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Cape Town in Deep Water During Drought

While the debate over the existence of global warming continues to draw attention, the worst-case scenarios of climate change are already underway in many parts of the world, namely in Cape Town, South Africa. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, the four million inhabitants of Cape Town are experiencing the third year of a historic drought, posing a perpetual water crisis. Day Zero, the day in which the government will run taps dry to homes and businesses, is approaching faster than ever. On February 20, Cape Town had to push back Day Zero by a month to July 9, but only two days later, the National Treasury reported that it would not be realistic for Cape Town to gain access to a new water supply to notably assuage the short-term implications of the drought. Since the end of January, water restriction limits were contracted even further from 87 to 50 liters of water per day per person.

However, the more disturbing consequences of this water crisis are the dark sociopolitical realities the drought has revealed in Cape Town. Unfortunately, the crisis worsened the inequality in Cape Town, with the rich remaining relatively stable and the poor becoming exponentially worse off. Moreover, while Cape Town has record-breaking water saving levels, its supply dams have been driven to inefficiency by the national government’s water allocations and the various tiers of governance in the Western Cape, thwarting any efforts to build water augmentation infrastructure. An effective water reconstruction strategy in Cape Town needs to focus on rebuilding the broken society.

The World Bank concluded that South Africa had the highest Gini coefficient (measure of inequality) in the world last year, with 10 percent owning more than 90 percent of the aggregate wealth in the country. Cape Town is a prime example of this disparity: Houses along the coast sold for $10 million each, only a few kilometers from Guglethu, where just about half the homes have toilets. A luxury hotel was opened (offering $10,000 a night for its penthouse suite) just 15  minutes from Khayelitsha, a settlement where the per-capita income dropped to less than $2,000 a year. These disparities are all the more evident with the drought. While the more affluent have the means to hire companies to dig boreholes and wells, buy water bottles at highly inflated prices, and arrange for desalination machines, the poor have to wait for the government rationing and pension plans. Many in poorer parts of the city live on a meagre $200-per-month government pension, while the rich can spend over $10,000 on accessing underwater reservoirs and higher-end technology. Some do not have the disposable income to prepare for the worst, yet those in richer communities use their water for swimming pools and golf courses.

Although there are other cities that went through similar bouts of droughts (Sao Paulo from 2012 to 2016, Mexico City now), Cape Town still suffers from the legacy of apartheid, which is visible from land use to infrastructure plans to income distribution. It is hard to separate inequality from the structures of apartheid; indeed, whites control most of the wealth although they constitute a little over 15 percent of the total population. The quarter of Cape Town’s four million population that lives in settlements and receives water from communal taps uses only 4.5 percent of the water. Gugulethu, a settlement where Blacks were violently marginalized during apartheid, remains poor and neglected with government-issued water taps quickly becoming insufficient. The shortage has legitimized a long-standing grievance with poorer communities. The government has declared that the poorer settlements will be given precedence in the emergency water distribution plan, aware of the dangerous consequences of a diseased, large, dense population with few health facilities, but it is hard to see how this will suffice. Cape Town officials have made the natural springs at the base of Table Mountain public for anyone with a container. With no available public transportation, those in far-away settlements are unable to access the springs. 

One of the silver linings in this drought spell is the increased environmental consciousness among South Africans. Households have managed to reduce water from a total of 1.2 billion liters of water a day to 520 million liters, showing unprecedented civic sense and responsibility in reducing consumption patterns. Mayor Patricia De Lille has launched a water map to identify and applaud those households using less than 6000 liters per month. This eco-friendly lifestyle is mainly found among the elite minority, who are not forced into dire scarcity from the shortage. If officials want to maintain the success of these programs, an effective program and campaign needs to be implemented for the people who live in poorer settlements.

This is not to undermine the efforts taken by the government and municipalities or the city’s water management system, which have set aside more than $500 million for drought relief, a sizeable amount for a government still figuring out long-term investment plans in education, health care, unemployment, transport, etc. The 1999 infrastructure has managed to curtail water levels and stabilize water demand with rising population levels. This has been achieved through high-quality pressure management systems, a tariff program that incentives consumers to use less water, education, and social awareness. However, these efforts need rainfall, revealing the pitfalls of a water program dependent solely on stored water.

A long-term solution includes the Strategy Steering Committee, which manages a 25-year plan that tries to balance supply for the future (taking into account foreseeable deficits) with demand in the present. The underlying principle to all their key objectives is to take advantage of all sources of water: the Berg (the Berg River Dam was successfully completed in 2007), the Breede Rivers, their tributaries, and coastal rivers. The proximity of Cape Town to the sea has propelled desalination attempts, which will hopefully be implemented in time for the deficit in 2022. Overall, the hope is that the water infrastructure only results in a deficit by 2022, at which time another augmentation plan must be set in motion.

Although scientists conclude that climate change is the principal factor in this drought, investigations into the government’s recent intense policies of water management suggest that the crisis is more political than expected. It appears that mismanagement of Cape Town’s water provisions is not a new problem. By 1990, there were indications that the city would face a shortage in the coming two decades, but few technical solutions were advanced to improve its then-ineffective system of dams in rain catchment areas. It is only now that the city government is providing the indispensable resources.

This is largely a result of the divided politics in Cape Town: the Western Cape is the sole province run by the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), while South Africa’s ruling National Congress is in charge of the rest. This makes responding to crises with timely solutions difficult. Although the Western Cape province and the City of Cape Town were noteworthy in preparing for the drought, the overall response ultimately failed at the level of the national government, which has the capacity to make water allocations. The national Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) inaccurately allotted (and continues to allot) much of the water to agriculture and has ignored local and municipal warnings. In 2015, Cape Town was administered 60 percent of Western Cape’s water supply and almost all of it was dispensed to long-term crops, while the DWS didn’t make any efforts to truncate agricultural water use. By wasting water on agriculture, the household demand for water obviously wasn’t mitigated, and Cape Town had to utilize their safety buffer of 28,000 megaliters, leaving them worse off than before.

In 2015, the national government rejected an application by the provincial government for a little under $3 million to help efforts in recycling water and drilling boreholes as the dams were still 75 percent full. This frustrated the provincial government’s pre-emptive efforts to deal with the approaching crisis. It was only in 2016 that the national government simply declared 5 of the 40 Western Cape municipalities “drought disaster areas”. Cape Town’s mayor’s direct request to the DWS for relief funding was rejected on the premise that the city wasn’t “yet at crisis level”. Although the National Disaster Management Centre recognized the whole province as a drought disaster area in May 2017, by October, the national government still hadn’t delivered the promised funds.

The South African Water Caucus, a civil society organization, claimed that the government’s reluctance to provide relief funding results from its own corruption and the deteriorating debt of the DWS. Eventually, the premier of the Western Cape and the Auditor General found truth in this revelation: The DWS was more than $360 million in debt from wasteful expenditure and controversial projects, and the national Treasury was unwilling to give the department any more bailouts. Unfortunately, this only worsens the situation for Cape Town; the department has no funding apportioned for drought relief in the Western Cape for 2018, forcing the provincial government to bear the expense. On top of this fiasco, Mayor De Lille is accused by the DA with eight charges of “governance failures,” and the hashtag #CapeWatergate has even started on social media. While these counts don’t relate directly to the water crisis, it definitely detracts from attention given to the water shortage and frustrates collaborative approaches to tackle it.

Fortunately, social media campaigns abroad are having a lot of success with donations. A campaign initiated in East London on Whatsapp encouraging people to donate two five-liter jugs of water accumulated over 50,000 five-litre bottles from the UK alone. Disaster-relief charities like Gift of the Givers pitched in, organizing drop-off points and coordinating transport. It would be wise for the political parties in Cape Town to work alongside similar charities, as such solutions help out those who are unable to afford water or access government schemes.

It remains that with the many political and social obstructions Cape Town faces, it will be difficult to focus on solving the water crisis. If anything, the Cape Town situation has shown that managing the water crisis requires thorough investigation on all sides, including political, social, and environmental approaches.

About the Author

Simran Nayak '20 is the Senior Managing Editor of the Brown Political Review website. Simran can be reached at