Durban and the Climate Future

Cities are creatures of habit – habits cemented into the bureaucracies and politics that make and maintain our urban habitats. But what happens when changing conditions make those habits obsolete? That's one of the big unknowns about climate change: whether or not services and institutions designed for business-as-usual will be able to respond when the unusual comes to town.

Being in Durban, South Africa, over the past two years I've been able to see the impacts of a triple crisis of extreme weather events, food price hikes, and a serious national energy shortage. Like cities in Australia, it seems to be living through a microcosm of what the climate future has in store.

When I got to South Africa last year, I saw what a country looks like when it runs out of power. With an economy built around the world's cheapest electricity growing at over 5% a year, and a government that heavily subsidizes connections for millions of low-income residents as part of the post-apartheid transition, demand simply overshot supply. As of early last year, no new generation capacity had been built for over ten years, demand had consumed any remaining reserve capacity. That made basic maintenance next to impossible. Finally, in February, the entire grid crashed.

Massive blackouts rolled across the country. The government declared a national emergency; mines closed and hobbled industries cut thousands of jobs (or at least used the crisis to justify layoffs). This in a country where unemployment in some areas is already over 60%. At the same time global food prices hikes doubled the cost of some staples and oils prices went over $100 a barrel. In Durban, the daily papers carried blackout schedules for the entire city. Rotating outages switched off whole sections of the city for 4 or 5 hours at a time – sometimes much longer.

All of this only a few months after the city that had finished cleaning up the effects of a massive coastal storm that tore chunks off of its sea front infrastructure in 2007, causing millions of dollars in damages. Later in 2008 heavy rains caused flooding that closed oil refineries, swept away homes and tore apart sewage infrastructure.

The concentration of rain in heavy bursts also means that fresh water supplies have decreased significantly. Dams built for more evenly distributed rainfall can't hold the bounty brought by flash floods, and then dip dangerously low during the rest of the year. It's not a pretty picture. Many residents and officials are starting say that climate change has already hit South Africa. While that might still be up for debate, Durban is a perfect test case for understanding how cities can respond to the stresses that a changing climate is going to bring.

I've written before on urban agriculture in South Africa. In these next posts on my work in Durban, I'm going to cover a few energy related projects that caught my attention. As a species, we are energy gluttons. Energy transitions are going to be key to the way we reduce our environmental impacts, and prepare for the rougher ride that we have in store.

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For more on my time in Durban see:
pt.2Sewer Pipe Power: Urban Renewables
pt.3Climate Change? Not my job.

[images: Protester, South African Climate Change Summit; Durban's Flooded Coastline, 2007]

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.