people’s experiences, and to capture this in a way that could be used for scientific analysis.
Key emerging insights
The stories people shared paint a picture of great frustration in communities. Most of them describe problems that are still waiting to be resolved, and only one in seven report that they usually get help when they seek assistance to solve an issue. Those who are able to resolve a problem usually do so within the community; only 2% of stories describe successful problem-solving by the municipality. Still, the municipality is who most people would like to hear their stories.
The most common problems are incorrect water bills, malfunctioning water management devices (WMDs), and leaking pipes. That the WMDs are giving people problems is remarkable since the City introduced them as a tool to help residents manage their water use – not cause more problems. Currently, many residents feel forced to bypass the law by disconnecting the devices or hiring private plumbers, since they do not know how to find help from the City. This puts them at risk of new problems further down the line, including fines and disconnected water supply.
The CoReCT project is of great value for efforts to address Cape Town’s water problems. It has helped empower WCWC as a voice representing local communities, and it has generated new information and understanding about people’s everyday struggles in what is often the city’s most disadvantaged areas. This knowledge has already helped guide discussions between WCWC, City representatives and other community organisations about how to best address the complex web of water-related problems. Last but not least, the project has also generated valuable academic research in the form of research papers, reinforced collaborative bonds between ACDI and CST, and generated important lessons about running transdisciplinary projects.
This project was led by WCWC and ACDI, and funded by an AXA grant for research on water governance and resilience in cities. It was supported by EMG and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at the University of Stellenbosch. Key researchers include:
Gina Ziervogel, ACDI, Principal Investigator
Johan Enqvist, ACDI, Researcher
Jan van Breda, CST, Researcher
Luke Metelerkamp, Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University (previously CST), Researcher