Project period: April 2021 - March 2023


The GoFlow project aims to integrate the natural and social science aspects of, and to strengthen the collaborative capacity for, the sustainable management of groundwater in and around growing urban areas in South Africa under changing climate conditions.


Growing urban settlements face growing water demand, and where urban settlements experience drought, they are likely to face particularly severe water provision short falls, as has recently been experienced in various parts of the Eastern and Western Cape, notably Nelson Mandela Bay and Cape Town. Patterns of growing urban water demand and increasing drought risk intersect in a context of infrastructure development and maintenance constraints and delays in many of South Africa’s metropolitan municipalities. Groundwater is turned to in times of crisis, often as a quick solution to supplement supplies and make up surface water deficits, for both public utilities and private water users, leading to rising competition over usage rights between agricultural and urban users. Turning to groundwater during crises, as a reactive measure, leads to poorly coordinated regulation of increased users and usage, and fragmented management of the resource. For many aquifers in and around city regions, observational data is scant or inaccessible and projections of future conditions are either not available or at a scale not suited to groundwater resource planning. In South Africa, the governance and regulation of groundwater is generally weak, so more work is needed on how to effectively strengthen it, based on solid evidence and sustained engagement between stakeholders. This project contributes to developing an integrated and shared knowledge base to foster collaborative and sustainable groundwater use and recharge at the city regional scale, to support urban growth while managing drought risk within a changing climate.

Research questions

Focussing on what can be learnt from the City of Cape Town (CPT) and Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), as growing South African cities facing water scarcity risks, the project addresses the questions:

  • Using an urban water metabolism (UWM) framework, how do various scenarios of climate and land use impact on groundwater flows into and out of CPT & NMB? How do we construct scenarios informed by and legitimate to stakeholders?
  • How do we construct numerical models to have legitimacy with stakeholders, such that the models engage with existing narratives / mentalities of stakeholders and create opportunities to shift those narratives / mentalities? How do we make trade-offs between the complexity and legibility of the models?
  • Who is involved in decisions shaping groundwater flows through CPT & NMB? How are they involved? What laws & policies shape their involvement? How do characteristics of the actors (i.e. mentalities, technologies, structures and resources) shape how/what decisions are made?
  • Who needs to be involved in new or different ways? How does the combination of the UWM analysis, the governance analysis and the multi-stakeholder Learning Labs capacitate governance shifts?

What we did and found

This study focused on the metropolitan municipalities of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) as ‘learning laboratories’ to co-produce a more comprehensive understanding of each urban water system. The focus was on how groundwater links with other urban water flows, what actors influence these water flows, and how things may change under various climate change and land use scenarios. The work is framed within the idea and the policy goal of cities transitioning to become water sensitive cities characterised by adaptive, multi-functional infrastructure providing access to diverse water sources, urban design that reinforces water sensitive behaviours, and equitable communities that are resilient to climate change. 

An urban water metabolism (UWM) analysis was conducted to build the picture of how groundwater fits into the urban water cycle by quantifying the hydrological and anthropogenic components and conducting an integrated mass balance. The impact of various scenarios of climate change and land use on the water mass balance for each city were explored and discussed at length during the Learning Labs. For NMB, the water mix as of 2022, before any major new drought-response interventions have come online, is compared against the planned future water mix and a hypothetical water mix according to the principles of a water sensitive city. For Cape Town, the scenarios focussed on: (1) only climatic changes, with rainfall reducing by 10% and evapotranspiration increasing by 10%; (2) land cover changes, assessing an extreme of all cultivated land being transformed to residential; (3) an extreme scenario which combines climatic changes (-10% for MAP, +10% for EVT) with all cultivated and residential areas become impervious hard urban spaces; and (4) a slightly less extreme scenario of reduced MAP (-10%), increased EVT (+10%), and land-use change reflecting the drive for residential densification with all existing residential areas becoming hard urban spaces, and all cultivated land becoming residential. The scenarios are broad and crude because the emphasis was not on accuracy but on exploring with Learning Lab participants the heuristic value of the framework for bringing stakeholders with diverse perspectives on and knowledge of the urban water system onto the same page to think about the potential impacts of climate and land-use change on water flows through the city.

The governance analysis comprised individual interviews, reviewing relevant documents, and several participatory exercises conducted during Learning Lab workshops. The analysis highlighted that many state and non-state actors have a stake in shaping the trajectory of groundwater quantities and qualities in cities, as regulators, service providers, water users, knowledge providers, investors in infrastructure, and emergency responders. Currently, neither DWS nor the CCT and NMBM municipal governments have the necessary capacity nor the cooperative governance mechanisms in place to implement what is laid out in the National Groundwater Strategy (DWS, 2016), the Urban Groundwater Development and Management framework and tactical plan (Seyler et al., 2019), or the municipal water by-laws in either of these two cities. Traditional forms of governing by command and control are proving ineffective in sustainably utilising and protecting groundwater resources in densely populated and growing metropolitan municipalities. Therefore, more consultative and cooperative forms of governance are required that build a culture of care and shared responsibility. New partnerships, trust building and bridging organisations are needed to create the enabling conditions for data sharing and more collaborative forms of decision making. Experiences from Cape Town’s aquifer monitoring committees offer a promise of lessons in how to structure and convene urban groundwater user associations to facilitate localised data sharing and self-regulation of usage under dynamic and changing conditions. Intermediary and networking organisations such as the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, Green Cape and the NMB Business Chamber, need to be encouraged and supported to interface on groundwater issues and act as brokers between government entities, businesses and residents.

The multi-stakeholder Learning Labs created an engaging space to build a shared understanding of how possible urban and climate changes could play out from a holistic water perspective, and which actors have influence over various ways of enhancing the hydrological performance of the cities, notably through enhancing stormwater infiltration and increasing the reuse of treated wastewater for non-potable uses and managed aquifer recharge. We argue that planning for resilience against drought should not be limited to water supply alone. Groundwater and aquifers have a critical role to play in cities providing much needed evaporative free storage and supporting the health of green spaces for urban cooling and recreational spaces for improved livability and well-being. For full details see the final project report linked in the Outputs section below.

GoFlow Online Learning Event

On 8 June 2023 an online session was held sharing findings from the Water Research Commission (WRC) funded 'Governing groundwater flows for growing cities facing drought risks' (GoFlow) project, led by ACDI at the University of Cape Town, discussing the implications of these findings, and possible ways forward. This online event built on the four preceding in-person Learning Labs hosted in Cape Town (November 2021 and July 2022) and Gqeberha (March and December 2022) that explored: 1. urban water flows (i.e. analysis of current water metabolism through Nelson Mandela Bay and Cape Town and some scenarios of how the water metabolism of these metros could change) and 2. arrangements for governing groundwater in each of the two cities (i.e. the networks of actors making decisions and taking actions that impact on the quality and quantity of groundwater in and around these cities). This online session aimed to build links with recent and ongoing urban groundwater work commissioned by WRC, notably a training manual for municipal officials and decision-makers in South Africa’s cities and towns to increase their knowledge and skills for sustainably using and protecting groundwater resources put together by Kotzé and colleagues at UFS. We also discussed synergies with the Urban Water Resilience Initiative of the World Resources Institute (that includes Nelson Mandela Bay).

Many thanks again to all those that participated and contributed during the Learning Lab events!

Research impact

This project created knowledge regarding the urban water metabolism and groundwater governance networks of two South African metropolitan municipalities, Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay. It filled a gap in knowledge underpinning debates about the urgent shift to the active and sustainable management of urban groundwater resources in growing cities facing increasing drought risks. Drought and water scarcity will be an ongoing challenge for many growing cities in South Africa. The conjunctive use of groundwater as an alternative to surface supply is a viable proactive adaptation to drought and strategy to build urban resilience, if abstractions and pollution risks are well managed. This requires new forms of and mechanisms for cooperative governance, not only between spheres of government, but involving business, industry and residents too.

The knowledge generated can be applied to improving the design and implementation of water strategies aimed at promoting urban resilience, municipal groundwater by-laws, and strengthening aquifer and borehole committees to collaboratively monitor and protect groundwater resources. The use, design and implementation of Learning Labs as a means of participatory knowledge co-production to promote collaborative governance of urban water and groundwater specifically is an innovation of this project.

As part of the project, 1 MSc student – Naadiya Hoosen – successfully completed her dissertation that was submitted in Feb 2023, entitled “Investigating the potential for utilising a water equity metric to benchmark differential access in Global South cities: a case study of Cape Town”.


First GoFlow Learning Lab in Cape Town held in November 2021

First GoFlow Learning Lab in Nelson Mandela Bay held in March 2022

Second GoFlow Learning Lab in Cape Town held in July 2022

Second GoFlow Learning Lab in Nelson Mandela Bay held in December 2022

Final WRC Project Report published in April 2023

New research directions

Further research is recommended on how to structure and convene groundwater user associations in urban contexts to facilitate localised data sharing and self-regulation of usage in line with changing conditions. Experiences from Cape Town’s two aquifer monitoring committees, as well as possibly the community-based borehole committees in NMB, may shed useful light on this. While the focus of this research is on organisational actor networks, future research could focus on individual actors, the ties they hold, their position in the network, and the consequences of those individuals being lost from the network or moving organisations and positions. An important missing element in this research is the water quality of stocks and flows, which can undermine a system's capacity to operate effectively. The UWM needs to be complemented with water quality considerations. Seepage from septic tanks, sewage infrastructure, solid waste and wastewater treatment facilities, as well as industrial effluents, pose a serious risk of contaminating groundwater. Quantifying, or at least estimating, these flows within and out of a city is an essential aspect to include in future metabolism analyses. This could be used to assess the nutrient recovery potential of particular flows, for example the recovery of wastewater for managed aquifer recharge or other fit-for-purposes uses such as irrigating sports fields and urban agriculture.

Project team

Dr Anna Taylor, ACDI, expertise in urban climate adaptation, multi-level governance and transdisciplinarity

Dr Ffion Atkins, EGS Dept, expertise in urban ecology, water resource management and biogeochemistry

Dr Christopher Jack, CSAG, expertise in climate modeling, climate projections and downscaling, statistical analysis, stakeholder engagement


The project is funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC). The UCT team is collaborating with colleagues in the Department of Geosciences at the Nelson Mandela University.