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Politics, poverty, and climate change: stories from Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’

Written by Leo Roberts


Cape Town is currently in the midst of the worst water crisis in its history, with the prospect of the apocalyptically branded ‘Day Zero’ infiltrating everyday life for its residents. Much has been written on the multiple causes of the crisis, but what do Cape Town’s citizens and decision-makers think? What narratives emerge in a major city when it faces the threat of running out of water?

Failures in multi-level governance

It is almost impossible to assess which body is (most) responsible for the current water shortage. During the post-Apartheid period, resource management issues have become intensely political in South Africa. Water provision is fraught with vested interests and conflicts; government often prioritises the needs of the most influential (the wine farmers who drive a large portion of South Africa’s economy) over the needs of the poorest (residents of informal settlements).

Currently, there is discord between the city, provincial and national governments, and the mainstream political parties struggle to work together. The National Government (run by the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) allegedly rejected calls from the city and provincial governments (run by the opposition Democratic Alliance) for both increased water infrastructure, and a more balanced allocation of resources between consumption and agriculture. Many commentators believe that this was motivated by political tension – neither party wants the other to be seen as a competent governor. For every assertion of failure at one level though, there’s a conflicting story blaming the other.

As Shehnaaz Moosa, Director of Cape Town-based NGO SouthSouthNorth, told me yesterday, ‘the engineers and water planners from City and National might be making practical recommendations, but the politicians are using these in blame games, not working together to look for solutions.’

Underlying extreme inequality  

Cape Town is the fourth most unequal city in the world, and the crisis is exposing underlying tensions that are a legacy of Apartheid. The city won’t entirely run out of water on ‘Day Zero’, but water will be turned off for most residents and non-essential services. In theory, standpipes in informal settlements will continue to be supplied, though, and here lies the heart of the equity debate. For people living in these settlements (who collectively use only 4% of Cape Town’s water), little will change as a result of the crisis. This effectively makes ‘Day Zero’ a middle-class crisis – the city’s elite are unafraid of fines while the poorest barely had water to start with, so only those in the middle will be heavily impacted.

This has opened up a positive debate about the living conditions in these settlements, but it has also led to a public backlash among the rich, who resent that water will be turned off for them, but not for the poor. Social media is awash with posts condemning the poor for their profligate water usage. This has been reinforced by the city government’s creation of online tools for shaming wasteful citizens. There is a chronic lack of service provision to the poorest, and protests are common, but the government is walking a fine line in asking its most neglected citizens to reduce their already miniscule water usage.           

The tale of climate change

Cape Town sees itself as a regional leader on climate change – it established one of the first city-level ‘green bonds’ for financing adaptation. In January, at Davos, the new South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated, ‘climate change is a reality. We’re facing a real total disaster in Cape Town which is going to affect four million people.’ The city government has also linked the crisis to climate change on their website, despite a lack of clear evidence. This willingness to engage with the climate change debate has led to little action. The expansion of water infrastructure (15%) has not kept up with population growth (79%), despite evidence that it could have helped mitigate the drought.

The complexity of these (and other) narratives make understanding and responding to situations such as the water crisis extremely challenging. The crisis isn’t just the result of political rivalry or unclear messaging on water usage, or of South Africa’s gross underlying social injustice; it’s all of the above and more. Climate change is likely to make extreme weather events more frequent and more severe. Cities must pre-empt disasters by engaging with these complex governance challenges, which are within their remit and, in many cases, their control.