In the eye of the storm

An interview with Geoff Tooley


Text Paolo Candotti Photographs Geoff Tooley

Blundell Road across the Umhlatuzana River (Between Queensburgh and Shallcross) highlighting the infrastructural damage caused by the April 2022 Floods

12 April 2022 – The incessant downpour had been unrelenting for hours and the raw power of nature was on full display at the Caversham Road – Umbilo River crossing. The torrential rain had turned the usually tranquil stream into a wild raging torrent accompanied by a matching cacophony of noise, visually amplified by the large volume of debris crashing at breakneck speed into the columns of the bridge. The spectacle was mesmerising, awe-inspiring and terrifying all at the same time. Geoff had been on voluntary Street Patrol helping neighbours in distress and as a Civil Engineer looked on at the unfolding disaster with a critical eye assessing what was actually happening and what theory taught him should be happening.

Caversham Road, Pinetown

Calls were coming in from work colleagues across the city all reporting the same alarming fate – flooding streams carrying large volumes of invasive alien vegetation and debris, damming the bridges, causing significant overflows and washaways. In all the chaos one area was remarkably silent. The few reports coming in from the Sihlanzimvelo Project area in the townships of Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu (colloquially known as INK) were very non-descript and brief, “heavy rain but nothing much to report”! A post-flood survey found that “areas under the project management had minor if any damage”.

The INK area is situated 25km north of the Durban city centre and since 2009 has been the site of a ground-breaking city project known as the Sihlanzimvelo program. The programme has steadily improved the condition of streams in the INK area by employing local residents to remove litter and invasive alien plants from the stream banks. The improved ecological environment of the targeted streams reduces the amount of alien vegetation and debris which flows during floods thus reducing blockages which in turn reduces the consequential infrastructural damage.

A Co-op working on a stream in the INK area.

The Sihlanzimvelo team knew that their approach was correct but producing strong enough evidence to convince those holding the purse strings required a disaster! As Geoff looked on at the unfolding disaster at Caversham Road, he instinctively knew this was an opportunity to turn a crisis into something positive.


Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.



Geoff Tooley was born and raised in Durban, educated at Westville Boys High, and obtained his BSc Civil Engineering Degree at the Durban Campus of the University of Natal (now UKZN). From an early age he “enjoyed building things as a youngster and I think that from Std 8 I knew that I wanted to be a civil engineer”. We often underestimate the impact some school teachers make particularly at an early age and Geoff fondly recalls how, whilst in what was then called Standard 1, his maths teacher Mrs Cole made maths exciting and challenging. Spending time watching contractors build a bridge over the M19 might not be every child’s idea of fun but it was something that piqued Geoff’s interests and the type of activity that helped set his mind on an engineering career. Traditionally engineering has not always been kind to the natural environment but with his parents always encouraging him to value nature the groundwork for a successful career that blends the inevitable “concrete” in a sustainable manner with the natural environment was well set.

On graduating Geoff joined the eThekwini Municipality, initially working in the materials laboratory doing soil and concrete tests which set a good grounding in the use of different materials in civil engineering solutions. He then joined the Major Drainage section which became the Drainage and Coastal engineering Department and then finally the Coastal, Stormwater and Catchment Management Department (CSCM). During this time Geoff was in charge of the stormwater design section before moving onto his current position as manager of the Catchment Management section responsible for the rivers and flood lines of the city.

An important early engagement was work done with Dr Debra Roberts on the threat of climate change in the water sector and the development of the Municipal Adaptation Plans (MAP) in the Water, Health, and Disaster sector. This work was fundamental in shaping much of the approach to future civil engineering solutions in Geoff’s department.

Geoff and Mom-Gail, at Kruger National Park

Throughout his career Geoff has been fortunate to interact with key “influencers” that helped define his approach to all he does – in Geoff’s words.

  • My parents encouraged me to excel in my interests and to see everyone as my equal.

  • My father taught me that anything worth doing should be done right and if possible improved.

  • Brian Downie and James Morris (Consulting Engineers) who worked with me on the first catchment management plans we did on the Ohlanga River were willing to share their extensive experience in hydraulics and river management with me. Brian Downie in particular showed me what being a professional was all about.

  • Dr Debra Roberts spent time engaging with us as engineers and showed us the importance of understanding the risk of climate change in the areas we worked in as well as the importance of understanding the interaction between our engineering work and the natural processes.


Our city streams and rivers are like veins through our city. They bring life or death but ultimately, they connect us all regardless of economic or educational status, culture, or creed.



One of the defining projects in Geoff’s career has been the Sihlanzimvelo (“we clean the environment”) programme. The seeds of this programme can be found in another ground-breaking project, the Zibambele (“get a hold of yourself”) project which in turn was adapted from the Kenyan Lengthman model. In a nutshell, Sihlanzimvelo is a poverty alleviation programme which contracts a co-operative rather than an individual or company to maintain a stretch of river/stream thus helping the members to lift themselves out of the poverty cycle and at the same time improving the environmental condition of the stream. This in turn reduces the amount of vegetation material and solid waste which in time of flood negatively impacts on road and stormwater infrastructure.

During intra-departmental discussions Geoff engaged with Mark Tomlinson in the Roads and Stormwater Maintenance Section who was running the Zibambele project and the concept of Sihlanzimvelo was gradually developed. Geoff explained:

“The municipal adaptation plan work had highlighted the need to for the management of riverine corridors. This was due to the damage we were seeing to our services along and across the rivers, e.g., road crossings being blocked. CSCM is responsible for the assets while the Roads and Stormwater Maintenance (RSWM) teams were responsible to clear the debris away from the road crossings.

Mark and I also identified that there were 8 different departments responsible for aspects of the riverine environment and so we co-ordinated a meeting with all these stakeholders.

At this first meeting we discussed our lack of budget and resources in relation to the growth of the city area under our control.

It was Mark who proposed the use of a single resource to carry out functions within the riverine corridor, which would benefit us all.

Through discussions with Mark’s Deputy Head, it was agreed that the initial work would be funded out of the RSWM operational budget on the basis that the work would reduce the cleaning costs of the culverts.”

The Sihlanzimvelo programme unequivocally identified that invasive alien plants are the primary blockage material of the culverts with the secondary being the solid waste. Invasive alien plants proliferate at an alarming rate, displace indigenous species and have shallow root system which means that they easily washaway whenever there is any flooding.

The programme has been working steadily in the INK area and has gradually been gaining traction amongst many stakeholders who were seeing the benefits of poverty alleviation, environmental improvement, and reduced infrastructure damage. The programme has attracted the attention of the C40 (a global network of mayors of the world’s leading cities that are united in action to confront the climate crisis) Cities Finance Facility (CFF) (a facility setup to assist cities in developing business plans for project so that they become bankable projects for funders). Geoff presented the work done in Durban on the Sihlanzimvelo project to the C40 CFF workshop in Berlin, an experience which Geoff rates as one of the highlights of his career.

As the C40 CFF work on the business plan made steady progress several other “river” projects started to emerge in the city including the Kloof Conservancies Aller River Pilot Project in Clermont, and a broader “umbrella” project on rivers has now been defined as the Transformative Riverine Management Programme (TRMP) to cover all river related initiatives. Geoff explained the importance of this.

“This “umbrella” initiative has become even more important as the implications of the spread of land ownership and the limitations created by the Municipal Finance Management Act on the spending of public funds on non-city land become better understood.”

A stream in INK area showing minimal flood damage after the April 2022 flood.

The C40 CFF business case gave the city the financial benefits of the TRMP program along with all the social benefits. The business case showed that the TRMP ticked all the boxes and met the requirements at so many levels.

This was brought home to me when I took a report for the expansion of the project to a city council committee and for the first time ever, seeing political parties all supporting the report unanimously.

In many ways the floods of April 2022 marked a turning point in the way that City Management valued the TRMP work. Geoff explained.

“Prior to the floods the message was spreading primarily due to the employment/ business skill growth opportunities as well as the business case and the financial case provided by the work done with the C40 CFF funding.

The floods highlighted the damage to the economy caused by blocked culverts and scoured riverbanks. The 500 km of stream under Sihlanzimvelo suffered far less damage and so the evidence was handed to us on a plate and all we had to do was present the natural evidence at every opportunity we had.

We now had more that than just the science and mathematics related to possible scenarios, we had a real life “in your face “example.

A great personal satisfaction is that several other areas in Southern Africa are now starting their own TRMP initiatives and calling on the city of Durban to assist them. I am working with a team in Mbombela on their program as well as the JRA (Joburg Roads Agency) team on their program. I am also engaging with my Cape Town colleagues as they work on their TRMP with C40 CFF.

C40 CFF Workshop in Berlin Nov 2018

When asked why, despite all the good intentions it is hard to avoid the reality that most rivers in Durban, South Africa and in many parts of the world are in a very poor condition, Geoff responded.

“For decades the services provided by these riverine corridors have been taken for granted by cities and society. In addition to this, city infrastructure (sewers etc.) has not had the required maintenance/ asset management budget spent on it and hence we are seeing the failures and negative environmental impacts.

The other unfortunate tendency of society is to believe that government must sort out all the issues and that normal people are not responsible for looking after these spaces even though in a lot of cases the impacts are created by society themselves.

The other aspect is our town planning practices and layouts. The plots are designed to be road facing and the riverine corridors are “at the back” with little or no accessibility.

As these riverine corridors have deteriorated, they have become places to dispose waste, of little value or even places of danger and therefore undesirable. The more the value dropped the more they have been abused. It is a negative cycle which needed to be broken and I believe that the TRMP is the mechanism which can break the negative cycle and start a positive one.”

Within this context Geoff commented further on the role of society as a whole. “The ultimate success of the TRMP rests with the involvement of civil society. In eThekwini 26% of the streams are on privately owned land and 51% of the streams are on tribal land. It is private initiatives that are going to carry the TRMP within these areas. The city will be a role-player but cannot be the major driver. French Public development bank Agence Française de Développement (AFD) funded work has started the ball rolling for this process within the Umhlangane and Umhlatuzana catchments. If we are going to succeed with the goal of 7400 km of stream and rivers under some form of management for the common good then civil society, government and business need to work closely together.”

A well maintained Sihlanzimvelo stream in the INK area

Whilst the challenges are significant the TRMP brings significant hope that the problem of degraded rivers in eThekwini and elsewhere is finally being addressed.”

Geoff has always been a team player and acknowledged the support, inputs, co-operation, and dedication of many colleagues in the city. “My fellow engineers within the CSCM department, Randeer Kasserchun, Greg Williams, Godfrey Vella, and within the Engineering Unit, Andrew Mather, and Mark Tomlinson. Colleagues from the environmental sector, Sean O’Donougue, Jo Douwes, Chumisa Thengwa, Debra Roberts, Shahid Solomon, Gary Cullen, Russel Stow, Lisa Junghans and a few others have all played an important role. I spent long hours with all of them creating TORs, grappling with challenges and new concepts, travelling around the country and world. At different times we held each other up and challenged each other to be better and more innovative.

Geoff fondly remembered the impact Shahid Solomon made on the entire TRMP team when he first joined the project in 2018.

“When we were awarded the C40 CFF funding in June 2018 it came with a specialist project advisor named Shahid Solomon (unfortunately Shahid passed away in November 2022). Shahid was a man of immense stature who was passionate about making a difference in our country.

As a team we were so excited. Shahid literally got off a plane and came straight to the first meeting with our team. After we had concluded the formalities required by C40, Jo Douwes and I offered to take him for some coffee so that we could discuss the concept in more detail and bring him up to speed. Shahid always shared at every workshop with new people how he had been taken by two strangers for coffee and how we had proceeded to overwhelm him with information and passion for about 3 hours.”

The “team” at the C40 CFF to AFD handover workshop – from left, Joanne Douwes, Geoff Tooley, Chumisa Thengwa, Sean O’Donoghue and Shaid Solomon.

Another aspect that has been an important factor Geoff’s work has been the impact some of the work has had on the communities in the INK area. Geoff explained.

“On one of our field visits to a Sihlanzimvelo stream we got to meet the community members who were working as part of the co-op. The stories of what this work actually meant to them – food on the table, being able to pay for driving lessons and get her driver’s licence, paying for sibling school fees, building a room for his mother, being able to walk tall in his neighbourhood because he was earning and making a difference – this had a massive impact on me and help me to understand how the TRMP could be part of a just transition and a new local economy. It was these stories that helped me through the frustrating times and kept me going.

This should be also seen in the context of one of my most frightful experiences and that was assessing the damage and loss of life after the April 2022 flood and knowing that the work we are doing will reduce such impacts in future.”

Geoff explained further how the response from communities impacted on him.

“At one of the workshops, I met an amazing character from KwaMashu, called Anthony. Anthony had been retrenched and he took his package and started doing voluntary work in his community by cleaning streams and drains. He now has 700 people following him. The community supports these volunteers through donations. This is an amazing story considering average income of the residents of KwaMashu. Anthony tells people that it wasn’t the people from Umhlanga or Durban North who came and threw the rubbish in their area. He reminds them that the rubbish is thrown by the people who live in KwaMashu and therefore it must be the people of KwaMashu who clean the drains and streams. This highlighted to me that a program can be started by passion and commitment and that I need to find ways of finding income to ensure that the work I do is sustainable.”

Speaking more broadly on this issue Geoff added.

“I believe in the principle of the untitled leader. In other words, a person does not need to get a leadership title before they can become a leader. Their passion and commitment can set them apart as a leader and they are not encumbered by the status of a title. They learn to use their knowledge and ability to show the benefit of their program to their audience. Society needs to recognise these people and find ways of supporting them. These are the true heroes of our communities.”

When asked how engineering can work harmoniously with nature Geoff responded.

“As a professional engineer I have a responsibility to ensure the protection of the public and the environment. This is the core mandate of the Engineering Council of South Africa and is spelt out by the engineering professions act.

I believe that the engineer who ignores the environment in his work, will learn some very hard lessons. Nature has been doing what we are trying to do, a lot longer, a lot cheaper and with far more additional benefits.

So, I would describe myself as 100% engineer and 100% environmentalist.”

Geoff presenting on Sihlanzimvelo – C40 CFF Workshop in Berlin Nov 2018

The final question to Geoff was – Given all the dire warning on climate change and biodiversity loss that we get bombarded with daily and your own personal experiences, can you comment on the general state of the environment and whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future for the environment in Durban, South Africa and elsewhere and why and is there hope for the future?

Geoff replied in a typically assured and confident manner.

“I am an optimist at heart because it allows me to see opportunities in adversity. I believe that there is a growing understanding that we need to look for different solutions and that we also need to work together. Covid and the riots showed us the need to be active in our communities and that we need to work together at all levels. There is a massive amount of goodwill that exists in our communities and the more we can create positive examples of how our situation can be improved, the more the communities will step up and assist in improving the resilience of our city.

There is hope. The covid shut down has shown how the environment can bounce back if given a chance. If every person is shown a way that they can make a difference and that their contribution does make a difference, then we can change the trajectory. Sometimes we get overwhelmed by trying to look at the whole picture at once.

If we all start with what we can at a local level then all these small improvements added together can amount to a big difference.”

Words, thoughts, and actions of a true member of the Eco-Impi1!

Pristine water, fresh air, and a pastime to enjoy whenever there is a gap in Geoff’s busy schedule.



An Impi is defined as “an armed band of Zulu warriors involved in urban or rural conflict”. In our context we refer to an Eco-Impi as those conservationists armed with knowledge and experience who are fighting to help protect our biodiversity and have made a significant impact in our area.