Why Day Zero Couldn't Happen!

See the amended version on The Conversation

When dealing with a complex crisis such as the Cape Town water situation, it is important to understand how proposed interventions would achieve the intended goals by using systems thinking. The world has zoomed its focus to Cape Town as the city faces an impending threat of “Day Zero” – albeit with shifting dates. Day Zero represents the point at which the municipality turns of water distribution system for much of the city except strategic and vulnerable areas. The big question is whether the measures in place to manage Day Zero on a day-to-day basis are robust or even feasible. The city has broadcast a disaster management strategy which includes establishing 200 water distribution points across the city, at which citizens can collect their 25 litre daily water allocation. This thought piece utilised system dynamics – a modelling approach - to simulate water collection in this manner over the course of a day (24 hours). Key assumptions were made: the population of Cape Town is estimated at 4 million people – 700 000 people who live in strategic areas or informal settlements will not have their taps turned off – 800 000 people within proximity of informal settlements will potentially source water there; 2 500 000 people will be required to collect water at designated water points; 200 distribution points are planned; an average of 50 taps per distribution site; water distributed is 25 litres per person – individuals are able to collect up to 100 litres a day to cover four day of consumption or share with other members of their household - this model assumes that the whole population must receive their allocation, but does not specify the hoarding or sharing behaviours which enable this; initial water pressure is assumed at a level which allows outflow of 10 litres per minute, which implies it requires 2.5 minutes to fill 25 litres or service one person; a waiting delay of half a minute (30 seconds) from changing between containers and people is assumed; equal distribution of people per water distribution point is assumed.

Insights and possible reactions
With the above assumptions, it would require 12.5 hours to provide water to the entire population per day, which can be cumbersome! Possible reactions to deal with the Day Zero water supply approach, illustrated in Figure 1, include: (i) doubling the number of distribution points (grey), which would require increasing the distribution points from 200 to 400, which will enable serving the population within 5 hours; (ii) changing water pressure to between 20 – 30 litres per minute (yellow), based on the population requiring to be serviced, which enables servicing the population within 8 hours; (iii) increasing the number of taps per distribution point to 75 or 100 per distribution point (blues), which would make it possible to service the population within 9 hours and 7 hours respectively. A combined scenario of 75 taps per site and increasing water pressure to 20 – 30 litres per minute, while maintaining the 200 sites (green), shows that the population are serviced much faster but within 6 hours. This appears more practical scenario, than doubling distribution points, with only one hour less time (5 hours) in servicing the population, in comparison with the combined scenario.

Figure 1_Population Serviced per Distribution Point Scenarios
Figure 1: Population Serviced per Distribution Point Scenarios

Socio-political dynamics of water crisis

Water crisis is a socio-political issue, and the insights discussed above could function perfectly as technical solutions. However, socio-political realities would quickly undermine these imagined, technical, plausible scenarios. For instance, how can the city ensure that people are taking the allocated amount of water? How would military order at a distribution point look in practice? What is the extent of conflict arising at the water points due to long queues and unmanaged behaviours, and how does this compromise the ability to service the people at a distribution point? To what extent can the water crisis contribute to some sort of social cohesion, given that water does not discriminate against anyone? How can water remain in the commons when those with means are able to develop private sources?

The aggregate impact of socio-political dynamics deviates from the well-organised technical solutions proposed above. They can be represented as random shocks, referred as ‘disruption noise’. This could dramatically increase the time required to service each person, implying that less people are serviced per hour (see Figure 2). It also means that, it will require 25 hours to service the population per distribution point, illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 2_Average Population Serviced per hour due to Disruption Noise
Figure 2: Average Population Serviced per hour due to Disruption Noise
Figure 3_Comparison of Population Serviced per Distribution in Base and Disruption Noise Scenarios
Figure 3: Comparison of Population Serviced per Distribution in Base and Disruption Noise Scenarios

A key insight of the scenarios suggests that should Day Zero occur, the best technical intervention with less time required to service the population, would be doubling the number of distribution points to 400. However, a combined scenario of increasing number of taps per distribution point and increasing water pressure, while keeping the distribution points at 200, would be more practical. Further, the reality of conflict and water collection delays would increase the amount of time needed to service the whole population. These delays are unpredictable and incalculable and are the greatest indication for why Day Zero cannot be allowed to happen. The disaster management plan is unfeasible and would struggle to service people timeously while managing conflict.

A shared responsibility to become water cognisant

Water crisis in the city of Cape Town is a shared responsibility which faces a ‘tragedy of Commons’ systems archetype. What this means is that individuals may act in self-interest (such as water hoarding or wasteful water activities) at the expense of society. The availability of water resource, which may prevent the occurrence of Day Zero, is dependent on everyone acting in water-conscious manners, and being cognisant of how day-to-day activities, contribute to water efficiency and water availability for all.

Cape Town has for a long time, focused and relied, on water demand management measures, with limited interventions on the supply side management. Lessons from the Cape Town water crisis for other cities include better planning by focusing on the root cause of problems and not their symptoms, identifying high leverage intervention points, and understanding how best to affect these interventions. We hope the efforts to record how the many actors in Cape Town have contributed to water demand reduction as well as supply augmentation, will be used when future interventions are needed.

The Cape Town water crisis has been a result of the patterns and trends that systemic structures generated. Further, the variety and diversity of our understanding of how the system works, means that various actors in society (e.g. households, government, business, and academics) perceived and interpreted the systemic structures differently, and therefore acted differently.

This is a lesson that the City should take on: by more actively understanding, characterising, measuring, and communicating its dynamic metabolic patterns, which include not only water, but also energy, food, and wastes. There are many groups in the city that can improve the sourcing, utilisation and efficiency of the resource systems on which the city relies. After all, you cannot manage what you cannot measure.



Enkanini Case Summary

Enkanini case description
Enkanini, which means to take by force, is an informal settlement, which was established in 2006 through the illegal occupation of municipal land (CORC, 2012). It is located approximately 4 km from the centre of Stellenbosch town. The settlement was created when the evicted backyard shack dwellers of the neighbouring Kayamandi township occupied the adjacent land (Kovacic et al., 2016). Enkanini may be classified as having started as a squatter camp (Category C: Informal, Illegal, Unplanned, Illegitimate), which is gradually progressing to a site and service informal settlement (Category D: Informal, Legal, Planned; Legitimate) with limited access to basic services (Smit et al., 2017).
Several research studies have been conducted in the Enkanini informal settlement. Such as, studies focusing on waste management (Von der Heyde, 2014), food waste and food production (Mollat, 2014), sustainable energy and in situ upgrading (Keller, 2012) and power transitions (Wessels, 2015). Wessels (2015) characterises the Enkanini informal settlement as an illegal, un-mobilised, underdeveloped, local community. Although these characterisations are valuable in understanding the complex nature of the community, they do not position the informal settlement as a socio-ecological system that is connected to the wider urban system, hence, necessitating an alternative approach. The imperative for sustainable, equitable urban planning requires a new understanding of informal settlements beyond their physical, geographical, and legal characteristics. Smit et al., (2017) argues that it requires a holistic understanding of the interconnectedness of these spaces with their broader urban environment, through a multi-scale integrated assessment of the societal and ecosystem metabolism (MuSIASEM) approach. The study is based on Suzanne Smit’s Ph.D. in which the Enkanini case study was carried out as part of the Participatory Integrated Assessment of Energy Systems to Promote Energy Access and Efficiency (PARTICIPIA) project.

The MuSIASEM approach is an analytical tool for analysing the development of human society in relation to sustainability, whilst being multi-disciplinary (Giampietro et al., 2001). It is capable of integrating variables related to non-equivalent descriptive domains and equipped to incorporate data from distinct hierarchical levels (Giampietro et al., 2001). The MuSIASEM approach, developed by Giampietro et al. (2012, 2013), is based on Georgescu-Roegen’s flow-fund model (Giampietro and Mayumi, 2000a; 2000b). Unlike other conventional urban metabolism approaches such as an economy-wide material flow analysis (Raupova et al., 2014; Kovanda, 2014), an ecological footprint analysis (Wang et al., 2014), and input-output analyses (Huang and Bohne, 2012), the MuSIASEM approach provides a characterisation of informal settlements at different levels and scales in terms of funds and flows and across multiple dimensions. Fund elements include: (i) human activity measured in time; (ii) exosomatic devices in the form of technology and infrastructures; and (iii) Ricardian land measured in terms of land use. Flows are represented by the elements metabolised in the system, which include: (i) food; (ii) energy; (iii) water; (iv) waste; and (v) money.

Data collection
This type of study had not been conducted in an informal settlement or African context before, and necessitated the design of a detailed data collection tool that would capture the necessary data whilst being context specific. The questionnaire was developed by Suzanne Smit, as part of her Ph.D. and with inputs from the research centre and community members, the tool was modified for the specific context and translated into English and isiXhosa (the language spoken by the majority of residents).

The questionnaire was designed to capture the following:
  • Demographic data – age and gender of individuals and household composition
  • Human activity - related to individuals’ time spent on paid and unpaid work; physiological overhead, leisure and social activities, education and time spent on travel.
  • Money flows – related to individual and household income and expenditure
  • Energy flows – related to the type of energy carriers used for different household activities (such as cooking, lighting, and heating), quantity of fuels used and associated costs.

The input from community members ensured that specific cultural references or practices were not overlooked. For example, the term ‘Stokvel’ (referring to a type of community-based saving scheme) was included as a possible source of income and savings instrument, while remittances (the practice of sending money to family in another region) were also captured.

The fieldwork for this study was conducted in collaboration with the Enkanini Research Centre who appointed three experienced, community members as co-researchers to administer the questionnaires to 100 households within the settlement. This arrangement would increase access to the community whilst improving community participation and input. Co-researchers also contributed to a participatory mapping exercise to indicate land use and infrastructure in Enkanini. Highlights included the location of churches, shebeens (informal restaurant establishments), educational facilities, spaza shops (micro businesses), and municipal supplied water, waste and sanitation facilities.

The following publications emanate from the Enkanini case:
  1. Kovacic Z, Smit S, Musango JK, Brent AC & Giampietro M. 2016. Probing uncertainty levels of electrification in informal urban settlements: A case from South Africa. Habitat International, 56: 212-221. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2016.06.002
  2. Smit, S, Musango, JK, Kovacic, Z & Brent, AC. 2017. Conceptualising slum in an urban African context. Cities, 62: 107 – 109. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2016.12.018

Energy-Economy Nexus

In general, mainstream economists neglect the idea that high energy prices can cause economic decline or stagnation. It is frequently argued that energy costs are small compared to other expenditures that make up GDP (e.g. consumer spending, which makes up about 70%), which makes them insignificant (Aucott & Hall, 2014; Heun et al., 2017). This view ignores the importance of energy as a multiplier of economic growth and development (Yeager et al., 2012). Simply comparing the percentage accounted for by energy expenditures with other expenditures ignores the multiplier effect of energy and the effects of energy prices on the costs of production and hence products and services in the economy. If the price of energy increases, almost everything costs more, and this ripples through the economy.

Mainstream economic thinking has not identified energy as a primary factor of production (Aucott & Hall, 2014; Heun et al., 2017; Stern, 2011). Resource economists have developed models that incorporate the role of energy in the growth process, but these ideas remain isolated in the resource economics field (Stern, 2011). Ozturk (2009) conducted a survey on recent progress in the literature of the nexus and causality between energy consumption-economic growth, and electricity consumption-economic growth. This study revealed a lack of consensus on the existence and direction causality between energy consumption and economic growth. These conflicting results may arise due to different data sets, countries’ characteristics, variables used and different econometric methodologies have been used.

However, an important conclusion on the relationship between electricity consumption and economic growth for the country-specific studies were drawn; which is that the causality is from electricity consumption to economic growth. Consequently, it is found that electricity is a limiting factor to economic growth and, hence, reductions in electricity supply will have a negative impact on economic growth (Ozturk, 2009).

Aucott, M., & Hall, C. (2014). Does a change in price of fuel affect GDP growth? An examination of the U.S. data from 1950-2013. Energies, 7(10), 6558–6570. https://doi.org/10.3390/en7106558
Heun, M. K., Sakai, M., Santos, J., Brockway, P. E., Pruim, R., & Domingos, T. (2017). From Theory to Econometrics to Energy Policy : Cautionary Tales for Policymaking Using Aggregate PrHeun, Matthew K.oduction Functions. Energies. https://doi.org/10.3390/en10020203
Ozturk, I. (2009). A literature survey on energy-growth nexus. Energy Policy, 38(1), 340–349. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2009.09.024
Stern, D. I. (2011). The role of energy in economic growth. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1219(1), 26–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05921.x
Yeager, K., Dayo, F., Fisher, B., Fouquet, R., Gilau, A., & Rogner, H.-H. (2012). Energy and Economy. Global Energy Assessment - Toward a Sustainable Future, 385–422.

Cautionary Tales of Technology Leapfrogging

The late twentieth and early twenty-first century recorded enormous technological advancement that helped transform the global economic, political, social, and environmental landscape in a way quite exceeding the expectations of ardent development pundits. While these recorded improvements on the global socio-economic spectrum may yet be perceived as abysmal by others, the strides made are widely acknowledged across fields. The velocity of changes witnessed in the technological sphere has prompted researchers to surmise, that technology users who are late in adoption could easily afford to skip a whole generation or bundle of technologies since a more efficient and high-tech alternative to such conventional technology would have been in existence within a short period of time. The ability of these late adopters (using traditional technology) to skip a generation of technology (conventional technology) and leap to the very latest (emerging ultramodern technology) is often referred to as leapfrogging.

One fundamental feature of technology development and adoption is that it assumes an S-shape, depicting the key stages of introduction, growth, and maturation as shown in Figure 1 below. An S-shaped technological change implies that: either the development process is very slow to allow for a catch-up that is a non-revolutionary breakthrough, or is very fast to allow for the skipping of intermediate stages1. An individual, country, or entity able to achieve the technological changes described is deemed to have leapfrogged. The success of the emerging technology depends on many factors including the extent to which it differs from the present.

Figure 1: Technology development curve

The introduction of a new technology which provides the same services as a conventional one, but adds improved features such as expedience, portability, accessibility, suitability, affordability, among others is often touted as ideal for those who remained without access to the existing technology. The adoption of the new technology among those without the conventional one however does not usually develop as rapidly as the optimists forecast. A key reason for this disconnect between the Utopia that technology optimist imagined and the reality, is the omission of external social-cultural precepts that influence the consumers’ adoption decision-making process. In brief, peoples’ way of life does not instantly change with the introduction of a technology2 as they require significant time for realignment. Technologies do not also prescribe their own path or course of action but instead depend on the social context of individuals, institutions, and structures which they shape3.

The figure below is a depiction of leapfrogging using technologies in the energy sector. The old and near-absolute technology here is called the traditional (energy) technology, the present dominant one is referred to as the conventional (present energy) technology, and the modernistic or next generation, revolutionary (renewable energy) technology. Renewable energy leapfrogging in Africa is one of the growing research areas among recent academics. Following the global fight against climate change and progressive improvements in renewable energy technology development, many scholars are investigating the prospects of leapfrogging Africa, which largely characterised by unmet energy markets, to renewable energy technologies.
Pasted Graphic 1
Figure 2: Energy Technology Leapfrogging Framework

Figure 2 illustrates how Africa and other unmet energy markets could depart from their present traditional-based energy to renewable energy without going through the ‘dirty’ conventional fossil energy regime. Their ability to do that would be facilitated by the fact that they are not trapped in conventional energy infrastructures which often act as inertia.

Extant leapfrogging literature tend to focus largely on the technology, with limited consideration for the social-cultural environment. They assess the incentives the technology offers as well as the consumer’s ability to pay for it. One recent study surmised: “…..unlike the old infrastructure technologies such as fixed-line telephone systems, which were subjected to the budgetary pressures of governments as the main provider, new technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones are delivered within the regulatory framework that fosters market competition and promotes private capital”. While this is the case to a large extent, the success of the telecommunication leapfrogging exceeds the convenience it offers. The social acceptability of the technology and how appropriately it is infused into the daily lives of adopters is essential to its success story. The leapfrogging discourse must therefore take into account both social and technical changes.

Amid the contentious debate surrounding energy technology leapfrogging and the potentials it presents in Africa’s energy sector, stakeholders must be cautious of risk associated with the radical leaping trajectory, to have the chance of pre-empting the dire repercussions of a ‘messy landing’. Late adopters must look beyond the origin and journey. Destination obliviousness in the context of technology leapfrogging is a recipe for failure. The success or otherwise of leapfrogging late adopters to a new technology is based on the social readiness or suitability of the adopters to use the technology, their economic strength in terms of affordability, the market readiness to make the technology accessible, and the scalability of innovators to streamline the technology and make it adaptable. It is can be good, but looking before leaping is best and strongly advised.


1. Sharif, M.N., 1989. Technological leapfrogging: Implications for developing countries. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 36(1-2), pp.201-208.
2. Alzouma, G., 2005. Myths of digital technology in Africa: Leapfrogging development? Global Media and Communication, 1(3), pp.339-356.
3. Davison, R., Vogel, D., Harris, R. and Jones, N., 2000. Technology leapfrogging in developing countries-an inevitable luxury? The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 1.
4. Amankwah‐Amoah, J., 2015. Solar Energy in Sub‐Saharan Africa: The Challenges and Opportunities of Technological Leapfrogging. Thunderbird International Business Review, 57(1), pp.15-31.

What do we really mean when we talk about energy leapfrogging?

It is now widely known that the sub-Saharan African power sector is at a threshold of significant change. There is growing consensus that the centralised model of electrification through national grid extension is becoming outdated in a techno-economic sense. In fact, the 634 million-large non-electrified population is an account of the inefficiencies inherent in the conventional centralised model. Decentralisation of electricity generation and distribution is now often seen as a viable alternative, which has placed decentralised renewable energy technologies, comprised of stand-alone off-grid systems (primarily solar home systems) and mini-grids in the limelight.

Solar home systems have however gained much more traction than mini-grids over the past few years. This is primarily because of less complexity in deployment and better financial returns on offer. The result is a flood of investments entering the solar home system market, which in turn drives down costs and makes these technologies more accessible for the end user.

However, I am hesitant to rally behind this movement and will be careful of putting solar home systems under the mantra of leapfrogging as is often done. Technology leapfrogging is defined as the “adoption of advanced or state-of-the-art technology in an application area where immediate prior technology has not been adopted.”ii The premise is that industrialising countries can avoid the carbon and resource intensive and wasteful energy development path that industrialised countries went through in setting up their energy infrastructure over the course of the past centuryiii. Solar home systems are commonly described as a leapfrog solution, which implies that by deploying these technologies, industrialising countries can embark on a process of electrification that is carbon neutral, resource efficient and sustainable. This is all true, but the quality of energy services that solar home systems provide to the end user is often overlooked in the leapfrogging discussion.

In my view, the output of solar home systems is not on par with the level required to allow energy poor households to well and truly move out of energy poverty. As Figure 1 shows, average household consumption of electricity in the industrialised (and industrialising) world is well above the approximate output level that solar home systems in the low-income market can provide. Furthermore, early experiences with solar home systems also indicate the aspiration among households to own higher wattage appliances after the initial basic energy needs have been met with solar home systemsiv. That goes to say that solar home systems are very effective in providing access to basic modern energy services, but access to basic modern energy services in the decentralised way as described here does not constitute energy leapfrogging. Instead, it entails a step up the energy ladder. The crux of the matter is that we should be weary of confusing energy leapfrogging with stepping up the energy ladder.

Screen Shot 2017-08-03 at 11.10.13 PM
Figure 1: Output limitations of solar home systems
Source: PowerGen Renewable Energy (2016)i

If we are to bring about energy leapfrogging in Africa, we need a technology that can replace the national grid. Mini-grids, alternatively, can replace the grid because it provides the kind of energy services that are on par with the gridv. By providing grid-quality, alternating current electricity, mini-grids have the potential to well and truly move the energy poor out of energy poverty and in turn socio-economic poverty. It can do this by not only powering all household applications, but also by electrifying productive activities such as welding, milling, food processing, heating and many others. This is what businesses require to be electrified and I believe that this is an antecedent for localised economic development. Further, localised economic development in rural areas can slow down urbanisation because rural inhabitants will perceive more economic opportunity in rural areas.

Finally, energy leapfrogging does not merely entail developing energy infrastructure differently than industrialised nations have done. Granted, by building energy infrastructure with solar home systems, we are avoiding the negative consequences of a carbon and resource intensive fossil fuel-based national grid. However, by doing so, we will not converge with the future energy infrastructure of the world. That is because the future energy infrastructure consistently points to the development of smart grids powered by renewable energy and we will not be able to achieve this with solar home systems.

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 1.25.34 PM
Figure 2: Threat of not converging with the future power infrastructure
Source: iPowerGen Renewable Energy (2016)

I believe that we should avoid short term solutions such as a small incremental step up the energy service ladder and instead adopt a long-term vision of building the energy infrastructure of the future in sub-Saharan Africa and in turn well and truly move our population out of energy- and socio-economic poverty. It is my view that AC mini-grids will be our best option for achieving this vision.

i PowerGen Renewable Energy. 2016. The Future of Power in Africa: How Africa can Lead the Next Generation of Global Power Infrastructure. Nairobi: PowerGen Renewable Energy.
ii Fong, M.W.L. 2009. Technology Leapfrogging for Developing Countries, in Khosrow-Pour, M. (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Information Science and Technology. Hershey: IGI Global.
iii Goldemberg, J. 2011. Technological Leapfrogging in the Developing World. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 12(1):135-141.
iv Lee, K., Miguel, E. & Wolfram, C. 2016. Appliance Ownership and Aspirations among Electric Grid and Home Solar Households in Rural Kenya. American Economic Review, 106(5):89-94.
v Knucles, J. 2016. Business models for mini-grid electricity in base of pyramid markets. Energy for Sustainable Development, 31(1):67-82.

Mapping Human Activities and Resource Flows in Informal Settlements

On the first of November 2016 I was tasked with creating a map for an informal settlement as part of the urban Modelling and Metabolism Assessment Research Team (uMAMA). The informal settlement, called eNkanini, is located on the south east periphery of Stellenbosch, Western Cape. It was formed in 2006 with just over 47 families (Van Breda, 2011), and according to data from November 2016, eNkanini has over 2800 iron corrugated households and about 200 basic infrastructure services and socio-economic activities, such as municipal toilets and taps, tuck shops, fast food shops and small farms. The purpose of this map was to collect data and analytics about land use, human activity and infrastructure types that influences the flow of resources in informal communities. This was vital for understanding the dynamics of eNkanini and building stronger knowledge forms about differing resource demands and flows in formal and informal settlements, since the predominant data collection and analysis is about formal settlementsi.

1) satellite image of eNkanini:
Pasted Graphic 1
At first glance, eNkanini has a dysfunctional and chaotic semblance like many unratified informal settlements in South Africa. This may not be the experienced reality of residents, , but could be my personal perception about the area - the repercussion of partiality and preconceived ideas I have about informal settlements. For this reason, when I first entered eNkanini, I had no utilitarian expectation of the community or about the settlement itself. However, this changed as I spent more time within the community. Without ignoring the ills within eNkanini, I started to see functional and pragmatic aspects of the settlement, rather than dysfunction based on personal biases.

Community Experiences
Data collection in informal settlements is a challenge and a laborious process. Firstly, informal settlements have narrow, winding pathways and shacks are concentrated in constricted latitudes. Secondly, informal settlements can be socially unstable due to cohesion privation with the broader society outside of their space. For this reason, you are more likely to face resistance in undertaking any data collection within the community, particularly if the community is not participating in the project. Thirdly, politics are a concern especially with projects akin to mapping. This is because the community associates maps with possible infrastructure development, whereas an academic may use maps mainly for data visualisation. This political predicament is acerbated by years of empty promises to deliver services to the community from political leaders once they have been voted in - hence I avoided wearing any shirt that had a colour which might have resembled any major political party in South Africa.
Besides creating a map, this process was valuable to me for getting a glimpse of the challenges faced by South African local municipalities. That is, providing basic services (water, electricity and shelter) to a dynamic population that is constantly moving for better living conditions. One major challenge is that there is no guaranteed revenue for providing and maintaining such services in informal contexts because they are not necessarily recognised as part of the urban landscape (Lemaire, 2015). This constant movement for better living conditions in the end produces more informal settlements, which, according to Huchzermeyer (2008), are key performance indicators of a national government’s ability to mitigate poverty and urgency to better the lives of the poor. This is because informal settlements can be used as a proxy for a community’s risk of floods, fire and other threats to health. This motivated to me the importance of providing full accounts of social and economic activities and access to basic services through spatial specific data.

Technical Considerations
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has become crucial for meticulous decision making in modern societies at local, sectional and national level, due to the ability to spatially plan with accuracy. GIS data analysis and storage requires time and skill to produce accurate analysis and quality data visualisation through maps. I used handheld e-trex Garmin GPS for data collection. It had its own challenges due to the 95% location accuracy it has, which is about 5 metres in relative distance. Inherently, this imposed a small uncertainty on the data. Moreover, the clustering of different land-use activities within constricted spaces in informal dense areas contributes to this inaccuracy. Therefore, it became difficult to depict accurate and clear location points of every shack, infrastructure and land use activity occurring within the settlement. As a final product, we ended up with a mesh of location points overlapping on each other. Below is an example of how the distance accuracy of the GPS affected visualisation of data and made the initial state of location points unclear.

2) Map showing overlapping way points due to GPS accuracy:
Pasted Graphic
The most repetitive processes needed before visualisation was possible was cleaning the data and organising it into relational tables with associated attributes. This began by firstly examining how raw data might have deviated from reality and creating erroneous data relations. This was necessary in understanding how uncertainty arises and propagates through geo-data life cycle. Therefore, in this case I focused on the accuracy of the GPS and how it might affect data quality, accuracy and redundancy. Through this process, I was prompted to develop data quality strategies that considered the context and the type of data (geo-data, qualitative and quantitative), how it was stored, data flow from one format to another, and data-sharing within a group of people, requiring a database management system.
Data modelling and entity relation diagrams:

A) Data-base modelling is essential in ensuring databases become user efficient and serve the purpose they are built for. Data modelling begins from data collection to data cleaning and storage especially for complex data-bases. Below, it is a diagram that depicts data modelling processes towards creating a functional relational data-base for eNkanini.

B) Entity Relationship modelling is a top-down analysis technique which shows entities and the relationships that links them i.e. how each piece of data relates to the other as shown below. It begins with an entity relationship diagram that has characteristics that uniquely identifies an entity occurrence, in this case classification, attribute and location. Finally a table was created that allows quantitative analysis through Structured Query Languages (SQL).


Mapping eNkanini could have been done using satellite imagery, raster analysis and digitising main settlement boundaries without having to walk into the community. However, this has limited benefits with regards to data visualisation and analytics because satellite imagery does not provide societal experiences and further insights on self-attained infrastructure and services. From the conceptualisation of the research project, we understood the benefits of entering the community and how holistic spatial data has become a significant part of co-creating knowledge and understanding societal issues.
Furthermore, rich GIS data adds immense value to decision making with advanced analytics capabilities. Spatial analysis can be used to query large and complex data sets to understand behaviours, identify hotspots and predict future outcomes – making it easier for analysts to uncover actionable insights that will help shape communal sustainable growth strategies.

The maps produced through this process will be shared in future vignettes.


i See Smit S, Musango JK, Brent AC, Kovavic Z (2017). Conceptualising Slum in an urban African context. Cities. 62:107-119 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2016.12.018 for a discussion of informal settlement types.

Rethinking Strategic Integrated Planning for the Electricity Sector in South Africa

South Africa’s electricity sector is characterised by the unique social, political, and economic legacy of apartheid, which still impacts decision-making and contemporary politics of low-carbon energy transitions profoundly. A series of processes is now converging to force the issue of sustainability to drive South Africa’s low-carbon energy transitions, which provide both a description of a process of transformation from one energy system to another and a set of tools and concepts to explain and enable such transitions. Specifically, national electricity plans are policy approaches providing opportunities for integrated goal-oriented low-carbon energy transition management. Currently, there is a pressing need to understand the potential nature of South Africa’s emergent transitions, as it is a rapidly industrialised country whose economy is among the most energy intensive in the world. This raises the question of how a ‘sustainability transitions’ framework can be conceptualised to address the challenge of low-carbon electricity transitions in South Africa. This paper, therefore, critically reviews the strategic electricity planning process in South Africa, framed within an established sustainability transitions theoretical framework. From the literature, it was observed that the challenges facing South Africa’s strategic electricity planning resulted from slow economic growth, with concomitant limited investments in infrastructure and demand for services, ambitious long-term national development planning aspirations, including related politics, differing views due to different stakeholder preferences on electricity planning, and a lack of, or misalignment between, development policies and objectives. All these theoretical and practical gaps reveal that South Africa must rethink its current strategic electricity planning practice. A conceptual complexity planning framework is proposed to ensure alignment of different, competing, complex sustainability policy objectives within the electricity planning process. The conceptual planning framework process proposed emphasises the requirement to consider South Africa’s political economy influence and its impact on the country’s electricity planning process in terms of its governance and associated decision-making processes.

Conceptualising slum in an urban African context

The urban age is unfolding, with more than half of the world population now living in cities and urbanisation set to increase by a further 2.5 billion people by the year 2050ii,iii. This situation places excessive strain on cities to plan for and manage the increase in urbanites and their demand for housing, employment and access to basic infrastructure and services; a situation that is becoming vastly untenable for many cities, particularly those in the developing world. Most urban economies in developing countries are unable to meet these basic needs, leading to the emergence of slums or informal settlementsiv.

Slums are generally defined and analysed along various dimensions including: (i) physical characteristics – as pertaining to housing typology, access to services and infrastructure; (ii) social characteristics based on income, employment and economic activity; and (iii) legal characteristics related to land ownership and adherence to planning regulationsv, vi,viii. Notably, these definitions do not consider access to electricity as a measure, which is problematic because about 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricityviii. Recent studies are also highlighting the role of electricity in meeting 15 out of the 15 Sustainable Development Goalsix. Using the conventional categorization, slums are conceptualised to fluctuate between Formal and Informal, Legal and Illegal, and Planned and Unplanned, as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Slum types based on conventional categorisation.

It should be noted that settlement types are not static and may evolve and/or devolve over time. Each settlement type may also be recognised as having a unique set of issues that need to be addressed, thereby creating a framework for deeper analysis of the different slum types and particularly as related to the political context in which they exist viii. For example, the emergence of slums in South Africa is closely tied to the social and political history of the nationx, xi, xii. Furthermore, in considering the political context of South Africa, another category of description emerges, related to the notion of Legitimacy/Illegitimacy.

Figure 2: South African typology of settlements.

Informality should be understood as produced by the state itself through its legal and planning apparatus which determine what is informal or not, who is deserving or not vii. Legitimacy here therefore highlights the complex political struggle associated with recognition by state and as negated through the implementation of technical solutions that do not address socio-political issues. The issue of legitimacy is used to indicate the possible stance taken by formal or government entities based on the provision of infrastructure and level of legal compliance.

Although useful for recognising the physical, infrastructural and legal dimensions of slums, the typology of settlement types should not be employed as the sole basis for understanding slums, but rather as a starting point from which further analysis, including the metabolic dimension, may be applied.


i. This vignette is based on work stemming from Suzanne Smit’s PhD and is an extract from the published paper: Smit, S., Musango, J.K., Kovacic, Z., & Brent, A.C. 2017. Conceptualising slum in an urban African context. Cities, 62:107-119. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2016.12.018
ii. UN-DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) 2014. World urbanization prospects: The 2014 revision. Accessed 28 March 2016 from: http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/
iii. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme) 2015. Habitat III: Issue paper 22 – Informal settlements (non edited version 2.0). Paper produced for the UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held October 2016. Paper produced in New York, May 2015. Accessed 10 March 2016 from: http://unhabitat.org/issue-papers-and-policy-units
iv. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme). 2010. The challenge of slums. Global report on Human settlements: revised and updated version (April, 2010) Accessed 8 February 2016, from http://unhabitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2003/07/GRHS_2003_Chapter_01_Revised_2010.pdf
v. Srinivas, H. 2015. Defining squatter settlements. GDRC research output E-036. Kobe, Japan: Global Development Research Center Accessed 9 February 2016 from http://www.gdrc.org/uem/squatters/define-squatter.html
vi. Turok, I. 2015. Upgrade informal settlements: South Africa. New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. 2015: 11–15.
vii. Roy, A. 2005. Urban informality: Toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(2), 147–158.
viii. IEA (International Energy Agency). 2015. World energy outlook. Accessed 14 September 2016 from: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energydevelopment/energyaccessdatabase/
ix. Schwerhoff, G., & Sy, M. 2016. Financing renewable energy in Africa – Key challenge of the sustainable development goals. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. [n Press].
x. Hunter, M., & Posel, D. 2012. Here to work: The socioeconomic characteristics of informal dwellers in post-apartheid South Africa. Environment and Urbanization, 24: 285–304.
xi. Harrison, P. 1992. The policies and politics of informal settlement in South Africa: A historical perspective. Africa Insight, 22(1): 14–22.
xii. Urban Foundation (South Africa). 1991. Informal housing: Urban debate 2010. Braamfontein: Urban Foundation.

The 20 most resource intense African cities

Making the shift towards global sustainability requires direct focus on both cities as centres of resource consumption, economic activity, social upliftment and environmental threat, and resource flows and the infrastructure systems that conduct them. In order to compare the sustainability of cities, a resource consumption baseline is useful, particularly to draw out similarities between cities. This can then inform urban decision makers about which infrastructure interventions may be suitable in similar contexts to theirs, and thus find where partnerships may be formed.

The global typology of cities was produced in 2010i. However, when compared with multiple global cities, African cities show very low levels of consumption. This is often confused as being resource efficient, as opposed to lacking equitable access to resources. The agenda for urban practitioners in contexts of local resource deprivation and global calls for reductions in consumption, is to provide greater access to services in a resource efficient manner. The inquiry by Currie and Musangoii aims to draw our the subtleties of resource consumption in African cities which are lost in global comparisons.

1Africa Resource Consumption top 20sm
Figure a & b: 20 most resource intense African cities

Figures a and b represent one output of this inquiry and display the twenty most resource intense cities on the continent in terms of overall consumption (a) and consumption per-person (b). Both maps also show the proportions of biomass, fossil fuels and construction & industrial minerals consumed in each city. This is useful for speculating about the level of development of industry, as well as quality of life enjoyed in these cities, both of which are correlated to consumption of fossil fuel energy. A few insights are shared here:

Figure a shows most of the continents large cities, which are understandably the largest consumers of resources. Notably, Cairo, Alexandria, Algiers, Johannesburg, Tshwane, Durban and Cape Town consume larger proportions of fossil fuel and less biomass than most other cities, which relate to the strong economies and lower proportions of informal settlements seen in Northern and Southern Africa. Cities in Eastern, Middle and Western Africa show larger proportions of biomass consumption, suggesting that this may still be the predominant energy carrier and construction material. Notably, with the exception of Lusaka and Nouakchott (largely extractive economies) these cities are absent in Figure b. This suggests that, despite their size, citizens experience lower levels of resource consumption in these cities. Northern and Southern cities are widely present in this map, congruent with the stronger economies and higher quality of life. Zambian cities, Windhoek Libreville and Nouakchott show high material consumption, likely due to mineral processing and refining present therein.

High water consumption curiously takes place in cities in water scarce countries. This could reflect a larger need for industrial and residential water in dry spaces, or better tracking of water consumption due to only limited sources of water.

Only 31 of 120 cities examined are showcased here. The quantities of resource consumption are likely overestimates as they are scaled from national data. However, they prove useful for comparison between cities and as starting points for cities in which minimal city-level data is collected.


i. Saldivar-Sali, A. 2010. A Global Typology of Cities: Classification Tree Analysis of Urban Resource Consumption. Cambridge: MIT, September.
ii. Currie, P.K. and J.K. Musango. 2016. African Urbanization: Assimilating Urban Metabolism into Sustainability Discourse and Practice: African Urbanization. Journal of Industrial Ecology. http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/jiec.12517

Differential African Resource Consumption

As part of an inquiry into the resource implications of rapid African urbanisation, we present 25 maps which depict differential population size, urban proportion and consumption of materials and energy, as well as carbon emissions for 53 of 54 African nations. Such maps are necessary tools for shifting discussion away from ‘a singular Africa,’ particularly in the context of urbanisation and resource requirements. What follows is a (by-no-means exhaustive) discussion of what we observe from these maps.

Africa has a population of almost 1.2 billion people, 30% of which is concentrated in five countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (64 million), Ethiopia (89 million), Egypt (79 million) Nigeria (164 million) and South Africa (51 million). Countries that have the highest proportion of urban dwellers, such as Algeria, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Libya and Republic of the Congo, have smaller overall populations. The overall population of the country shows some correlation to the level of aggregate resource consumption, while the level of urbanisation shows direct links to the level of per capita resource consumption. This is partly due to our expectation that urbanisation typically promotes diversification and strengthening of economies, processes which require more resources. Whether urbanisation in Africa is driven by industrialisation or demographic shifts is a debate for another place – though it should be cognisant that each country will differ.

Africa Resources Currie May Consumption Metabolism uMAMA
click map for quality version

Comparing the aggregate consumption level of these countries is useful for global comparisons of consumption, as well as to understand which countries are most responsible for global environmental issues. Comparing per capita consumption may be a better for comparing the resource consumption as it relates to a country’s economy or the quality of life of its population.

Aggregate Consumption

When looking at energy, Northern Africa, Nigeria and South Africa show the highest consumption of fossil fuels and electricity, resulting in high carbon emissions. Due to investment in cheap, non-renewable electricity, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa show the largest emissions of carbon dioxide. In this way, as much as the global North must accept responsibility for climate change and historical atmospheric pollution, Africa too has its own continental reprobates. These high energy consumers have notably small proportions of renewable electricity generation compared to Middle and East African countries, who are utilizing available hydro-electric and geothermal resources. Egypt and Nigera may be exceptions: they produce a large amount of renewable electricity relative to other countries, but it still makes up only a small portion of their overall consumption. For countries with predominantly renewable electricity generation, their overall level of energy consumption tends to remain low - it will be important to continue to promote renewables here, perhaps through technology leapfrogging, instead of a transition to fossil fuel energy infrastructures. The lowest aggregate energy consumers are Saharan countries as well as Central African Republic, Namibia, Uganda, and Zambia.

Material consumption follows a similar pattern in which Northern countries, Nigeria and South Africa are the highest aggregate consumers of most materials except biomass. The highest biomass consumers are Ethiopia, Nigeria and Sudan, the highest construction material consumer is Egypt and the largest fossil fuel consumer is South Africa. Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Egypt, Mauritania, Egypt and South Africa show high consumption of Industrial Minerals and Ore. This may be a function of data availability, as it is unclear whether these countries show high consumption because they have large extractive industries or because they have strong industrial presence. It is likely a mix of both. The lack of infrastructure and institutions to process, refine and manage these resources represents a challenge described as Africa’s Resource curse, in which extractive economies remain entrenched and unable to diversify.

The levels of aggregate water consumption are somewhat curious as some of the highest consumers are notably water-scarce countries. This may be either due to water-scarce countries having more precise measurements of water consumption (as tracking scarce resources more prevalent, or a reflection of how warm, arid climates, prevalent in Northern and Southern Africa affect both household and industrial water needs.

Per Capita Consumption

South Africa, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria still dominate the consumption of Fossil Fuels, Electricity, Construction Materials, and Water even on per capita basis. They are still the biggest emitters of Carbon Dioxide. Nigeria is an exception as, even though it is a high aggregate consumer of resources, its share of its resources is diluted among a large population. Similarly, though Botswana and Namibia show low aggregate resource consumption, their share of resources is distributed over a small population, leading to quite high per capita consumption of resources.

If we equate resource consumption to quality of life, we might suggest that those living in Nigeria may enjoy a lower quality of life than those in Botswana. However, this does not necessarily take into account economic inequality in which most of the resources may be enjoyed by only a portion of the population, while the rest struggle to gain access to basic services. In this way, inequality measures would be important considerations for further investigation. This also highlights a challenge for promoting resource efficiency in much of the continent – the priority for national governments should be to provide resources those lacking basic services; however, it should be done in resource efficient manners to avoid lock-in to unsustainable infrastructure systems.

Per capita resource comparisons may also be useful for speculating about countries’ degree of progress along the socio-metabolic transition. This is the shift from agrarian economies, which primarily rely on biomass for construction and energy, to industrial economies which rely on fossil fuels for energy, make use of more industrial materials, and may make use of more energy intensive construction materials. Speculating thus, Northern and Southern African countries are farther along the socio-metabolic transition, with Kenya, Tanzania, Gabon, Angola, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Senegal also in transition. Saharan and Middle African Countries show the least progress along the socio-metabolic transition. These are overall speculations and is by no means a rigid categorisation, as pockets of industry, affluence and high quality of life will be present in all African countries.

Data from 2010.

Habitat III


Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, took the city of Quito, Equador, by storm from November 17 to 20, 2016, with attendees filling the Casa de la Cultura between Quito’s old city and the Mariscal. Paul Currie, a researcher with urban Modelling and Metabolism Assessment, the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition and the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, participated in the conference and offers some reflections here:

Quito made a perfect setting for the conference, given its location in the global South, equipped with precarious cliffside housing, urban sprawl, limited highways, buses and cars spewing exhaust, an abundance of street vendors and a spectacular mountainous location in the midst of four active volcanoes. The concept of disaster resilience is quite apt, given the 1999 eruption of Pichincha volcano covered the city in ash. The city was also in the middle of it’s fiesta de la luz, drawing thousands of Ecuadorians to see the light shows projected on ornate churches – though such a description does no justice to the spectacle. As with any of these large events, the city takes on a new electric life and we’re left unsure if this is how it normally feels to wander Quito’s streets.


The conference drew together over 25000 single-day attendees of a rumored 45000 registrants. These attendees were united by a fascination with the form, processes and relationships of cities, and the starting point for most discussions was a unified acknowledgement that cities face challenges and that cities are the key to addressing global socio-economic and socio-ecological issues. From there, the points of divergence are the different language we use to describe these challenges, and the varied perspectives, approaches and agendas proposed to address them.


The 20-year latency between Habitat Conferences (The previous ones took place in Istanbul in 1996 and Vancouver in 1976), means that the global context has shifted drastically, and the world is in need of a renewed focus of its development priorities. This is seen by the recent concentration of mega-events that have resulted in the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 to name a few.

Habitat III created a forum in which we could question together how cities have been developed, both as shining beacons of human ingenuity and creativity, and as structural enforcers of inequality and exclusivity. With this in mind, many note that the New Urban Agenda, the centerpiece of the conference, will not work if we overlook global and local inequity. The New Urban Agenda acknowledges a wide range of systemically discriminated groups including ‘women and girls, children and youth, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples and local communities, slum and informal settlement dwellers, homeless people, workers, smallholder farmers and fishers, refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons, and migrants, regardless of migration status.’

While the NUA has a very clear desire to promote sustainable urban development, as visualised by the word cloud below, it is critiqued for not establishing its own targets or a means to measure the success of it’s many suggested interventions. What’s more, while it effectively stands as the embodiment of SDG Goal 11 to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, it is very poorly connected to the goals and targets in the SDGs. This is highlighted as a missed opportunity by David Simon, of Mistra Urban Futures, in a conversation about the Habitat process. The power of cities as concentrators of people, welfare, innovation, as well as social diseconomies (crime, disease, poverty, inequality) and ecological impact, makes them the almost perfect levers for propelling global sustainability as embodied by many of the 17 SDGs. However, successful implementation of the NUA will be left to the interpretation of its broad rhetoric by local and national actors, many of whom are under-capacitated. Despite this, Simon explains that the NUA is the first UN document to ‘recognize the critical role of sub-national authorities and non-state actors’ – a major achievement for the UN system.

Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.09.50 AM
word cloud of the key terms in the new urban agenda

The Sunday before the conference began, a Mayors assembly shared voices from the heads of cities, which I felt set the tone for the conference and highlighted the varied nature of urban challenges and priorities worldwide:

  • Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, challenges the Mayors to raise their voices to speak for their people.
  • Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona shared enthusiasm that ‘the right to the city’ was incorporated in the NUA
  • Tri Rismaharisni, Mayor of Surabaya shared that ‘gender equity works for all,’ saying that gender parity will be the foundation of sustainable development.
  • Dennis Coderre, Mayor of Montreal argued the importance of local government, which is more engaged with people’s daily lives and needs, and called on national governments to realize the importance of cities and local authorities.
  • Miguel Angel Mancera, Mayor of Mexico City suggested that cities should receive funds directly without intermediaries.
  • Gustavo Baroja, Prefect of Pichincha, argued that we must break through the binary distinction of urban or rural as both are inter-reliant.
  • Michael Muller, Mayor of Berlin, asserts that we must turn the NUA from a piece of paper into actions, citing his challenge of bringing refugees from the periphery into the city.
  • Emil Elestianto Dardak, the Regent of Trenggalek, encourages us to adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption.
  • Kumar Rai Bipin, of the Urban Board of Delhi, declares healthcare as a fundamental right and urges that slum areas are upgraded and not relocated.
  • Daniel Martinez, the Mayor of Montevideo, argues that we need a radical declaration of economic realities: that we will not achieve justice if we cannot address the lack of resources. Fighting for a social economy which redistributes wealth is a requirement for sustainability.
  • Mohamad Baqer Qualibaf, Mayor of Tehran says that ‘nobody can be a mayor if they are not in love with their city’ and motivates that cities should be constructed for their citizens

These desires were voiced in the buzz-words plastered around the conference, calling for cities that were sustainable, resilient, smart, participatory, inclusive, and in the multitudes of presentation and exhibitions throughout the conference.


With the adoption of the NUA, the global urban reality is unquestionable, and along with it, the manifestation of all urban challenges, intrigues, speed bumps. This is specifically important for African nations as before the Habitat III process, there was a prevailing denial among many governments on the continent that urbanization is happening, that it is caused by natural growth, or that it could deliver social and economic benefits. This denial may have been the most limiting obstacle facing urban practitioners, as urban policies would be missing vital tools, or focus primarily on anti- or de-urbanisation mechanisms. With an urban reality accepted, what now remains is for governments, through engagement with other stakeholders, to embed the ideas of the NUA in national agendas and develop local targets for developing just, sustainable cities.

Urban Metabolism of African Cities

by Paul Currie
first published on makingofcities.org

I wander through cities and hear them humming around me. They are creatures, machines, fixtures, breathers, parts and pieces, relationships, conduits, conductors, caretakers and crushers. Each city has its own sounds and its own energies that draw my attention and set the rhythm of my feet. The unique vibes in different cities is unquestionable, but cities do follow very similar processes (see Radiolab Podcast). Each city has systems for moving people around, for bringing food from afar, for delivering electricity to our light bulbs, water to our mouths, and data to our phones. These actions or processes can be understood as flows, simple or complex, interwoven, and present in the thousands. These flows of materials, energy, people and information form the metabolism of the city and are responsible for its existence. Unfortunately we do not have enough information about how these flows are conducted within cities, particularly in the global south, which means decisions about service delivery or sustainability are often made without data to prove their efficacy.

Studying urban metabolism allows us to visualise and explain the complexity of socio-technical and socio-ecological processes by which flows of materials, energy, people and information enter and shape the city, service the needs of its people, and impact the surrounding environment. More simply, it shows how the city functions, what type and quantity of resources it uses, and how heavily the city impacts its environment. To aid exploration of urban metabolism, some conceptualise cities as organisms, while others as ecosystems. I prefer the suggestion that most contemporary cities behave as organisms, while the ideal city behaves as an ecosystem: An organism ingests food and water to power its body, to keep it living and thriving. Its wastes are then excreted, out of sight, out of mind. This is a typical modern city: resources come in, are used in processes of economic production (and hopefully human welfare), before the wastes are dumped in the surrounding environment. Cities tend to be located on key resources – most are on water and on fertile agricultural land. Of course there are those which defy a bioregional attitude and are placed on desert or on mineral wealth (Dubai, Las Vegas, Johannesburg). The wastes of cities have huge consequences for a city’s hinterland, undermining natural ecosystems or poisoning people downstream. The global trade apparatus is so established that nations can even export their wastes to poorer places. Thus, a simple goal of urban metabolism analysis could be to make more efficient use of the fresh materials coming into the city, and to properly reuse or recycle waste flows. This is how the ecosystem conception is useful. Ecosystems are defined by relationships between organisms and abiotic systems. In the same way that an ecosystem makes use of detritivores to break down biological wastes into reusable nutrients, so too could the perfect city use our wastes to power its systems. Stockholm powers busses based on biogas from its sewage system. Toronto’s wastewater system contains enough chemical energy to power itself (Bristow & Kennedy 2013). A cyclical metabolism is not only possible, but necessary for growing sustainable cities with low social and environmental impact.

It should be acknowledged that sustainability has multiple approaches. The mainstream sustainability discourse preaches resource efficiency. This is fine for developed spaces of the global north, where overconsumption is the daily routine. However, for countries in the global south, most people do not have access the basic resources they need, so the priority for these spaces is resource equity. The lack of formalised infrastructure in many of these spaces provides an opportunity to create infrastructure systems that are equitable as well as efficient.

Shaping infrastructures requires assessing how flows are conducted in these cities. Resource flows can be formally coordinated and regulated by city planners or government, or follow informal patterns where government is unable or unwilling to provide resources. This can be visualised as the distinction between networked water pipes and decentralized water tankers, bottles, boreholes or sachet water provision, or by comparing supermarket tomatoes to those bought on the streetside. Both systems effectively get water or tomatoes to people, yet informal systems are typically shunned as they do not fit the desired northern (America, Europe, Asian Tigers) image of a modern city. This is problematic as informal systems predominate in cities of the global south and in Africa. Tapping into the innovation and adaptability of informal systems can be useful for city practitioners in providing services or addressing necessary city functions. The successes of waste picking systems in Brazil, India, and Egypt are easy examples.

African cities predominantly function on informal systems as much of the networked infrastructure remains within the boundaries of original colonial settlements. Informality pervades public transport systems, water and food provision, energy generation and waste removal. Analysing these flows is difficult as they are hard to track and quantify. However, finding ways to do so is an important step for empowering city planners with more knowledge about the functions of their cities.

African cities may share attributes such as informal economies, slum dwelling, high youth unemployment, migratory citizens, precarious infrastructure systems (see the Nigerian fuel strike), resource and wealth inequality (see the Dumsor Report), and industrialisation within planetary boundaries. However, it is impractical to make singular recommendations about African urbanism when city practitioners in Arusha will be dealing with very different realities from those in Abidjan. More local urban metabolism studies would be invaluable.

Global urbanisation trends suggest that African cities will house one billion new urbanites by 2050. To aid studies of sustainability or urban metabolism in African cities, it is vital to make a shift from discussing African urbanism as a collective event. The oft-quoted statistic that Africa is 40% urban (the world purportedly passed 50% urban in 2008) overlooks the fact that 17 of 54 African nations are over 50% urban, 9 of which are over 60% urban, and 4 of which are over 70% urban: the African urban future is here. Meeting it with new visions for the sounds and energies of these cities will make all the difference.

Interesting Reads:

  • Bettencourt, L.M., Lobo, J., Helbing, D., Kuhnert, C. & West, G.B. 2007. Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. PNAS. 104(17):7301–7306.
  • Bristow, D.N. & Kennedy, C.A. 2013. Urban Metabolism and the Energy Stored in Cities: Implications for Resilience. Journal of Industrial Ecology. 17(5):656–667.
  • Kennedy, C., Cuddihy, J. & Engel-Yan, J. 2007. The Changing Metabolism of Cities. Journal of Industrial Ecology. 11(2):43–59.
  • Krausmann, F., Fischer-Kowalski, M., Schandl, H. & Eisenmenger, N. 2008. The Global Sociometabolic Transition. Journal of Industrial Ecology. 12(5/6):637–656.
  • Pieterse, E. 2014. Filling the void: an agenda for tackling African urbanisation. In Africa’s Urban Revolution. S. Parnell & E. Pieterse, Eds. London: Zed Books. 200–220.
  • Turok, I. 2014. Linking urbanisation and development in Africa’s economic revival. In Africa’s Urban Revolution. S. Parnell & E. Pieterse, Eds. London: Zed Books. 60–81.