Cape Town's Water Crisis

A Bottom Up Perspective

By Emily Nicklin

The township of Delft, South Africa (Image courtesy of author)

Mercifully, Cape Town’s much feared ‘Day Zero’ never arrived. Three consecutive years of drought had brought the large metropolitan city of four million people towards a tipping point, creating widespread panic and water stockpiling, a dramatic drop in tourism bookings and outbreaks of civil unrest at local water stations. In the summer of 2018, city officials issued numerous warnings that the municipal water supplies would be switched off, and residents would have to queue for their daily ration of water. If these warnings had come true, Cape Town would have been the first major city in the world to run out of water.


The impossibly stringent water restrictions imposed by the city were eased after better-than-expected rains in the winter of 2018.Yet I am still sharing my shower with a giant plastic receptacle to catch every drop, my filthy car is begging for a wash, thirsty potted-plants remain on tight rationing and doing my laundry remains a complicated exercise in how to use as little water as possible.


Since the water crisis, my attitude towards water consumption has completely changed. I cannot bear to waste a droplet and it seems my fellow Capetonians feel the same. At the height of our summer this year, the City of Cape Town made the astonishing announcement that residents were consuming even less water than the small amount they were entitled to. “Cape Town has pushed the limit far more than most other cities,” said the city’s Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson. “Millions of people have responded – literally millions.” This united effort allowed Capetonians to achieve the near-impossible target of halving our water consumption in just three years. According to South Africa’s Business Insider, it took another water-stressed city, Melbourne, twelve years to do the same.


Despite Capetonians’ reputation for being a pretty fractious bunch – we live in one of the most unequal cities in the world – the people of Cape Town managed to pull together to stave off the dystopian nightmare of standing in snaking queues every day for our miserly ration of water … well, at least for now.


Simmering beneath the surface of Cape Town’s apparent success at averting ‘Day Zero’ are the broader challenges of rapid population growth, inadequate water infrastructure and widespread contamination of critical water resources. In addition, Cape Town’s deepening social and economic disparities, and legacies of apartheid, will make finding sustainable solutions even tougher. According to Professor Gina Ziervogel of the Department of Environment and Geographic Sciences at the University of Cape Town, unequal cities with extensive informal settlements like Cape Town “are being hard hit” by new climate realities that will only worsen with time. Extreme weather events like droughts and floods are becoming more frequent and intense, and cities with little capacity to adapt are likely to suffer the most.


Thus, I set out to explore the adversities experienced by various communities in Cape Town at the height of the water crisis and in the months that followed. The lived stories below come from interviews conducted as part of a project by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation – a non-governmental organisation that works with marginalised urban communities to tackle complex development challenges in African cities – and another project relating to Grade 11 and 12 learners from the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) Education program.

What I discovered was a shocking injustice in the way indigent people were affected by Cape Town’s water scarcity. While more affluent Capetonians were able to cushion themselves by stockpiling mineral water, sinking boreholes in their gardens and even using their swimming pools as emergency reservoirs, those at the other end of the spectrum had little choice but to survive on even less water than was available to them previously, taken from increasingly unpredictable supply points.


How Cape Town’s Water Crisis Affected the Informal Settlement of Delft


The township of Delft (Image courtesy of author)

Delft is a particularly destitute informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town, notorious for its high levels of crime, low employment rates and limited access to formal electricity and sanitation. Although largely inhospitable, Delft supports a population of between 25 000 and 92 000 inhabitants, with a mixed community of both Xhosa-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking people. The project by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation explored how people from various neighbourhoods in Delft endured the water crisis. And as I discovered, navigating everyday activities like personal hygiene or maintaining a safe and healthy living environment became exceptionally challenging for many residents, particularly those with large families and/or young children. Siphokazi Pangalele who lives with his wife and two young children told me that “things have been difficult due to poor service delivery, but things became worse when we started having random water cuts.” He went on to explain to me how it “complicated a lot of things because we have two kids and we had to teach them how to adapt to not having our own water… So, until today we share water when we wash, the kids wash together and we normally keep that water, even though it’s not hygienic.”


Lameez Baatijes, who I met in the neighbourhood of Leiden in Delft, also painted a depressing picture of the health and sanitation challenges his community faced during the water crisis: “As a family of three, the water is enough for me, but for my neighbour, he’s got six shacks at the back and refused his tenants to use the toilet because it’s a lot of water. They must make a hole in the yard or go dump the sewage in the drain. The drains are already blocked from all the sand and all that stuff… And the road was full of sewage…”


What also saddened me was how the water crisis negatively impacted on simple social activities that brought meaning and purpose to the lives of the community. Sally February told me how she joined the Dalia Show because of her passion for flowers. “A couple of years back now, everything was fine, we loved planting. And suddenly, the water crisis struck us… we must cancel our Dalia Show.”

Another Delft resident called Clayton had a similar story. “When I was younger, I used to go to the dam…I was enjoying myself there every day. And while I was there, I met a lot of people – friends from different areas in Delft. That is how we communicated…But now the children don’t do it anymore because there are no dams or pools that they can go to. Now they cannot play with water like we used to because of the water restrictions.”


Clevin Consul described his disappointment about a community sports tournament which was abruptly cancelled during the water crisis because there was not enough water to maintain the fields: “I went in and found out that the stadium was empty. Where people used to sit and cheer, with vuvuzelas blowing, people talking, children laughing… I couldn’t help myself and I closed my eyes and reminisced about the years that went by when we had all the fun and games… I never realised that water would be a problem in the Western Cape, especially in Cape Town. So, it just shows you that you never miss something until it’s gone.”


While many of us have experienced a sense of loss and inconvenience during the Cape Town water crisis, what became apparent to me during my conversations was how much more devastating it was for those in our informal settlements. This extreme contrast nakedly exposed the unresolved racial and economic injustices that have left deep scars in Cape Town’s socio-political landscape. Residents in communities like Delft continue to bear the brunt of systemic inequality, infrastructure failure and climate change-induced crises. Unless these issues are addressed, Cape Town’s eleventh hour salvation from Day Zero will remain a hollow victory for the city.


A Younger Generation’s Perspective on the Water Crisis


SHAWCO Education is a student-run non-governmental organisation at the University of Cape Town that provides learning workshops for school children living in Manenberg, Kensington, Nyanga and Mitchells Plain. Like Delft, many of these areas experience high levels of crime, low employment rates and limited access to formal electricity and sanitation. School learners residing in these areas also face challenges of widespread gangsterism, substance abuse and other forms of violence. While the interviews in Delft revealed just how severely the water crisis affected people living in less fortunate circumstances, my conversations with the SHAWCO students clearly illustrated how people’s ability to access water during such shortages varied according to their levels of privilege.


Jordie, a Grade 11 learner who lives in Mitchells Plain, explained to me just how critical a privilege such as owning a car could be in accessing water during the crisis: “[Our neighbour] has a car, he can get water, but he doesn’t get water for everybody else. Then there is tension because there are people who could access water, but they wouldn’t access water for everybody else.”


Such privileges exacerbated existing community tensions, pushing the different social groups into competition with one another for vital supplies of water. Basheerah, a Grade 11 learner from Norman Henshilwood High School, explained these tensions to me, saying that, “It’s difficult because everyone wants water, and everybody knows that we’re in a crisis. So, it’s a fight between everybody because certain households have to feed so many people and others less.”


As Jordie so wisely put it to me: “There was a time that people were saying that Day Zero is coming soon. We might not have water at all. Leading up to those days, I had water and I thought – what would happen if all the water just stopped one day? So, after I started thinking it was better to save water now, even though we have a lot of water – save it completely.”


In my conversations with these two groups,an alternative narrative of the Cape Town water crisis emerged. This narrative runs contrary to the celebratory idea that Cape Town had ‘beaten’ Day Zero. Both groups – poor citizens and young students – make up a sizeable portion of society that are particularly vulnerable to droughts and other extreme weather events. Their perspectives are critical because they will be the ones most negatively affected by whatever comes next. Cape Town will only ‘beat’ catastrophes like Day Zero when it listens to the voices of those least heard.


Towards a More Sustainable City


Recent policy responses to the Cape Town water crisis fall short of tackling the roots of the problem. Describing draft proposals for a new water management plan released earlier this year by the City of Cape Town as “progressive”, Dr Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute says they “target citizens who are deeply acquainted with the narrative of ‘Day Zero’ and potential solutions to the future of water management in the city.” Included are five core commitments to its residents, one of which involves the harvesting of stormwater for aquifer re-charge and water re-use. While such “blue sky” thinking is necessary and commendable, it ignores the underlying problems of systematic inequality, infrastructure failure and the near certainty of another climate change induced crisis. Yes, we managed to avert Day Zero and yes, we have dramatically reduced our water consumption, but we cannot and should not forget the trail of destruction that has left marginalised communities hanging by a thread. If we consider the future threats of climate change, when droughts are likely to become more frequent and more intense, it is only a matter of time before a city as unequal and socially fragmented as Cape Town could completely unravel.

Solving a problem as complex as this one needs to consider underlying causes to the fullest possible extent. We need to work towards building a society that is resilient enough to collectively mobilise and adapt to the inevitable forces of climate change. And we need to begin right now. As Thunberg warned: “I don’t want you to hope. I want you to panic… our house is on fire.”

Emily Nicklin is currently completing a post-graduate degree in Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The city’s recent water crisis increased her interest in water resource management, particularly the pollution of urban waterways. Emily's research focuses on the occurrence of heavy metal contaminants in one of Cape Town’s major urban waterways, the Zandvlei estuary and catchment area. She has completed three extended internships at the Southern African Wildfire College in Kruger Park, where she worked on projects ranging from collecting data on the health of the fabled marula tree to devising a water management plan for the entire college. Emily has also completed an internship with the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, working on an EU-funded project that bought together academic experts and marginalised communities to create innovative solutions to tackle the adverse impact on primary health caused by Cape Town’s chronic water shortage.

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