FUTURE CITIES INTERVIEW: “The big take-outs from Covid 19 seem to be the imperative of data and the importance of interaction between national and local government”
Can we start with the African Centre for Cities and the work that you do?
ACC is an interdisciplinary research and teaching team at the University of Cape Town. We are a small, but incredibly fun and inventive group focusing on the multiple dynamics of unsustainable urbanisation in Africa, with an eye on identifying systemic responses. As a part of this team, I focus on economic development and climate change in African cities. But, my primary interest is the well-being of people, that is why I care about the environment and climate.
Any specific projects that you have been involved with that have been particularly exciting?
I have been working in Tanzania and Ghana for the past three years. Two countries with very different approaches to urbanisation, but both hoping to turn their urbanisation phases into an economic opportunity. Anticipating and planning for the multiple effects of climate change form a big part of this quest.
Back home I am working with the WWF on mobilising investment in South Africa's water catchments to reduce drought risk and create employment. Investing in these public goods is not easy, but forms a crucial part of what we call 'ecological infrastructure', and the growing awareness of how important the natural environment is for the provision of basic services.
Which countries are doing the right things in terms of future urban planning?
African countries have been big supporters of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, which has brought them back into the international policy debate and energised domestic efforts. A number of countries - Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia for example - are building their sustainable development and climate change responses around cities, which marks a significant change in itself. Morocco and Ethiopia are aiming to meet growing urban demand for electricity with renewable energy programmes that go beyond hydro-electric plants. It is, as is to be expected, a mixed bag across the continent but there is a growing number of success stories.
Are there lessons for African governments to learn from the Covid 19 pandemic in terms of the risks that the economy and populations are exposed to and how to manage it?
Apart from the obvious role for trusted leadership and good governance, the imperative of data and the importance of interaction between national and local government seem to be the big take-outs from COVID 19. My personal hope is that the crisis will free up some space for African leaders to prioritise and invest in public goods (including public health), without being punished for perceived fiscal profligacy. The experience has taught us that we simply have to get people out of chronic poverty and given access to basic services. So-called ‘macro-economic prudence’ need not, and should not, be a constraint on achieving ethical and humanitarian outcomes, one we all agree on this imperative. Rather than the vanity projects that some development banks and private financiers have encouraged we need to focus on universal access to basic services. Imagining that some people are too poor to have this access to basic services, exposes us all to grave systemic risks. There are many clues for how utilities could be achieving this, in the ways that people in the ‘informal sector’ are already going about securing services.
How prepared are African cities in becoming carbon neutral by 2050? Are they actively planning for this in your view?
Most African cities, except those in South Africa, are not carbon intensive (although much of the emissions associated with charcoal burning go unrecorded and so we cannot be sure about this). So carbon neutrality is possible. The falling prices of renewable energy mean that any new energy investment should be carbon neutral, based on price alone. The problem for cities is that they don't control many of the decisions that affect their carbon intensity. They need to work closely with national governments and SOEs on this, and state-run utilities need to design their services around the needs and affordability of users. African planners have the great advantage of confronting this challenge with full knowledge of climate change.
How are African cities adapting to climate change and rethinking the design of utilities?
There is such variety across the continent, but many progressive cities are making a name for themselves by harnessing digital technology, renewable energy and the resourcefulness of local communities. This is a massive challenge for centralised utilities still operating as "vertically integrated monopolies" – a model inherited from the colonial era and often operated without the due oversight or innovation. The exciting thing is that what this model is being replaced with is often cheaper, less environmentally damaging, more labour intensive and inclusive, and better placed to extend services to remote communities. This is true for the energy, water, waste and transport sectors.
Anything you would like to add?
Is your utility ready for a climate constrained, urban African world? The success of the SDGs, and by association all of us, hinges on getting this right in the next two decades.