Water Sensitive Urban Design Guideline Launch


The WRC has invested in a five-year Community of Practice programme which started in 2014 and is aimed at developing human resource capital and expertise in this area through discussion platforms, workshops, dialogues, conferences and co-funded research projects

In 2013, the Water Research Commission initiated the Water Sensitive Design Lighthouse to strengthen South Africa’s research approaches to urban planning and design that integrates land and water planning and management into urban design. (The WRC Lighthouses are transdisciplinary, multi-departmental and inter-institutional mega-projects examining priority water issues across the innovation value chain.) The purpose of this lighthouse is to develop a critical mass of knowledge around the integration of planning activities for the adoption of more integrated and sustainable solutions using the water sensitive design lens for urban, peri-urban and rural environments.

The WRC has invested in a five-year Community of Practice programme which started in 2014 and is aimed at developing human resource capital and expertise in this area through discussion platforms, workshops, dialogues, conferences and co-funded research projects. A critical aim of the Community of Practice programme is to ensure that water planners and urban planners and designers are aligning towards sustainability by providing platforms for engagement. The WRC, in partnership with the University of Cape Town hosted an interactive dialogue by international and local experts on the issue by interrogating current research and identifying new research needed to better inform policy decisions and actions on how incentives can be improved and capabilities strengthened. The WRC’s flagship WSD Lighthouse was launched along with the two framework reports that have contributed to the development of the Lighthouse.

Water Research Commission CEO, Dhesigen Naidoo, said Water is a fundamental enabler for all life of planet Earth and has also become one of the foremost global risks as presented by the latest Global Risks 2015 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF).  This places water ahead of hazards such as the spread of infectious disease, the failure to adapt to climate change, and interstate conflict. The WEF report states by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. In countries such as India and regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, urban centres are predicted to expand up to five times.

The fact that the future megacities of the world are now still smaller towns and cities, especially in Africa, offered a unique opportunity for water sensitive design, said Dhesigen. “Retrofitting existing designs is much more difficult than getting it right from the start.” Africa especially now had to opportunity to design and plan its cities from the start in a way that made sense for water.

South Africa had two cities that developed in the last 15 years, namely Mbombela and Rustenburg, where it missed the opportunity to incorporate WSD. According to Dhesigen, the following 3 paradigm shifts needed to take place in order to apply WSD to city design and planning in the future:

  • Urbanisation is an opportunity for better water management across the water lifecycle.
  • Towns and cities are no longer only consumers of water services, but active in managing and contributing to the water cycle.
  • Urban areas can in the future be major players in agriculture and a net provider of ecosystems services

Keynote speaker, Prof Ana Deletic, Professor in Water Engineering and Associate Dean of Research (Engineering) at Monash University and Co-founded of Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities said that with water resources becoming scarcer, the world now had to think about integrating the streams of the water cycle (i.e. fresh and wastewater). Cities such as Melbourne in Australia had to rethink the way they were managing water when there was a drought. Many of these cities were now becoming water smart. Wastewater was now being seen as a resource and was being recycled while stormwater is now harvested instead of being allowed to run out of the city. “The city releases more water as stormwater and wastewater than what it uses,” she noted. 

 Prof Deletic said it was also important to address the social component around WSD as there was still much resistance to it. Challenges in cities, such as institutional fragmentation, undefined organisational responsibilities, limited political incentives and poor organisational commitment all hampered the implementation of WSD.

Professor Neil Armitage, Head of the Urban Water Management Department from University of Cape Town launched the WRC reports on WSD. The first was the South African Guidelines for Sustainable Drainage Systems. Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) attempts to manage surface water drainage systems holistically in line with the ideals of sustainable development. It aims for design for water quantity management, water quality treatment, enhanced amenity, and the maintenance of biodiversity. In so doing, many of the negative environmental impacts of stormwater are mitigated and some benefits may, in fact, be realised.

Prof Armitage explained that instead of transporting stormwater away from cities, SuDS attempt to mimic the pre-development ecological situation with regards to runoff quality. “The fact of the matter is that we have run out of dam building sites – our traditional method for augmenting water supply in South Africa – we need to work better with the water we have, including our stormwater and wastewater, “ Prof Armitage said.

The second report to be launched as Water sensitive urban design for South Africa: Framework and guidelines. This study was aimed at providing strategic guidance to urban water management decision-makers (primarily city managers and other local authority officials) on the use of WSD in a South African context. It introduces the philosophy of WSD – a new paradigm in urban water management – and starts to build the case for its adoption in a water scarce country such as South Africa, as well as providing a base for future studies.

The publication provides guidance on the various WSUD strategies that could be adopted to achieve this, as well as giving an indication of appropriate modelling tools. A policy review (including institutional and legal issues) was also carried out in order to identify obstacles to WSUD and to provide recommendations on how they may be overcome. “We now have some tools and examples. We need to engage and experiment and share our lessons learnt,” noted Prof Armitage.  While it was not possible to turn South Africa’s cities green in a day, the history of our cities showed that change is indeed possible, he further noted.

Focusing on the future the benefits of WSD for South Africa should be further explored and that all role players should continuously engage on the best way forward in converting our cities to water-sensitive urban spaces.

Source: WRC

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