Governing risks associated with flooding and sea-level rise in Cape Town, South Africa

Submitted by Anna Taylor | published 9th Oct 2013 | last updated 18th Oct 2013
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Cape Town has an extensive coastline, numerous wetlands and winters marked by heavy rains and stormy seas. The coast, wetlands and waterways count as major assets to the city, but also pose significant risks. They provide economic opportunities, recreational spaces, fresh water and a strong sense of place, but also cause damage to homes, businesses and public infrastructure from large storm surges, sand movement and flooding. These interactions have long been a feature of the city, but are becoming even more marked as the city continues to grow and the climate changes under increasing human influences. Changes in the nature and scale of these coastal and flooding risks makes managing them more pressing, as well as more challenging and complex. This is particularly true in contexts such as Cape Town, where the level of socio-economic inequality is very high, many parts of the city are informal, i.e. outside of formal planning, regulation and public service provision, and where relatively new government mandates, structures and processes are being worked through.

The power of collaborative governance in managing the risks associated with flooding and sea-level rise in Cape Town has been the focus of a three-year research project undertaken by the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, the Stockholm Environment Institute and partner institutions, working closely with the City of Cape Town, and funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Rising Waters and Cape of Storms are two booklets written primarily for practitioners, residents of flood affected areas, civic leaders, government officials and local politicians, providing a synopsis of the findings from the study.

“Rising Waters: Working together on Cape Town’s flooding” looks at the many challenges facing the City of Cape Town: in-migration, housing and service delivery backlogs, budget constraints, shortage of land, and the enormity of the need within informal settlements. It looks at how regular winter flooding affects marginalised communities who are settled on the Cape Flats and why city politicians and bureaucrats need to work alongside community leadership structures and with civil society organisations in order to find solutions to the ongoing flooding crises in Cape Town. It argues that if the governance context is ignored – i.e. how government functions, how civil society is organized, how businesses operate and how these various spheres interact – highly engineered technical solutions and policy measures will fail to address the problem.

“Cape of Storms: Sharing the coast in the face of turbulent, rising seas” looks at the dynamic nature of the Cape coastline; how stormy seas, rising sea levels, ecologically sensitive beaches, dunes and river mouths, and urban development all interact along the coast, making it a complex space to manage. There are many competing visions for how the coast should be used and power struggles over who decides. The booklet looks at what is currently being done, led by the City of Cape Town, to develop a rigorous coastal policy and management framework for responding consistently and appropriately to the pressures of urban development, economic growth, addressing socio-economic inequality and a changing climate. It argues for a holistic approach that prioritizes institutional and ecological measures for buffering coastal risks, before resorting to more hard engineering solutions that are expensive, irreversible and do not deal well with uncertainty in nature and scale of emerging risks.