A measure of sustainability in the context of urban water management in South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The aim of this research was to develop an understanding of and measure the potential for sustainability in a South African urban water context. This was achieved through the use of a systems approach to develop and evaluate a composite index – the Sustainability Index for Integrated Urban Water Management (SIUWM) – based on a vision of what sustainable urban water management means to decision makers at selected local authorities around the country. The vision was expanded into a sustainability framework to identify suitable key indicators for the index, as well as those which link with existing regulatory measurement initiatives in the South African water sector. The hypothesis was that if a city improves its scores on all of its indicators over a period of time, there is potential for long-term sustainability in the specific urban water system. The SIUWM was applied as a ‘snapshot’ analysis to nine case study cities (using 2010 / 2011 figures) and the results highlighted the inherent strengths and weaknesses in the management of urban water in each city, and consequently across each dimension of sustainability. Regularly-updated and publicly-available quantitative data as well as qualitative information from interviews with municipal officials were used as input to the index. Key performance indicator scores from the Department of Water Affairs’ regulatory performance measurement systems were also used in the computation of the index scores. In this way the SIUWM was able to provide a detailed analysis which could be used over time to track changes in performance, establish goals and inform strategic processes to leverage support for improved water services. Through its visioning process, the SIUWM is also able to identify vulnerabilities in the water system and provide information that is potentially useful for mitigating the root causes of these vulnerabilities. Sustainability assessment in the urban water sector, by way of initiatives such as the SIUWM, is not only about taking stock of progress – it is also about identifying shortcomings and challenges so as to contribute to initiatives and policy-making aimed at achieving sustainability. By clarifying what sustainability constitutes in the context of urban water management in South Africa through the use of a multi-dimensional approach to sustainability assessment (as is achieved by way of the SIUWM), the mindsets of decision-makers can hopefully be successfully shifted to embracing a more integrated approach towards sustainable urban development and water sensitive cities.

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