In the Sand: Water, Land, and Infrastructure in Informality

A resident builds a berm around her home to reduce flooding risk. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.

By Angela Storey, University of Arizona §

Milk crates are a common sight when walking the narrow paths of informal settlements in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town suburb where more than half of the area’s 400,000 residents live in shacks on squatted land. Set upside down into the ground, the plastic latticework of a crate’s base is flush with the surrounding land, often blending visually into the wider landscape of informality.

Constructed water sink and rubbish bag in a backyard. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.
Constructed water sink and rubbish bag in a backyard. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.

The crates conceal space, holes dug several feet deep into the sandy substrate. They are created by residents as substitutes for what should be a basic urban infrastructure: drainage and sewerage. Into these sand sinks residents empty laundry and dish water, urine from buckets utilized in the absence of adequate sanitation[i], and other graywater.  In the summer, the acrid smells emanating from sand sinks make them difficult to miss. While the City of Cape Town touts that 99.1% of the municipality’s residents have access to running water[ii], the construction of drainage systems is not an immediate corollary to the provision of water.[iii]

The sinks are one piece of diverse infrastructural assemblages produced by necessity in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements, the result of piecemeal municipal planning and inadequate formal service provision in an era of rapid urbanization. In addition to indicating the dire need for improved basic services, crates reveal the role of the land in filling-in for missing infrastructure and demonstrate the importance of examining ecological and infrastructural systems as intricately linked (Carse 2015). For residents of Khayelitsha’s informal spaces, however, land is not only a fill-in for missing drainage pipes, but is itself the goal of long-term struggles for secure tenure and ownership. Thinking about land as both ecological space and as property offers a productive and critical tension for understanding everyday relationships within informality. Indeed, the materials and spaces of informal landscapes are highly politicized, as residents must rely upon land that remains elusive. Crates, and the sand sinks they hide, suggest the role of infrastructures in mediating and reproducing complex relationships between varied understandings of land and belonging in post-Apartheid informality.

Full sand sink located between homes. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.
Full sand sink located between homes. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.


Crates, Drains, Land

Although housing many thousands of people, the three informal settlements in Khayelitsha where I conducted research from 2013-2015 have access to only a handful of storm drains set along border roads. While one site has a few additional small drains, they are far from many homes and used only by the nearest residents. Storm drains are thus heavily utilized for waste disposal and often become blocked. While absent other options, residents are still chastised by municipal officials for the need to clear drains.

With storm drains often blocked and always limited, residents regularly empty waste water into the sand: either into constructed sinks or onto the land between shacks, in open space, or near taps. The ground around taps is often flooded, filled by dripping faucets and emptied laundry suds. The city’s assumption that the sand will provide adequate drainage is evidenced by the concrete rings that the city often builds around shared water taps. Initially filled with larger rocks to encourage drainage and keep water from running into paths or homes, in practice rings often hold stagnant water and become a site for the deposition of waste.

Ringed tap with dripping faucet and rubbish. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.
Ringed tap with dripping faucet and rubbish. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.
Ringed tap with stagnant water between toilets. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.
Ringed tap with stagnant water between toilets. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.

The general absence of drains presents more than just an inconvenience to residents: it also necessitates daily labor, requires residents to live in long-term proximity to waste, and causes social conflict. The density of informal areas means that open spaces are often near someone’s home, and waste disposal can become a major source of conflict between individuals, households, or within broad areas. Sand sinks offer an alternative to surface disposal and provide for some isolation of waste, although not without problem.

Despite offering some solution to graywater disposal, the substrate of Khayelitsha also makes water a persistent problem. The low-lying land is prone to winter flooding, the result of rain combining with a high water table. While sand sinks are meant to isolate waste, flooding reverses their purpose: with rising water, waste recirculates. Absent drainage systems, informal areas remain caught between everyday infrastructural measures and wider ecological pressures. An assumption that the land provides sufficient drainage ignores the constant threat of flooding, suggesting that both the city and community’s infrastructural measures can serve to replicate everyday hazards.

A resident builds a berm around her home to reduce flooding risk. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.
A resident builds a berm around her home to reduce flooding risk. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.

While national policy shifted more than a decade ago towards in situ upgrading, which allows for the incremental provision of services in working towards fully-serviced housing (Huchzermeyer 2006), many informal sites languish within transitional processes and in the absence of long-term plans. Communities may gain partial service access from the city as a stop-gap measure, just to spend years relying on these inadequate formal services and on supplementary informal services. With development plans almost always an unknown to residents, communities spend years awaiting further service provision or relocation to permanent land—sites where not only permanent services, but also tenure and ownership are possibilities. Infrastructural assemblages in informality point not only to spaces of exclusion, but also practices that blur the line between infrastructural provision and omission.


Waste Practices: Tangled Assumptions and Actions

I arrived in Khayelitsha intending to study social movements seeking improved access to basic services, but narratives of political action often arrived alongside explanations of sand sinks and other informal infrastructures. For residents, everyday reliance upon extended or make-shift technologies marks still-unfulfilled promises of resource redistribution post-Apartheid. The daily need to use a bucket as a toilet, to draw from illegal electricity connections, or to empty laundry suds into the sand, signals the persistence of massive socio-economic inequality and the incomplete transition to full citizenship—a category of belonging understood in socio-political and material terms during the struggle against Apartheid and in the interceding two decades (von Schnitzler 2013; Hart 2013; Robins 2014). The reliance upon informal technologies signals spaces of infrastructural violence (Rodgers and O’Neill 2012), denoting the production of social abjection through municipal practices that exclude communities from basic service access (Anand 2012).

A resident walking with water from a tap back to her home. Despite promised upgrading for more than fifteen years, residents on this site still rely upon only a few shared taps. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.
A resident walking with water from a tap back to her home. Despite promised upgrading for more than fifteen years, residents on this site still rely upon only a few shared taps. Photo by Shachaf Polakow.

While the strident adoption of neoliberal policies (Hart 2013) and technologies (von Schnitzler 2008) at the national and local level are critical causal factors reproducing infrastructural violence across South Africa, milk crates suggest that the relationship between land and infrastructure is also central to the reproduction of marginality. Although sand sinks are unsanctioned infrastructures, their presence is an expected result of the provision of water in the absence of drains. Land is thus tacitly planned into residents’ service provision as a mode of informal infrastructure, while it simultaneously remains beyond residents’ control. Land as ecological space is expected, necessary, and even assumed by the city to be accessible, while, as property, it remains frustratingly elusive. For residents, daily practices force confrontations with this duality, while, for municipal officials and planners, such divisions remain neat.

In Khayelitsha’s informal settlements, access to land tenure and ownership is a primary goal of persistent socio-political struggle. Although housing has been developed through the post-Apartheid era, need far outstrips construction, and some residents have lived on the same informal sites for 15 or 20 years without gaining either secure tenure or relocation to formal housing. The hope for eventual tenure or ownership offers an elusive reliability, one which would eliminate the constant risk of relocation and the long-term insecurity of life without full basic services.

Embedded within urbanization trends, particularly in the global south, are the ecological pressures of rapidly-growing informality (Rademacher 2011). As technological practices and patterns of local power are shaped by the intersection of formal and informal urban systems (Björkman 2015), daily practices reveal the ecological, legal, and aspirational connections mediated by infrastructure. Everyday readings of Khayelitsha’s infrastructural assemblages evoke latent promises of democratic inclusion, forcing residents to daily confront in practice that which eludes them in promise. As infrastructure makes material wider relations of power, technologies like sand sinks suggest the necessity of seeing particular places as situated within varied relationships of history and struggle (Lawhon, Ernston, and Silver 2014). Thinking about land as property and as ecological site reveals the complexity of everyday infrastructural practices. In embracing the paradoxes implicit in analyses of infrastructure (Howe et al 2015), we may find that place-based linkages between natural and infrastructural systems (Carse 2012) mediate other processes as well. Milk crates present such an everyday materiality, embodying and reproducing particularly post-Apartheid structures of inequality and exclusion.

A Note on the Wider Project

The images in this post are selected from a collaborative project conducted in 2015 with photographer Shachaf Polakow, through support from the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry ( Images produced in informal settlements across Khayelitsha are paired with audio excerpts from interviews about everyday service access and usage. The project intends to add the direct experiences of residents to wider conversations on service provision. The full project will be available online in May 2016.

More of Shachaf’s work can be found at

Works Cited

Anand, Nikhil. 2012. “Municipal Disconnect: On Abject Water and Its Urban Infrastructures.” Ethnography 13(4): 487-509.
Armitage, Neil, Roxanne Beauclair, Nangolo Ashipala, and Andrew Spiegel. 2010. Draining the Shantytowns: Lessons from Kosovo Informal Settlement, Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town: Novatech.
Björkman, Lisa. 2015. Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press.
Carse, Ashley. 2015. Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal. Cambridge: MIT Press.
City of Cape Town. 2012. City of Cape Town – 2011 Census – Cape Town. December 2012. Compiled by Strategic Development and GIS Department (SDI&GIS), City of Cape Town. Census data supplied by Statistics South Africa.
Hart, Gillian. 2013. Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, and Hegemony. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Howe, Cymene, Jessica Lockrem, Hannah Appel, Edward Hackett, Dominic Boyer, Randal Hall, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Albert Pope, Akhil Gupta, Elizabeth Rodwell, Andrea Ballestero, Trevor Durbin, Farès el-Dahdah, Elizabeth Long, and Cyrus Mody. 2015. “Paradoxical Infrastructures: Ruins, Retrofit, and Risk.” Science, Technology, and Human Values: 1-19. Online first publishing, Dec. 23, 2015.
Huchzermeyer, Marie. 2006. “The New Instrument for Upgrading Informal Settlements in South Africa: Contributions and Constraints.” In Informal Settlements: A Perpetual Challenge? M. Huchzermeyer and A. Karam, eds. Pp. 41-61. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.
Lawhon, Mary, Henrik Ernston, and Jonathan Silver. 2014. “Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE Through African Urbanism.” Antipode 46(2):497-516.
Pan, SM, NP Armitage, and MB Van Ryneveld. 2015. “Sustainable and Equitable Sanitation in Informal Settlements of Cape Town: A common vision?” Water SA 41(2): np. Accessed at:
Rademacher, Anne M. 2011. Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformations in Kathmandu. Durham: Duke University Press.
Robins, Steven. 2014. “Poo Wars as Matter Out of Place: ‘Toilets for Africa’ in Cape Town.” Anthropology Today 30(1):1-3.
Rodgers, Dennis, and Bruce O’Neill. 2012. “Infrastructural Violence: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Ethnography 13(4): 401-412.
von Schnitzler, Antina. 2008. “Citizenship Prepaid: Water, Calculability, and Techno-Politics in South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 34(4):899-917.
von Schnitzler, Antina. 2013. “Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa.” Cultural Anthropology 28(4):670-693.


[i] Forms of shared sanitation set in public space require residents to walk sometimes significant distances to available toilets. At night, the risk of crime discourages many people from leaving their homes, thus forcing the usage of buckets. Work by the Social Justice Coalition, an NGO active in Khayelitsha, has detailed safety concerns associated with inadequate sanitation:

[ii] This statistic is itself problematic. Used in city and provincial outreach campaigns, and in political campaigning by the Democratic Alliance, the statistic appears to come from the 2011 South African census, and would thus count households with access to water set significant distances from their home—even more than 250 meters away—as adequate access (City of Cape Town 2012).

[iii] The siting and construction of formal drainage and sewerage systems within informal settlements is influenced by a wide range of factors, including political, social, financial, geographic, engineering, and legal reasons. Some of these factors are examined in detail in research conducted by a collaborative team of social anthropologists and engineers at the University of Cape Town ( and can be found in their publications, including: Armitage, Beauclair, Ashipala, and Spiegel 2010; Pan, Armitage, and Van Ryneveld 2015.

Angela Storey is a PhD Candidate in SocioCultural and Applied Anthropology at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation research in Cape Town was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure.