Nature-based Solutions hold untapped potential for addressing urban climate stresses and shocks

by Kopano Ntsoane
19 July 2023

In the last few years, South African cities have been grappling with unprecedented climate-related stresses and shocks. The effects of which are increasingly felt and yet to be adequately addressed. In KwaZulu Natal, severe flooding led to loss of lives and damage to critical infrastructure. Extended drought, increased water consumption and leaks saw residents in Nelson Mandela Bay experiencing a crippling water crisis. Environmental hazards such as storm surges, droughts, wildfires, and excessive rainfall and flooding characterise many municipalities in the country. Yet amid these crises, nature-based solutions remain largely untapped even with the potential they hold to address some of these challenges. While some cities are making strides in incorporating nature-based solutions, some challenges remain, and it begs the question of the extent to which these solutions are incorporated into municipal planning, budgeting and implementation processes.


Broadly defined, nature-based Solutions are actions to protect, manage, and restore natural and man-made ecosystems (IUCN, 2020). They address societal challenges such as climate change, food security, energy, water resources, health and biodiversity. Some examples of nature-based solutions are green buildings, constructed wetlands, open green spaces, urban gardens, and other actions to protect and restore natural or modified ecosystems. The inherent flexibility and adaptive nature of these action-oriented solutions hold the possibility for every municipality to implement them to address multiple challenges.


South African cities continue to grow in resource-intensive ways and claim increasingly more water, energy and land resources. Simultaneously, they face problems of environmental degradation and in some cases, resource scarcity, thereby threatening access to energy, food and water. This is manifested in the daily lived experiences of limited access to energy, clean drinking water and nutritious food, a brunt felt disproportionately by the most vulnerable people across South African cities. The picture is however not all gloomy, some South African cities are already making strides in implementing Nature-based Solutions through their development projects and programmes. Communities across cities are reaping advantages associated with nature-based solutions, although to a limited extent given the scale of challenges that municipalities are facing.


Although not exhaustive, some already existing examples include the Urban Agriculture Initiative (UAI) in the City of Johannesburg, founded to increase food security and resilience, thereby providing Johannesburg residents with business opportunities in the farming sector. Now a registered NPC, the UAI has been developed by the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership (JICP) with support from the City of Johannesburg, the Department of Small Business Development, the Small Enterprise Development Agency, and SAB Kickstart (JICP, 2020). On the other hand, eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, in partnership with the C40 Cities Finance Facility, is collectively working on upscaling the rehabilitation of riverine corridors in the city, through Sihlanzimvelo Stream Cleaning Programme. The programme illustrates how important well-managed rivers are for managing the risks of climate change. The programme makes the case for investment in riverine management to enhance the quality of river ecosystems, and protect society against the effects of climate change, thereby increasing the resilience of the city (C40, 2019). Moreover, eThekwini is steadily entrenching Nature-based Solutions in its governance processes, as demonstrated by other initiatives such as its Community Ecosystem-Based Adaptation. Exemplified by the Buffelsdraai Landfill Site Community Reforestation Project, the primary focus areas are restoration of local ecosystems, through partnership between eThekwini Municipality, businesses, NGOs, local communities and other spheres of government.  Beyond the restoration of local ecosystems, the project involves climate-relevant knowledge transfer, creating local jobs and developing small businesses, all of which help to ensure cleaner, greener and more sustainable neighbourhoods. The City of Tshwane continues to showcase best practices in the built environment through its green building instruments, including the Green Building Development By-law, Green Building Development Policy, and Green Building Development Incentive Scheme, all of which promote and uphold resource-efficient building norms and standards.


By incorporating nature-based solutions in the planning, budgeting, and implementation processes, cities are presented with multiple opportunities for balancing the preservation of green spaces and the socio-economic needs of the people by creating multi-functional and beneficial green spaces[1]. Beyond cities, it is imperative that industry and community-based organisations place nature-based solutions firmly on their development priorities, building on the already existing momentum. Global projections indicate that demand for freshwater, energy and food will increase significantly over the next decades under the pressure of population growth, mobility, and economic development. Yet, challenges remain and for the most part, rapid development, government priorities, budget constraints and departmental silos appear key amongst challenges.  But as has been shown, breaking down departmental silos and working jointly on projects is a common denominator across cities already implementing nature-based solutions.


The sheer benefits of nature-based solutions that are already implemented in pockets across metros is evidence that if implemented collaboratively at scale, these solutions hold a great growth potential for South African cities. Benefits are demonstrated across various dimensions including green infrastructure, ecological engineering, ecosystem services approaches, and water and waste-sensitive planning. Municipalities are mandated to ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner. Regulatory and planning tools (zoning, policies, by-laws) are available at municipalities’ disposal to scale implementation of nature-based solutions to improve sustainable access to services.


The nexus between energy, waste, water, and food systems is interdependent and dynamic. A collaborative effort is needed to co-define challenges, plan suitable nature-based interventions, and develop impact measurement indicators for addressing challenges that might be context-sensitive. The good thing about nature-based solutions is that they can be implemented alone or in an integrated manner, on multiple scales (building, neighborhood, community, street) to complement other solutions, to address multiple challenges. Beyond offering sustainable solutions to energy, food and water, and possibly nurturing our very biophilia, they can do the same with other functional areas of local government espoused in the Constitution. Nature-based solutions would be of great service if they were increasingly mainstreamed into cities’ planning, budgeting, and implementation processes.


[1] Parks versus people? Challenges facing the South African capital’s greening efforts

Kopano Ntsoane is a Junior Researcher at the South African Cities Network (SACN). To contact him email