The residents of Cape Town’s low income communities have long been frustrated in their access to water and sanitation services. In most townships and informal settlements of the city, water access is limited and unreliable, compared to wealthier parts of the city. How do citizens cope with water challenges at a neighborhood level, and how does this matter for water governance at the city level? One of the gaps in managing water at a City level is the limited public engagement in water issues and the exclusion of different social perspectives. How often does the Municipality take time to listen to the experiences of citizens’ lived realities in their struggle with water access? And how can these different social perspectives provide value to decision makers in urban governance?
To understand these experiences and gather information, researchers from the African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI) teamed up with a social movement, the Western Cape Water Caucus (WCWC). Together, they developed a transdisciplinary project which aimed to amplify the voices of residents in low-income and informal settlements, and to build capacity of this movement to continue such work. The project, named Community Resilience in Cape Town (CoReCT), conducted a study that would support the Water Caucus’ work to improve conditions in communities, develop the activists’ research skills, and produce qualified and relevant academic research.
The project included support from a local NGO, Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) as well as researchers from Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST). The team used a tool called SenseMaker, which was used to collect stories to describe people’s own experiences. The tool asks follow up questions about the story shared so that the interviewee can code or “make sense” of the problems described in their stories. The WCWC members and the researchers designed the SenseMaker approach together, deciding what questions the project should try to answer, and how to best find residents with stories to share. This project is an example of transdisciplinary research, where the academic researchers and community members are seen as legitimate holders and producers of knowledge. Through combining different perspectives, a better understanding is built especially of complex problems.
Over 3 months in 2019, the WCWC members went to their own communities as ‘story collectors’, interviewing people about water issues they had faced and tried to address. The stories reflect the neighbourhoods where the Water Caucus member lived, such as Mitchells Plain, Du Noon, Makhaza, Joe Slovo, Green Park, Kraaifontein, Khayelitsha, and other areas. 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 in their mother tongue, and to capture this in a way that could be used for scientific analysis.
CITIZEN SCIENCE — COLLECTING DATA
Working together, the group of WCWC members and the researchers came together in workshops to design the questionnaire for the purpose of understanding water-related issues in working class and poor, that is, low-income areas. WCWC members worked for 3 months to collect 311 interviews from several sites, including their own areas. Sites in the research included (as seen in the map left — ©️ACDI) Du Noon, Joe Slovo , Delft, Green Park, Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha, Makhaza, among others.
Most of the stories describe the frustration of citizens and problems that are 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, most people would like the municipality to be the ones to hear their stories.
The most common problems that came up in the stories were around water bills, leaking pipes and water management devices (WMDs) that are not functioning properly. That the WMDs are giving people problems is ironic 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 get help from the City. This puts them at risk of new problems further down the line, including fines and disconnected water supply.
Drawing on this community-generated data helps to understand the mismatch between government interventions and people’s lived realities. It also generated new skills and knowledge to empower the community activists in their efforts to address water injustice in the city. If citizens better understand urban governance they can hold the government accountable and understand what their role might be in building water resilience.
Explore some of the mini-narratives by visiting the ‘People Stories’ layer on our map.
[Information drawn from the ACDI webpages on Urban Water Governance and Community Resilience in Cape Town.]