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Crisis in Cape Town

Earth Day 2018 will take place in a time of great uncertainty. It is a day that means different things to different people. For some, the occasion signals a sense of hope in the potential of humanity to correct its current path and save our planet; for others, it is just another representation of global elites’ attempts to wreck small coal and oil communities. For Cape Town, South Africa, it is the day on which all of its more than 400,000 residents may lose access to water.

By April 16, Cape Town will have reached “Day Zero,” the date by which the city will be forced to close down all public water services as reservoirs get dangerously low. This means no showering, drinking from the tap, or washing dishes for anyone living in city limits. Law enforcement is bracing itself for something that “will surpass anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks,” and it is entirely possible that the military will be called in to keep the peace.

This phenomenon is particularly puzzling when one considers that, in the past, Cape Town has had a positive track record with regard to water conservation; indeed, in 2015, the city won a prize for its Water Conservation and Demand Management program from the international organization C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and was ranked one of the world’s top 10 green cities by a New York-based think tank. Ironically, this may have led to a lack of incentive to explore new water sources, which contributed to the current crisis. Other factors may include the combination of the drying climate around Cape Town, a three-year drought, and rapidly falling dam levels.

However, all hope is not lost. Emergency water restrictions, which have halved water consumption, are being implemented, including a full curtailing of water to agriculture for the time being. Alternative water supplies and desalination plants are being secured (although progress is slow), and other controls are being planned. These measures have already pushed Day Zero back multiple times, with the most recent estimate at August 27, offering hope that Cape Town will be able to survive until the rains return.

Though the city is trying to work together to solve this issue, this crisis has also highlighted the inequality present in Cape Town: While the 1 million people living in sprawling informal settlements use up just 4.5 percent of the water, wealthy oceanside neighborhoods have the luxuries of gardens and swimming pools. As the poor cut back on their use of their already limited water supplies, the rich maintain a “we can pay for it” attitude. But what can one pay for if there is no supply?

The fact that more and more important cities are being hit by water issues is worrying. Just last year, Brazil was hit by a drought affecting over 850 cities, including its capital, Brasília, causing many states of emergency to be declared by the government. Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, also faces a water crisis, though it likely won’t be as severe as the one facing Cape Town. The West, long priding itself on its developed infrastructure, is not safe either; the US state of California, as well as Ireland and Australia, has faced issues with water scarcity in recent years.

As water shortages strike some of the world’s most vibrant centers of commerce, industry, and development, such a trend deserves more action on the international stage, not just lip service by politicians. Urban centers have been centers of civilization since ancient times, and disruptions to them are sure to have social, economic, and political consequences for all. Indeed, there is evidence that climate disruption brought down many Bronze Age civilizations. Furthermore, over the course of the Flint water crisis, American politicians in Michigan learned first hand the consequences of resource mismanagement.

The scientific community has put forward a few key causes of the global water crisis: climate change, environmental degradation, groundwater depletion, and infrastructure mismanagement. However, what is less clear are what concrete steps the international community is taking to solve this issue. The US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords dealt a blow to global leadership in climate change. Russian support for climate change policy seems to be backed more by political rather than environmental concerns, and China, though vocally supportive of and actively enacting environmental policies such as the issuing of green bonds and investment in sustainable energy, remains a coal-guzzling giant with severe water pollution issues.

The root of all of this discord might lie in the array of diversified and differentiated environmental issues faced by the global community. Some nations, such as the United States and Brazil, are more pressed by infrastructure hiccups than supply problems; others, such as South Africa, are confronted with the issue of having to adapt to dry environments with relatively low levels of drinkable water. To solve this issue, it is worth referencing Robert Keohane and David Victor’s research paper on climate change, “Cooperation and discord in global climate policy.”

In their research, Keohane and Victor make a distinction between coordination and cooperation. In short, coordination involves agreements—typically with little potential gain—that are self-enforcing, with little incentive for states to renege on the treaty. One example of coordination defined under this framework is every driver in the US driving on the right side of the road. Though there aren’t police officers on every inch of highways, drivers stick to the right when driving because the aggregate result is the best way for traffic to flow smoothly in one direction. They are also disincentivized from defecting, since driving on the left side of the road in a society that drives on the right would bring catastrophic results. Even though they aren’t receiving huge personal gains from driving on the right side of the road, they are nevertheless incentivized to comply. Thus, they are coordinating.

Cooperation, by contrast, usually offers a high-risk/high-reward situation in which states are incentivized to defect due to the short-term benefits of economic growth, but will also receive the large benefits of a cleaner planet and healthier population if they do not. The extensive actions that would have to be taken in order to stop climate change are an example of this. Though all states would benefit from cleaner natural environments, the tragedy of the commons occurs nonetheless. Implementing such radical policies will come at a certain short-term cost of economic development and adjustment to new technologies and deliver a presently unquantified long-term gain.

When it comes to regional or sub-regional management of water, it is easy to see how states or even individual communities might be incentivized not to fulfill their conservation obligations. Cheap water disincentivizes infrastructure development from an economic standpoint; states that rely on the same water source are wary of one another from a realist standpoint, and the higher taxes required to fund water management tactics are typically unpopular from a political angle.

Under Keohane and Victor’s framework, states would ideally start from limited coordination and, through establishing norms and trust, shift toward full-on cooperation when it comes to climate change policy such that states trust one another to agree to international climate treaties without the fear of defection. In this case, there would be informal and unenforced international laws that states follow because it is the norm to do so and states trust others to not take advantage of any possible weakness presented by doing so. To use another comparison, this might look like standing in line for a free sample; though one might be able to cut everyone and grab a sample and get away with it, people still stand in line because they trust others to do the same and realize that they will all get a sample regardless.

Some of this coordination already exists. For example, South Africa and Lesotho have signed agreements pertaining to water allocation, as have South Africa and Namibia. These agreements, predictably, are limited. However, given international attention to the issues and the consequences of the status quo on elites, it is conceivable that these nascent efforts at regional solutions will evolve into something greater. Indeed, water is now a topic of discussion all over Cape Town, as everyone is affected by the issue.

The fact that the supply, not just the price, of water is being affected should sound wake-up bells for policymakers all over the world and encourage people to work across class lines to look for possible common solutions. This should speed the transition from coordination to cooperation, allowing for the creation of productive and effective climate policy. Hopefully, 2018 will be the last year that 400,000 people count the days until the taps run dry.

About the Author

Hans Lei '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Hans can be reached at