Nature-Based Solutions for Water Management in the Peri-Urban

Photo Stories

Green Infrastructure as a Nature-based Solution: The case of the Genius of Space Project, Langrug, South Africa

Authors: Dandi Kritzinger, Alanna Rebelo and Karen Esler

The Genius of SPACE (Systems for People’s Access to a Clean Environment) project in Langrug, South Africa aimed to develop and implement an innovative solution to water pollution based on biomimicry principles. The Genius of SPACE project was a pilot project on greywater treatment (i.e. kitchen, laundry, and wash water), stormwater management systems and solid waste management. The NBS comprises both “grey” infrastructure such as greywater disposal points, an improved road surface with permeable paving (stormwater management), wheelie bins (collection and separation of household solid waste), as well as “green” infrastructure also known as ecological infrastructure, namely, tree gardens (water filtering sites) and a vertical wetland (a planted filter bed that is drained at the bottom).

This NBS specifically tackles the issue of water quality, by attempting to improve infiltration and local wastewater treatment so that the water entering the river downstream of the settlement is of higher quality. By virtue of improving infiltration, this project also addresses the issue of water quantity in terms of water excess, by assisting with absorbing runoff during high rainfall events, reducing local-scale flooding. The scale of this implementation was local since it was a pilot study, so benefits are expected to be local. Many community members perceived improvements to nature (improvements in ecosystem services), which are experienced directly in terms of recreational benefits, improvements to aesthetics, science and education, and general health and well-being, social cohesion and nature-connectedness. Any benefits in terms of augmented water supply or quality, though perhaps small due to the scale of the work, would be beneficial to downstream farmers who rely on the Berg River for irrigation and need high quality for international certification of heir produce. The aim of this photo story is to highlight the value of green infrastructure in informal settlements as a NBS through a series of photos, demonstrating both the implementation, but also the benefits to society. The title photo shows the informal settlement of Langrug in South Africa, with houses made of corrugated iron. Lack of spatial planning, sanitation and sewerage is evident (Photo credit: Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve).


A drone image showing the location of Langrug in the Boland Mountains of the Fynbos Biome, Western Cape
(Photo credit: Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve).

The Langrug settlement formed alongside and upslope of the Stiebeuel River, which is a small tributary of the greater Berg River, one of the most economically important rivers for the Western Cape of South Africa. The climate of the region is Mediterranean, and the native vegetation is fire-prone fynbos, a biodiverse shrubland.

A drone image of the community of Langrug encroaching on the mountain slopes of the Stiebeuel River subcatchment, Franschhoek
(Photo credit: Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve)

The informal settlement is situated within a small subcatchment, near the prosperous tourist town of Franschhoek. The Stiebeuel river – a tributary of the Berg River – originates in this catchment and it runs through the low-income settlement of Langrug and other towns, until its confluence with the Berg River. The water of the Stiebeuel River is heavily polluted by sewage, domestic wastewater and litter. This is mainly due to dysfunctional and inadequate drainage systems in Langrug, although, also a result of agricultural runoff and low-cost housing in the area. The settlement is growing, mainly with immigration for seasonal farm labour, expanding up the slopes of the mountain, making it especially challenging for municipalities to construct drainage systems or install any type of infrastructure. The Stiebeuel River has a persistently high E.coli bacterium count, constituting health issues both for residents and farmers downstream using the river.

Open gullies that channel greywater outflow, polluted with litter, and pooling in some places, Franschhoek (Photo credit: FLOW website)

Large amounts of wastewater (sewage and greywater) and litter accumulate in the streets which pose serious health risks to the community, allowing disease to fester and spread. Additionally, contaminated water, as well as odour and visual pollution have a major impact on the living conditions of residents. They have reported that children were getting falling ill from playing in the dirty water. The settlement faces exceptionally high unemployment rates and social vulnerability, and crime and drug abuse are rife.

Vandalized communal toilet illustrating poor sanitation services, Langrug (Photo credit: FLOW website)

Although the settlement formed by illegal squatters, basic sanitation needs such as taps, and toilets were provided by the municipality years ago. These basic services are limited in the settlement and local authorities cannot keep up with maintenance and vandalism and the increasing population. In Langrug there are 91 community block toilets of which 83 are functional, suggesting 49 persons per toilet. Water taps are limited to 72 persons per tap as merely 45 are functional.


The improved road surface in Langrug, with permeable paving and tree gardens as part of the Genius of Space NBS
(Photo Credit: Genius of Space Langrug Community Project)

A functional greywater disposal point (blue plastic structure) between informal houses in Langrug
(Photo credit: Alanna Rebelo)

For the NBS, 27 greywater disposal points were installed, as well as underground wastewater pipes, permeable paving, grading and pavement construction. In addition, services such as the collection and separation of household solid waste in wheelie bins were established and 15 tree gardens were planted. People from the community were involved in the design and implementation phases and labour was recruited from the community to do the work. The greywater disposal points (blue, round drums) were interconnected via underground piping to tree gardens and the wetland, with a final outflow connection to the municipal sewer. The project included final site preparation, installation and subsequent training for maintenance and operation of both the water and waste prototypes. These low-tech, shared-ownership, and easily maintained solutions were intended to help address the key challenges within the community.


Project team meeting of community members as part of the design phase of the Genius of Space project, Langrug
(Photo credit: Genius of Space Langrug Community Project)

Collaboration between service providers who facilitated the process, and community members involved in the design and implementation of the intervention, was a key part of project implementation. The idea was for the project to proceed in a bottom-up manner, but in practice was a combination of top-down and bottom-up. Stakeholders from various sectors were included in the process and the team provided technical experience covering informal settlement upgrading, urban design, conventional and wastewater treatment technologies, civil and structural engineering. Additionally, stakeholders had experience in Collective Decision Making, Public Participation, and Stakeholder Engagement.

During the project, the Langrug Community Project Committee was formed as a representation of the community. There was a strong sense of capacity building and skills transfer in both directions, from the implementers to the community, but also vice versa. Implementation of the project was aimed at strengthening the community and therefore a diversity of people were involved, with attempts to have representation from females, males, youth and older people. A survey of community members revealed that the community felt that the Genius of Space project improved gender equality. This is largely related to the role women play in society, particularly around household tasks related to water, such as cooking and cleaning. Having access to waste-water disposal points saved travel time, and also improved household level sanitation. Employment opportunities were also created for women through this project.


The remains of a small constructed wetland years after the project was implemented in the Langrug community
(Photo credit: Karen Esler)

The remains of one of the tree gardens (right) years after the project was implemented in the Langrug community
(Photo credit: Karen Esler)

The structure of the tree garden remains in Langrug, while the tree itself is long gone
(Photo credit: Alanna Rebelo)

The pilot project faced many challenges, and as a result was not upscaled withing the community. Social imbalances, rapid urbanisation, crime and vandalism were listed by community members and implementers alike to be key challenges faced by the project. In addition, despite the best intentions, the community felt that communication and collaboration was poor, and this may be as a result of factions forming within the community, resulting in certain networks benefitting while others were excluded. This poor communication was thought to be underpinned by weak relationships and lack of trust between government and society. This translated into a lack of stakeholder support, which was a challenge. As a result, the structures created under the project were not maintained by the community, and came to be either vandalized or repurposed. For example, the tree garden shown above was repurposed for growing other herbs and vegetables. Despite these challenges, many community members valued the project itself, and expressed a desire for it to be upscaled to the entire community. Perhaps the greatest economic challenge for the project was sustainable and sufficient funding, particularly for community engagement.


The informal community of Langrug with an improved road surface with permeable paving for stormwater management (left),
and a functional greywater disposal point (blue plastic structure)
(Photo credit: Alanna Rebelo)

In terms of social impact, surveys among community members and workers involved in the Nature-based Solution revealed that people felt that: their connection to nature improved, that their cultural values and practices were changed, that their health and wellbeing improved, they experienced improved social cohesion and they reported improved gender equality. In terms of environmental benefits, the community perceived increases in the following ecosystem services: food provision, water purification, water regulation, soil quality maintenance, soil retention and recreation, aesthetic, science and education services. Lastly, in terms of economic benefits, job creation and income improvements were cited by community members and implementers, and the opportunity for indirect job creation, through tourism for example.

Although the project idea was received very positively by community members, with many requesting a similar initiative in the future, the pilot project was deemed unsuccessful and was discontinued. Several barriers were too large to be overcome at the time. However there also exist several opportunities for future implementation of similar NBS. Challenges listed by implementers and community members were: social imbalances, rapid urbanization, crime and vandalism, poor communication and collaboration underpinned by weak relationships and lack of trust, which resulted in poor stakeholder support, and finally, lack of funding (sustainable and sufficient). Despite these challenges, there is still great appetite in the community for future NBS, as the benefits were tangible for community members. One of the key learnings is that future similar projects should apportion a significant amount of their budget (around 80%) for community and stakeholder engagement, as this appears more important than physical implementation for project success.