Kuils River Series: Part 3
Governance and River Relationships

by Nikiwe Solomon

In the previous blog, the story of Nazeem the horse farmer illustrated the intense frustration of the Sandvlei community because, during a drawn-out legal battle, not enough was done with any urgency to alleviate the worsening problems facing the Kuils river. Why did the City of Cape Town ignore this community’s pleas for action and wait for the litigation to be completed? The City’s inaction raises the question: does a corporate entity’s right to appeal and contest a tender outweigh citizens’ rights to a clean environment?

While the court case dragged on, no precautionary measures were taken to ensure the health and safety of the human and multi-species communities along the river, thereby exposing them to forms of slow violence and health risks: a politics that could lead to premature death. Thinking about problems like this in a different context, Steve Lerner (2011) proposes a compelling argument for why prevailing environmental management must be re-examined to emphasise what scientists refer to as “the precautionary principle,” a commitment to preventing harms, or, at the very least, protecting communities and their environment as much as possible. This argument, which he arrived at after two years of research and work with twelve communities in the middle of toxic ‘sacrifice zones’ in the United States, is backed by irrefutable evidence that not all Americans are created equal. Similarly, Robert D. Bullard’s book, Sacrifice Zones, reveals that one of the most important indicators of an American individual’s health is their ZIP (postal) code, which corresponds to histories of segregation between communities of colour and white communities. For Lerner, this pattern of unequal protections constitutes environmental racism, as sacrifice zones are often occupied by low-income people of colour — a trend we also see in Cape Town. In such spaces, the well-being of people and the environment are side-lined in the name of ‘economic development’ and ‘progress’, often brought about by technical proposals and responses assumed to be objective and neutral. By this logic, while upgrades to the Kuils River and its associated landscapes are deemed necessary to development goals (more often than not determined and imposed by society’s elites), they have done little to prevent its sacrifice. It has become one of those zones where lives (human, flora and fauna) are regarded as cheap, and disposable in the interests of economic and political opportunity.

Like the permanent and unbending relationship that concrete is meant to have with water, bureaucratic relationships with citizens did not shift or bent to ensure the well-being of the Zandvliet community, instead “following procedure” for ten years. In the meantime, the growing demand for housing in the upper sections of the catchment required more stormwater pipes to divert surface runoff into the river, an upgrade of the Zandvliet WWTW, and the building of the ‘Kak River’ canal to increase the flow capacity into the Kuils River. The result was too much wastewater being pumped into the river from the WWTW, large volumes of earth being excavated, and concrete being poured in an area characterised by critically endangered sand dunes. Too little had been done over many years to ensure the well-being of those living along the river, and the upgrades came too late for people such as Nazeem, who lost his entire livelihood in this time.

Water sample of water from the Kuils River

For infrastructure to function over long periods of time, it must be upgraded and retrofitted to meet new demands. Yet this presents a paradox: from its beginning, the building in the past of the WWTW and, by extension, the stormwater drains, canals and gabions (a type of wired basket filled with various rocks or soil that helps prevent erosion or retain a slope, commonly used in streambanks and areas with steep slopes) of the Kuils, has compromised the quality of life and well-being of people and the river in the present. The growth of the city has necessitated the upgrade of the WWTW and Kuils infrastructure to deal with future growth – and future problems – but this has taken the form of bridging the unequal service delivery of colonialism and apartheid to the rapid development and increased demand for services of the present, while anticipating the population growth and climate change of the future.

Through the relentless application of logic out of time with Nature, places such as Sandvlei become sacrifice zones that bear the burden of past infrastructure upgrades in the contemporary moment. That they will also continue to pay the price into the future is shown in the fact that, while increasing capacity for the volume of its output, the city’s resilience and waste management future planning has not taken into account the current or future effects on the people and multi-species communities living in close proximity to or reliant on the river.

In the last blog of this series, my focus will shift to these communities, especially the non-human lives whose possibility of flourishing is also being endangered by poor human decisions and behaviours.