Connie Ochola
Interviews  
9 March 2017

Biomimicry Genius of Space project: site visit interview

One of the site visits at this year’s African Utility Week will be the Biomimicry Genius of Space project, wastewater treatment system designed to find an innovative solution to water pollution in the Berg River. Here is a joint interview with some of the key role players.

Jason Mingo, Berg River Task Manager, Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning ; Jonny Harris, founder and director, Isidima ; Claire Mollatt, ‎Project co-ordinator and solid waste lead for Genius of SPACE at Greenhouse Systems Development (GSD) and Justin Friedman of GSD.

Tell us more about the Genius of SPACE project? What does the name refer to?
The Genius of SPACE (Systems for People’s Access to a Clean Environment) project is intended as a medium-term intervention amongst other longer-term sanitation and infrastructure interventions, to reduce pollution loads into the Berg River. It is aimed at improving human and ecological health, economic development and quality of life of residents in the area.

The prototypes work on addressing the principles of the green, circular and well-being economies – through addressing stormwater, greywater and solid waste challenges in the Langrug informal settlement near Franschhoek.

The Genius of SPACE project is a result of the merging of the Berg River Bioremediation and the Genius of Place projects. This happened in June 2015 in a new tender that was submitted by the project team. The Bioremediation project was initiated by the Western Cape Dept of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP). The Genius of Place project was run by the Western Cape Government Department of Economic Development and Tourism (DEDAT). These two projects started in 2012 / 2013.

The name of the project fulfils two important elements. Firstly, the name stands for Genius of Systems for People’s Access to a Clean Environment (SPACE), which sets out the direct objective of the project.

Secondly, the project aims to demonstrate novel approaches and innovative systems when it comes to utilising the space available to address socio-environmental issues within an informal settlement. These issues are mainly focused on addressing waste flows -solid waste and polluted stormwater. In incorporating the principles of Water Sensitive Design, the project is one of the first of its kind internationally to adopt a systems approach to tackling such issues in a way that provides and stimulates economic opportunities. This is achieved at the community level, through effective participation (co-design), capacity development and embedding ownership of interventions and solutions together with private partnership development. The integration of green infrastructure solutions with novel service delivery systems, seeks to shift current paradigms in community upliftment and environmental protection.

How is it changing the way the local community uses its resources?
The project seeks to enhance efficiency in the way resources are utilised from one stage to the next. Rather than contributing to environmental degradation, the project has delivered opportunities to reuse, recycle and/or create value from water and solid waste. In doing so, the local community are better capacitated and enabled to drive change and socio-environmental improvement which may lead to economic upliftment.

Are there plans to extend this project?
The project is set to undergo an extensive monitoring and evaluation process to deliver a model and methodology for further replication and extension. It is important to note , that such a process is reliant on the need to effectively address a multitude of mandates and objectives which cut across the various roles of different government departments and levels, with the inclusion of the opportunity of the private sector to play a role. The advocacy of adopting a new paradigm/approach/methodology needs to highlight the efficiencies and cost/benefit opportunities, without which the support for extension and replication will not be provided. This represents the next, final and crucial stage of the project, to adopt lessons learnt and package the process in a way that is financially feasible.

What have been some of the challenges in implementing the project?
Construction of the greywater prototype (originally part of the Genius of Place project) only started in Jan 2016. Before this point, there was definitely a sense of frustration and distrust among community members that we had been working with – because there was nothing physical to show for the work done between 2013 and 2015 in the projects. Therefore, building trust among community leaders was the result of working for a long time and being patient.

During construction and operation and maintenance, we have been hit by a number of incidences of theft – mostly of tools and office equipment. The project has a strict timeline. However, the paperwork required for getting permits from the municipality’s departments does not necessarily follow these timelines, and so can sometimes cause delays in implementation or construction that relies on authorisations. Essentially it has taken time to get through the red tape of paperwork and to assist municipalities and government to think ‘outside the box’. However, overall the municipality has been supportive of our work.

What have been some of the surprises along the way? Lessons learnt?
•    Community engagement takes time – have learnt that we need to be patient in order to get lasting and meaningful work done in the community
•    Community engagement is a two way relationship – it’s like building a romantic relationship – there needs to be compromise, trust, authenticity, accountability, and some give and take on both sides
•    Necessity is the mother of invention
•    Innovation can come at the most unexpected moments and places e.g. from construction team staff who made an addition to the greywater disposal point designs using leftover paving materials to protect the infrastructure.

What will African Utility Week delegates see on their site visit to the Genius of SPACE project in May?
The visitors will be welcomed to our site office by our Community Liaison Officer for the project, Solomon. He will give visitors a health and safety induction. Then he and a community leader that is part of the forum of community leaders and residents that we have created on the project will lead visitors up the hill on the tour. They will see the existing conditions of wastewater, stormwater and solid waste management challenges that are typical in many informal settlements in South Africa. They will chat about the different work and history of projects that the community leaders have been involved in and what their challenges have been. Then they will walk up to our prototype area and see the constructed greywater prototype and the maintenance staff (flow agents) in action. They will be able to compare what the previous conditions were like to what they are now in the prototype area.

Anything you would like to add?
The key learnings of this project are how a technical intervention is really a means to galvanize social cohesion, and how building on existing community work and leadership is the key to successful implementation. This project is about demonstrating how the power needs to shift to be more localized, thus allowing those on a neighbourhood scale to lead their own water and waste management and in this way, reducing dependency on local authorities while at the same time providing a manner in which to build resilience among inhabitants.

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