Inspirador How Johannesburg Is Rethinking Its Water Sources

Romy Stander looks at a map
Romy Stander studied the Juksei and the water systems of Johannesburg. | Photo (detail): © Water fot the Future

Johannesburg is one of the very few large cities in the world that wasn't built around bulky rivers or the sea. The Juksei is its only perennial river, and it is heavily polluted. But a group of people are coming together, merging the arts, science, and social practices to reverse this logic. 

By Jonaya de Castro and Laura Sobral

The Inspirador is rethinking sustainable cities in identifying and sharing inspiring initiatives and policies from more than 32 cities around the world. The research is systemising these cases in categories, these are signified by hashtags.

Natural resources were seen for years as something infinite, and today we are being overwhelmed by the consequences of that. Many initiatives are trying to reach a circular model by recycling and reusing resources, promoting waste reduction, and taking responsibility for the use of water. Cities that house initiatives that are mindful of this reality are better prepared for all the crises that we will inevitably face, prompting us to change the paradigm of the urban sphere.  

Johannesburg in South Africa has two quite different parts: the hills, and the Bez Valley. In this valley lies an almost imperceptible body of water: the Jukskei, which is the only perennial river in the city. Most of the local water comes from a neighbouring country, Lesotho, far from Johannesburg. It is hard to walk alongside the river since it has been transferred to a canal and, at certain points, is completely covered and cuts through areas that have become dangerous. Many different things happen along this river in the context of South African culture. From religious ceremonies to people who live there and wash away their plastics, to people who cultivate vegetable gardens. 

There, two women have started a campaign to free the Jukskei River from pollution. By merging art, science, and activism, the project Water for the Future, created by conservationist Romy Stander and artist Hannelie Coetzee, develops an ecological infrastructure system in the catchment area which harnesses the brief, intense downpours before the water reaches the canal. The project is based on participatory and co-design approaches, such as workshops and artistic collaborative interventions, and advocates the establishment of an eco-art green corridor.  

How Do You Clean a River?  

“The project came about serendipitously,” explains Romy. “I think we all come to a place in our lives where we can't ignore these things anymore if they are in this bad of a state.” She then began to do research and take action. 

Water for the Future started in 2017. While Romy had no background in the environmental or water preservation fields, she felt very motivated to do something for the river. So, she began to network with a range of actors, from people who lived in the area to experts. 

One very special person to cross Romy's path was Paul Fairall, a water activist and longtime chairman of the Jukskei River, who helped her build a roadmap for the first steps of the project. “He shared tons of information and referred me to a panel of experts from around the country,” recalls Romy. From that point on, she hired a group of scientists, including aquatic ecologists, engineers, and hydrologists to produce a series of commissioned reports that would generate more datasets than the city administration. 

For those who want to start a similar initiative in their city, Romy recommends creating a map, gathering precise scientific data on the water systems and comparing it with government data.  

Besides that, the meeting between Romy and Hannelie Coetzee, an environmental artist who was researching the Jukskei, was essential. Romy recalls: “We just crossed paths and then started going to meetings together, talking to people, scraping and finding things.”

During the first two years, people were listening to us because we had commissioned reports and managed to pay for a team of professionals. Science and data gave us legitimacy.

Romy Stander

The experiments and partnerships carried out by the project have yielded good results. Together, they formed an experimental toolkit that relies on local partnerships and specialists who are constantly thinking about how they can inspire the rehabilitation of other urban rivers. 

One developed initiative is to improve sustainable drainage and manage the water flow of urban rivers by removing invasive plants, which is part of a plan to build natural water filters to protect the river. A monitoring system is also being installed to track the substances present in the water in real-time at the molecular level. 

Beyond Environmentalism 

Jukskei is an Africaans term that means two things: a traditional game and a traditional dance that was mainly associated with the colonizers. Romy explains that no one currently relates to this word. Since the end of apartheid, lots of South African cities and streets have been given new names, but the Jukskei has kept its “old-school” name. Because it now flows in a canal, it doesn't quite register in people's minds as a river, even though its daylight source, where it springs up from underground, is only 500 metres away. “The Jukskei looks like some sort of municipal pipe,” observes Romy. For her, taking care of the river also has to do with changing people’s perception and relationship with it. 

Cities are systems and all aspects influence each other. “That is why this project is so multi-layered: it is social, economic, and obviously environmental. There are all these different areas of expertise.” Water for the Future believes that the recovered area will most probably inspire small businesses to thrive, providing jobs and uplifting the community.  

A Mindset Transition 

There are many low-impact technologies today that can help solve challenges in relation to nature and big cities. Sometimes they are old knowledge but used in new ways.  

“One of the experts in our team introduced us to sustainable urban drainage systems. And this is very new all around the world. It's about absorbing as much rainfall as possible through rain gardens or creating bioswales. I foresee a lot of resistance against this because traditionally, all these big engineering building companies want to do the concrete and the big paths, and things that cost millions,” says Romy. 

Through the Water for the Future project, people dream of a Johannesburg that is more resilient to climate change, managing increasing levels of stormwater runoff. It is possible to picture a green corridor as a clean, safe haven for walking in the city. It is even possible to envision the rewilding of the natural environment and the quality of water tremendously improved. 

It is about dealing with things differently. The knowledge and information are out there: there are alternatives.

Romy Stander

“We've all been conditioned to believe that climate change is the end of the world. But it's not. Nature is amazing and it restores itself,” says Romy. She believes that anyone who is interested can figure it out on their own, creating meaningful change. Those who aren’t specialists can gather networks of different kinds of knowledge around a common challenge: “That is the most inspiring part for me.” She has discovered how citizens can reclaim their city and take care of natural resources. Now, she invites us all to do the same. 

What Is This Series About?

The “Inspirador for Possible Cities” project is a collaborative creation by Laura Sobral and Jonaya de Castro aiming to identify experiences among initiatives,academic content, and public policies that work towards more sustainable, cooperative cities. If we assume that our lifestyle gives rise to the factors behind the climate crisis, we have to admit our co-responsibiltiy. Green planned cities with food autonomy and sanitation based on natural infrastructures can be a starting point for the construction of the new imaginary needed for a transition. The project presents public policies and group initiatives from many parts of the world that point to other possible ways of life, categorized into the following hashtags:
#redefine_development, #democratize_space,
#(re)generate_resources, #intensify_collaboration,