Building on community knowledge in South Africa

In the Western Cape, the informal settlement of Langrug has no access to electricity, plumbing, sewer, or stormwater management. Photo courtesy of FLOW.

Langrug’s existing trough system helps to remove water from the streets, but the open water remains a health hazard and is untreated before reaching the Berg River. Photo courtesy of FLOW.

Picture this: A community made up of mostly farming families—4,000 strong—establishes their homes on the banks of the Berg River in an area called Langrug.

The river is their hub and the source of what sustains their crops and their livelihoods. The problem? Langrug is what is called an informal settlement and has grown and expanded with limited access to electricity, plumbing, sewer, stormwater management, and other government or city-provided systems. The result? The Berg River—their lifeblood—has become terribly polluted.


In 2013, the Western Cape government wanted to do something to help this situation. At the same time, Claire Janisch, founder of Biomimicry South Africa (BiomimicrySA), was looking to develop regional projects that demonstrated how nature could help solve important local issues. After Janisch was invited to give a biomimicry presentation to Jenny Cargill, Special Advisor to the Premier and Chair of the Green Economy Work Group providing oversight to the government’s 110% Green Initiative, a match was made. “She [Cargill] loved the idea of biomimicry and wanted to know where to start,” said Janisch. After BiomimicrySA analyzed how biomimicry could inform six key causes of pollution of the Berg River, the government decided to pilot biomimicry to solve wastewater issues originating from informal settlements, a politically charged nationwide dilemma, starting with Langrug.

Without access to core city systems, the residents of Langrug are suffering health risks. Water polluted with human waste, detergents, and bacteria finds its way, untreated, to the Berg River. This leads to E. coli-contaminated crops, endangering the Western Cape’s agricultural economy and human health. With increasing pressure to deal with this issue but limited funds, the government needed an innovative approach. BiomimicrySA’s proposed “Genius of Place” project, which would look to the Western Cape’s unique environment to find context-specific solutions, fit the bill.

Biomimicry is a deeply interdisciplinary design approach, so the first thing Janisch did was reach out to collaborators for this project. These included Informal South’s Shannon Royden-Turner, an urban designer who takes a community-based approach, and John Todd Ecological Design (JTED), a company that is pioneering biomimetic wastewater management with its Eco-Machine.

Langrug community members participated in the design process, helping to envision the future. Photo courtesy of FLOW.

The current prototype includes tree pits that filter water and turn organic matter into soil. Photo courtesy of John Todd Ecological Design.

Working with the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) of the South African Shack/Slum Dwellers International Alliance, the team involved members of the Langrug community in the project from the very beginning. Residents joined in a nature walk to seek out local inspirations, helped map where solutions could be placed, and used clay and crayons to create models to help envision the future. The residents’ contributions fit right into the team’s planning. “This community that probably hasn’t even had the best of schooling knows a lot about biomimicry, not just as a concept but as a practical idea,” said Janisch.

JTED’s project coordinator, Lauren Valle, says that the community has been an integral part of how the design came together. “We’ve heard right from them what will work for them, what they want and what they don’t want and what they need in the community,” Valle said. During a visit to Langrug, Valle and her team noticed an existing system of troughs that the community had set up to remove wastewater from the streets. Valle’s response? “You’ve already come up with a solution,” she said. “This is brilliant and you like to use it, so let’s work with this. We don’t need to reinvent anything here.”

The community and the team came up with a two-part solution that builds upon the existing system to improve sanitary conditions, decrease odors, and treat wastewater before it leaves Langrug. The first, to remove water from the streets in town, was “essentially designed by the community,” says Valle, and is now partially in prototype. This prototype is based on residents’ existing bucket system to remove greywater from their homes. It includes tree pits lined with carbon and rubble, which will eventually function in concert with a series of living gutters that capture water and divert it into the pits, where it will be filtered and its organic matter will be turned into soil. So far, the team has been able to test community education and engagement, the impact of the rainy season, and water quality monitoring.

Sizwe Mxobo, CORC community liaison, and Jonny Harris, a water engineer, share the proposed living gutter and tree pit water treatment solution. Photo courtesy of FLOW.

The second part of the solution, designed with residents’ short- and long-term needs in mind, is to place an Eco-Machine downstream to prevent surface runoff from entering the Berg River. The biomimetic Eco-Machine is a custom-built wastewater treatment system that mimics the processes of natural ecosystems to clean contaminated water. Unlike typical treatment plants, it doesn’t use chemicals and often blends right into the landscape, though it does still rely on power, pumps, and blowers. So when the JTED team learned that Langrug’s design constraints required no electricity and affordable components, it had to take its original concept back to the design table, experiencing first-hand how limited resources can drive innovation. Valle described that the resulting, site-specific Eco-Machine design incorporates “dendritic” principles based on “how energy and water flow in nature.” The new design relies on gravity instead of power to move water downhill through the system, with the water flowing in a root pattern based on design outlets. Since Eco-Machines are modular and can be combined to form a larger system, the solution is economically scalable.

The team is designing a holistic system that will not only treat wastewater, but also help improve the soil, increase biomass, and create beautiful spaces. At the same time, this system will create opportunities for income generation within the community, said Janisch. Community members will manage and own the system, which the team is designing to upcycle waste (including through compost) as a source of revenue. “We designed a couple different opportunities for enterprise,” said Valle. “One of them is that you can grow cut flowers and valuable plants within the system itself using the nutrients that are present in the wastewater, and the other is that you can grow algae in the system and then you can use that algae to feed a fish farm.”

In the next six months, the team will move forward with the construction phase. At the same time, BiomimicrySA is already preparing for other opportunities that can leverage this project, including a water treatment project in another informal settlement. Janisch is confident that different governmental entities will fund similar projects in other places once it sees the results from Langrug. “Because we know it takes years from getting connections going to the actual construction phase,” said Janisch, ”we’re prepping the ground there so that if they are interested, we’ll be ready to do it.”

Interested in Eco-Machines? Read more on AskNature.

Hear more about Janisch’s work in biomimicry on “Meet a Biomimic.”

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