Developing water sensitive cities (I): Rethinking how we manage urban water

Michelle Toxopeüs says SA must rethink its approach to urban water management

Developing water sensitive cities (I): Rethinking how we manage urban water

31 October 2019

We are increasingly reminded that South Africa is a water-scarce country.[1] Population growth, increased urbanisation[2] and the effect of changes to temperature and rainfall patterns have placed significantly more pressure on water resources. Given these mounting demands on water there has been a global trend towards exploring local alternatives to conventional models of managing water, particularly in urban areas, in a manner that will enhance resilience and ensure sustainability.[3] This includes creating water sensitive cities. Simply put, the notion of water sensitive cities encourages local governments and communities to seek alternative means of sourcing, capturing, storing, treating and using water.[4] It diversifies the urban water management mix, improves environmental protection efforts and places community cooperation and participation at the forefront of managing water. This brief provides an overview of the concept of water sensitive cities, the approaches used to implement transitions to water sensitivity, its application in South Africa and lessons we can learn from its adoption in other countries.


Countries have adopted different approaches to water sensitivity according to their conditions, needs and resources. One aspect of sustainable urban water management commonly embraced is water sensitive urban design (“WSUD”) – a multi-disciplinary approach that focuses on integrating urban design (and the built environment) with the urban water cycle through alternative planning and management practices.[5] The water cycle in a region is given prominence in urban planning, design and development. This often finds practical expression in managing storm water quality, harvesting rainwater for reuse and greening the urban environment.[6] Integrated WSUD models aim to promote sustainable urban water management by taking into account three components of the water cycle: water supply (alternative sources of potable water), sanitation (alternative wastewater management mechanisms) and drainage (alternative storm water management mechanisms). As implementing WSUD often starts as a transitional process, countries often focus on one or two components.[7] To the limited extent that South Africa has integrated WSUD principles into its urban planning, it has done so primarily by focusing on drainage through more sustainable storm water management practices.


A project was commissioned by the Water Research Commission (“WRC”) to provide a strategic framework for reconceptualising urban water management – through a water sensitivity and sustainability lens – in South African settlements (“Framework”).[8] WSUD was identified as an important component in this process. The Framework broadly introduces the vision and application of WSUD within South Africa’s historical context. It advocates a more inclusive policy approach that incorporates water sensitive settlements, extending the application of WSUD principles to include rural areas. It envisions the transition to water sensitivity in formal brownfield developments (through retrofitting), greenfield areas (through implementing WSUD from the outset) and informal settlements (through redevelopment).

The Framework serves as an important baseline for further research on an array of aspects relating to WSUD, and certainly assists in understanding the concept, its enablers and its challenges contextually. But formal arrangements to integrate WSUD into spatial planning and land use management more generally have been slower than one would hope, particularly given its potential to mitigate the effect of climate change on local water resources and management. There may be several reasons inhibiting the widespread adoption of WSUD in South Africa.[9] Water supply and sanitation is often managed within a different municipal department to water drainage. This not only separates the urban water cycle into different management silos – making it more difficult to develop an integrated management approach – it also influences the financial capacity within each department as storm water tariffs, for example, are rarely imposed on residents. The feasibility of WSUD within the South African context also has to take into account the need to service households that remain without access to sufficient water. Moreover, the regulatory framework in South Africa remains too fragmented to promote widespread uptake of WSUD planning practices.[10]


Since WSUD in South Africa is still in its infancy, we should draw from common lessons learnt by other jurisdictions, including Australia, Singapore, the US and several states in Europe:[11]

Clear drivers and objectives. A clearly defined objective for implementing WSUD assists in developing lucid policies and articulating its values to relevant stakeholders. Given South Africa’s water scarcity, increasingly stringent water restrictions, concerns relating to water quality, and the projected impact of climate change on water resources in the region, guaranteeing water security and quality should be the primary drivers steering South Africa’s transition to water sensitive settlements.

Policy and enabling legislation. A clear strategic framework, integrated policy outline and legislation supporting the principles and objectives of WSUD are central for enabling WSUD implementation. Aligning policy and legislation to WSUD objectives creates consistent processes and mechanisms across multiple disciplines and provides clarity on the roles and responsibilities between government and private stakeholders. As will be seen in the second brief,[12] South Africa’s regulatory framework provides some support for WSUD principles and objectives. However, a more direct policy approach is required for mainstream adoption and implementation of WSUD and for water sensitivity to take root in South Africa.

Collaboration between stakeholders. Implementing WSUD effectively requires the cooperation of actors across multiple disciplines, including public officials, engineers, city planners and consumers. The more these actors cooperate and collaborate with one another, the more effective the outcomes.

Empowering local government as implementer. WSUD implementation is most often implemented by local governments. However, national and provincial governments provide vital support, through strategic policy and legislative direction, technical and financial support and capacity building. This is also true in the South African context. Municipal planning, water service delivery and localised storm water management are local government competencies but national and provincial governments are constitutionally required to support and empower municipalities in achieving their objectives.

Given the transboundary nature of water management, strategies and planning for WSUD are often developed by bodies that span across local government borders, like regional water utilities, for example. Collaboration between local governments and these regional bodies enhances the planning capacity in the area and leads to more effective implementation. This is where the potential role of catchment management agencies[13] to support and empower local governments may prove invaluable – if they are appropriately capacitated.

Technical support. WSUD must be applied with the climatic, hydrological, geological and institutional conditions of the area in mind. Local government, as the implementing agent, must be sufficiently supported through technical instruments. In South Africa, this may be implemented regionally – through catchment management agencies or water boards – provincially or nationally.

Funding models. Countries implementing WSUD often adopt a funding model based on the polluter pays principle – either as the developer or the property owner – through a variety of instruments. Included in the mix are discharge fees or penalties, storm water fees, tax breaks, trade-offs, levies and subsidies. If fixed at an appropriate level, they provide local government with the funding necessary to invest in WSUD services.

Community education and support. Raising community awareness and understanding is central to transitioning to a water sensitive future. Many South Africans do not fully appreciate the realities of water scarcity and as a result do not recognise the need for new policies. That may have changed in recent years as a result of multiple year droughts spanning several parts of the country. Nevertheless, educating local communities on the benefits of WSUD has significantly improved its adoption in other countries.


The fundamental purpose of establishing water sensitive cities is to protect water resources and ensure that there is sufficient water for consumers. Ensuring South Africa’s water security must mean a shift away from relying solely on centralised, linear models of water delivery. Recent water shortages in major economic hubs and water restrictions implemented across the country have illustrated the need to diversify the mechanisms used to deliver water to urban areas. WSUD provides an alternative which could be integrated into the urban management mix to provide a hybrid system of water delivery.

While the WSUD Framework provides a helpful basis on which to build, further research is required for the mainstream adoption of WSUD within the South African context, particularly in relation to its application in informal settlements. Despite South Africa’s unique context, key lessons drawn from foreign jurisdictions offer a good starting point for further engagement.

By Michelle Toxopeüs, Legal Researcher, HSF, 31 October 2019

[1] Muller M. et al. (2009) “Water Security in South Africa”, Development Bank of Southern Africa, Development Planning Division Working Paper Series No. 12, accessed at https://www.dbsa.org/EN/About-Us/Publications/Documents/DPD%20No12.%20Water%20security%20in%20South%20Africa.pdf.

[2] According to the World Bank, 66% of South Africa’s population lived in urban areas in 2018, up from 57% in 2000. See https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS?locations=ZA.

[3] Armitage N. et al. (2014) “Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) for South Africa: Framework and Guidelines Framework”, WRC Report No. TT 588/14, p. 7 (“WSUD Framework”), accessed at https://www.greencape.co.za/assets/Water-Sector-Desk-Content/WRC-Water-sensitive-urban-design-WSUD-for-South-Africa-framework-and-guidelines-2014.pdf.

[4] To understand the basic principles guiding water sensitive cities see Wong and Brown (2009) “The water sensitive city: principles for practice”, Water Science and Technology, 60(3) p. 673-682.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Radcliffe J.C. (2019) “History of Water Sensitive Urban Design / Low Impact Development Adoption in Australia and Internationally” in Sharma A. et al. (eds) Approaches to Water Sensitive Urban Design: Potential, Design, Ecological Health, Urban Greening, Economics and Community Perceptions, p. 2.

[7] WSUD Framework above note 3, p. 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] There has been some localised application of WSUD practices in South Africa, but no widespread uptake. Examples include the Green Point Urban Park in Cape Town, permeable paving at the City of Cape Town’s Grand Parade, the Qala Phelang Tala Canaan water recycling project in Bloemfontein, greenbelts in Tshwane, green roof initiatives in eThekwini and Johannesburg’s Eco City initiative, to name a few. For more details see Cilliers E.J. & Rohr H.E. (2019) “Integrating WSUD and Mainstream Spatial Planning Approaches: Lessons from South Africa” in Sharma A. et al. (eds) Approaches to Water Sensitive Urban Design: Potential, Design, Ecological Health, Urban Greening, Economics and Community Perceptions, p. 358-62.

[10] Ibid, p. 354-5.

[11] Tjandraatmatja G. (2019) “The Role of Policy and Implementation in WSUD implementation” in Sharma A. et al. (eds) Approaches to Water Sensitive Urban Design: Potential, Design, Ecological Health, Urban Greening, Economics and Community Perceptions, p. 111-2.

[12] “Developing water sensitive cities II: Is there support in South Africa’s regulatory framework?”

[13] Created in terms of chapter 7 of the National Water Act 36 of 1998. For an overview of the important role catchment management agencies play in managing water resources, see https://hsf.org.za/publications/hsf-briefs/strengthening-institutional-capacity-in-water-resources-management-to-enhance-performance.