Developing water sensitive cities III: A case study of two South African metros

The final brief in a three-part series exploring urban water sensitivity in South Africa is a case study which examines the approach taken by Cape Town and Johannesburg in response to increased water stress.


Implementing water sensitive urban designs requires an understanding of the unique environmental, social, political and economic circumstances of each municipality. One size does not fit all. This brief, the last in a three-part series on developing water sensitive cities in South Africa, examines the approach taken by the City of Cape Town and the City of Johannesburg respectively in response to increased water stress. In particular, it assesses water drainage regulation in each city to determine the degree to which water sensitive urban design (“WSUD”) principles have been adopted.

City of Cape Town

The City of Cape Town has been severely impacted by protracted drought conditions. As a result, the City has placed significantly more emphasis on enforcing water conservation and demand management practices and securing alternative sources of water. It has developed an extensive policy outlook that actively facilitates the transition towards a water sensitive city. Its integrated development plan (“IDP”) and spatial development framework (“SDF”) – two documents encompassing the City’s medium-term strategic vision for development – provide the foundation for water sensitive designs.

The City’s IDP recognises resilience and sustainability as two of six principles guiding its strategic vision of delivering quality services to all its residents.[1] It places resource-efficiency and security as a priority in the City’s strategic framework and aims to achieve this by diversifying resource consumption and sourcing, managing and protecting green infrastructure and restoring key ecosystem services.[2] Implementing resource efficiency and security is envisioned through three programmes: energy-efficiency, climate change and city resilience. While all three programmes promote water sensitivity, the climate change programme offers the strongest support for developing green infrastructure, by recognising the need to adapt generally and calling for environmental concerns, including water scarcity, to be incorporated into development projects.[3]

This is supported by the City’s SDF which translates the vision framed by its IDP into a form that directs its spatial development. Its SDF identifies the balance between urban development and environmental protection as a priority in which (i) biodiversity and water resources must be taken into account when planning new developments and (ii) the negative impacts of development on the environment must be mitigated.[4]

The City reinforces this general support of water sensitivity principles – included in the IDP and SDF – by developing policy that addresses the transition to a water sensitive city directly. Its Storm Water Impacts Policy[5] was developed to minimise the negative effects of storm water runoff within the City by introducing water sensitive urban design principles to urban planning and storm water management. The Policy introduces best practice criteria for achieving sustainable urban drainage objectives in various development scenarios and requires all storm water management systems to be planned and designed in accordance with these criteria. WSUD principles must not only be incorporated into new development planning and designs but also implemented in existing developed areas through retrofitting.

In addition to its storm water management policy, the City of Cape Town has also recently developed a Water Strategy.[6] In large part spawned by the effects of severe drought conditions on water resources in the area, the Strategy sets out five commitments to ensuring sufficient water for all and developing a City that is more resilient to climate (and other) shocks. It specifically commits to facilitating the transition of Cape Town to a water sensitive city by 2040 “with diverse water resources, diversified infrastructure and one that makes optimal use of storm water and urban waterways for the purposes of flood control, aquifer recharge, water reuse and recreation, and that is based on sound ecological principles.”[7] It aims to achieve this through incentive and regulatory mechanisms and new investment initiatives. The City has recognised the need to integrate water supply and storm water management and has, as a result, transferred the responsibility of storm water management from the roads department to Cape Town Water.[8]

City of Johannesburg

Johannesburg is one of the few major cities that was not developed near a water source. As one of South Africa’s major economic hubs, it remains heavily reliant on significant water supplies from inter-basin transfers channelled primarily through the Vaal River System. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project was developed to supplement water supply from Lesotho to the tributaries of the Vaal River. In addition, return flows from Johannesburg’s water consumption is directed downstream. Given its reliance on water imports, on the one hand, and its impact on the quality of downstream water resources, on the other, the efficient and sustainable management and use of water poses significant challenges for the City of Johannesburg.

To address these challenges, the City’s strategic planning recognises the increased strain placed on natural resources in the area. It is identified as one of five major issues in Johannesburg that the City’s SDF seeks to address, also in relation to climate change. To do this, the City has focused on building resilience, which is directly linked to strengthening its climate change response.[9] Key spatial opportunities identified include protecting and enhancing natural resources by using them as structural elements in urbanisation and ecosystem services such as storm water regulation, natural purification systems and open public spaces. It integrates this into its spatial framework by providing for a critical biodiversity layer – or green infrastructure – that provides crucial infrastructure services. In addition, the City’s SDF proposes that development applications should show how the development will minimise its adverse impact on natural resources. Viewed as a whole, therefore, the SDF reflects basic principles necessary for supporting a water sensitive city.

While water sensitive planning and design enjoys less attention in the City’s IDP than in its SDF, the IDP still identifies the need to provide enhanced, quality services and sustainable environmental practices as fundamental to implementing its strategic development priorities.[10] The Climate Change Strategic Framework[11] is one instrument the City relies on to achieve this outcome. The Framework focuses on the organisational aspects necessary to improve the City’s response to climate change. In addition, the City’s Integrated Environmental Management Policy[12] identifies environmental concerns and links them to relevant City programmes for implementation. Water sensitive principles are included in water resource conservation and planning by promoting responsible land use planning practices, including storm water attenuation, the implementation of urban greening programmes, and the inclusion of environmental and sustainability concerns in development applications.

The City’s long-term Growth and Development Strategy[13] (“G&D Strategy”) emphasises the need to secure sustainable water management practices to ensure water security.[14] It promotes the creation of localised opportunities to save water, which includes developing mechanisms to reduce water resource contamination, incorporating more strategic water recycling and institutionalising the urban water cycle of waste water, potable water, storm water, and grey water re-use into the City’s water management system.[15]

The strongest support for water sensitivity and WSUD principles is found in the City’s climate change policies. Its Adaptation Plan[16] identifies contaminated water, particularly from storm water runoff, as a serious threat to the quality of its surface water sources and the environmental integrity of natural watercourses. Given the effects of climate change – including increased risk of urban flooding, particularly in informal settlements – the Adaptation Plan reinforces the need to adopt adequate storm water infrastructure and incorporate other adaptation measures into low cost housing. It identifies sustainable urban drainage systems – which form part of WSUD and include permeable pavements in open spaces – as a potential adaptive action to minimise urban flooding.[17] But this is only proposed in trial form to determine the benefits, costs and maintenance requirements. It also proposes storm water recycling initiatives to enhance water supply management and promote water security in the City.[18] The City’s Storm Water Bylaw[19] is aligned to the traditional linear approach to storm water management and provides little support for WSUD mechanisms. Responsibility for these storm water management practices remains with the Johannesburg Road Agency (“JRA”), detaching it from the management of water more generally.

Concluding observations

Both the City of Cape Town and the City of Johannesburg provide support for water sensitive principles in their strategic development planning. This is central to implementing WSUD locally, particularly given the significance of municipal IDPs and SDFs in determining the development trajectory within municipalities.

By prioritising resilience, sustainability, resource efficiency and security within the strategic framework of its IDP – supported by its SDF – the City of Cape Town sets the tone for developing further policy direction directly relating to water sensitivity. In this sense, the IDP and SDF are properly aligned to enhance implementation. But the City goes further by confronting water scarcity directly by recognising the need to develop policy that facilitates the transition to a water sensitive city. Its newly developed Water Strategy in particular provides strategic direction for the WSUD implementation.

In contrast, the City of Johannesburg has taken a less active approach to sustainable water practices. This despite its G&D Strategy indicating that its projected water demand will outstrip supply even after the Lesotho Water Highlands Project is completed, requiring aggressive water demand management measures implemented and reduction of unlawful abstraction of water.[20] Although its SDF focuses on building resilience and integrates the protection of environmental resources into its spatial framework, the City does not actively promote water sensitive design or WSUD in specific policy positions which flow from the IDP and SDF. The Climate Change Adaptation Plan does propose sustainable urban drainage systems but only on a trial basis. More needs to be done to implement WSUD as a permanent strategy. Despite this, the City of Johannesburg’s longer term G&D Strategy provides some hope that future local policy will actively direct sustainable water management and design.

Michelle Toxopeüs
Legal Researcher

[1]CoCT, Five Year Integrated Development Plan: July 2017 to June 2022 (As amended for 2019/20), p. 34, accessed at

[2]CoCT IDP, p. 41.

[3]CoCT IDP, p. 92-4.

[6]CoCT, Cape Town Water Strategy: Our shared water future, April 2019 (“CT Water Strategy”), accessed at

[7] CT Water Strategy, p. 21 (commitment 5).

[8] CT Water Strategy, p. 25.

[11]CoJ, Climate Change Strategic Framework, 2015 accessed at

[12]CoJ, Integrated Environmental Management Policy, 2005, accessed at

[13]CoJ, Joburg 2040: Growth and Development Strategy, 2011 (“G&D Strategy”), accessed at

[14] G&D Strategy p. 54.

[15] G&D Strategy, p. 58.

[16]CoJ, Climate Change Adaptation Plan, 2009 (“CoJ Adaptation Plan”) accessed at

[17]CoJ Adaptation Plan, p. 77.

[18]CoJ Adaptation Plan, p. 80.

[20] G&D Strategy, p. 56.