Every drop counts: Jeder Tropf zählt, as the German reads, emblazoned on the welcome sign that greets new arrivals to Cape Town, South Africa. It’s November 2018, and the city is no longer facing drastic drought conditions. The bathrooms no longer house signs asking visitors not to flush their pee, or postings (and a live person) exhorting them to use hand sanitizer instead of water to clean their hands. But that billboard-size message (targeted at the steady flow of German tourists) and its concomitant picture of a crackled Theewaterskloof Dam still greet me as I walk off the gangway and into the airport, reminding me of the leitmotif of my first trip to this city: Day Zero.
Day Zero was supposed to be the date when the taps would be turned off: sometime in April or May when the Theewaterskloof, the city’s largest reservoir, and the five others supplying water to Cape Town would drop to 13.5 percent capacity or lower, forcing residents of all stripes to line up for water rations. The story of how Cape Town was driven to this precipice by a three-year drought, which began in 2015 and ended in the southern hemisphere’s winter of 2018, has been told all over the world. Nearly everyone, including some of the world’s largest news outlets — National Geographic, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian — held up the images of the frizzled Theewaterskloof Dam reservoir against the backdrop of a renowned tourist destination. They eagerly pointed to the city’s increasing panic over its water levels in a bid to show how climate change can bring a world-class city to its knees.
But that telling glosses over the reality that Cape Town was already on the edge, overwhelmed by a rapidly growing population and blinding levels of economic inequality. Almost three decades after the end of apartheid, a large share of the city’s population still lives in informal settlements. Rolling blackouts due to the nation’s unreliable electric grid plague both the rich and the poor. In the informal settlements, many people essentially line up daily for water at communal taps, drought or no drought, because most homes don’t have indoor plumbing.
The problem for a sizeable share of the city’s population is that they are unable to consume enough water, electricity, or most other public amenities — which any notion of a just response to either poverty or climate change would seemingly require. And yet, because the world chose to see Cape Town’s water crisis through the lens of climate change, the story was one of drought and overconsumption, not inequality and underconsumption.
The city government has been lauded for Cape Town’s glowing global reputation as an international tourism hub and hence, as an example of good urban governance in sub-Saharan Africa. But although the city’s response to the drought was effective in some ways, years of emphasis on managing water demand to cope with post-apartheid population growth, rather than diversifying water sources, left the city with little choice but to implement draconian water conservation efforts in response. Doing so has had unintended consequences. Successfully convincing rich Cape Town residents to consume less water only makes it harder to finance water infrastructure in the future. This leaves less money for providing better service in informal settlements and makes the underlying problems that actually produced the crisis worse — or at least harder to solve. Cape Town’s drought was not, in the end, a crisis because it stopped raining. It was a crisis because this relatively rich city could no longer hide the fact that it was already buckling under the weight of insufficient planning and rampant inequality. The drought — in part the result of anthropogenic climate change — merely exposed a deep and expanding network of fissures.
Cape Town succeeded in averting Day Zero by bringing down water consumption dramatically, just in time for the winter rainy season to start, staving off the pandemonium that might have ensued if it had turned off the taps. By employing a frantic mix of economic and psychological sticks and carrots, the city — or more accurately, residents and businesses — achieved a 55 percent reduction in water use. In 2018, Cape Town received an award from the International Water Association for being the first city to cut back on its consumption so dramatically without falling back on the water equivalent of load shedding — scheduled electricity outages that have occurred intermittently in South Africa since 2008 due to a lack of supply.
Carrots came in the form of that particular jolt of pleasure that accompanies social self-righteousness. A representative from the city’s Disaster Risk Management Office said that while messaging around the drought was targeted at specific groups like neighborhood watches, sports coaches, ward councillors, industry, and corporate leaders, the overall goal was to motivate each individual to become a “water-saving role model.” People might not take the city government seriously, the government recognized, but they were far more likely to respond to peer pressure.
With the help of ubiquitous motivational signs, nearly every conversation I partook in during my first visit to Cape Town seemed to return to the topic of water and, in particular, the myriad creative strategies people had invented to preserve it. Some residents were collecting shower runoff in a bucket to water their plants or flush their toilets. Others had not properly washed their hands in days, or their hair for a week or more. In fact, several (mainly white) women mentioned it had become a point of pride to sport dirty hair, and that they judged other women whose hair had not taken on the clumped, shiny look of separated string cheese. Bottled-water hoarders were especially scorned. What tinged every seemingly earnest strategy was a not-so-subtle social warning: Look how much water I can do without — you’d better be doing without, too.
Sticks came in the form of restrictions, overt public shaming, fines, water price hikes, and of course, the threat of Day Zero. On that first trip to Cape Town, Day Zero loomed large — the dams were nearly empty, and we were still smack in the middle of Cape Town’s dry summer season. After a year of ever-increasing curtailment, the city had put in place strict Level 6b water restrictions shortly after I arrived, which limited residents to 50 liters of water (a little over 13 gallons) per person per day. Compare this with the 80–100 gallons that the average American uses daily.
To meet that limit, you would first have to stop flushing your pee — 9 liters per flush go literally down the toilet. After that, it’s the shower — at 10 liters per minute — that has to go, or at least should last no longer than two minutes, which is more like a run through a sprinkler. If you do flush and take a shower (without waiting for the water to warm up), you’ve already used 29 liters. You need at least 1 liter of water for cooking, 9 for washing the dishes, plus 3 for drinking, which brings you to 42 liters. The handy flyer that was shoved into my Uber driver’s passenger side window one morning also stated that if you do one single load of wash in a machine, that’s about 10 liters. Similarly, cleaning your house every second day adds another 5 liters. The point is, the math gets tricky fast.
To enforce the ever-increasing restrictions, government officials drew up a water map and labeled households dark or light green depending on whether they were above or below the threshold limits. This form of public shaming, combined with the perceived nightmare of queuing for water, opened up an avenue for city officials to levy fines on water consumption and install flow regulators on consistent restriction flouters without committing political suicide. The drought also finally afforded the city the opportunity to hike water prices and phase out its provision of six kiloliters per month of free water to every household in Cape Town, except for the poorest residents.
All these measures, as Dr. Gina Ziervogel points out in a recent retrospective report published by the African Centre for Cities, added up to a strategy that shifted the burden of avoiding a water disaster from the city to its citizens.
Naturally, anger mounted locally, manifesting in the form of protests in front of City Hall,Tellingly, the media described the racial makeup of the protesters in front of Cape Town City Hall in January 2018 as being mixed, and the frustration was focused on poor government planning in response to the crisis as well as irritation with the Day Zero messaging, water restrictions, and increasing prices. By November 2018, after the winter rains had mitigated the crisis, the protesters were predominantly black and from informal settlements, where water for sanitation is limited and people almost always must get their drinking, cooking, and washing water from communal taps. political mudslinging between the local ruling center-right party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the national ruling center-left African National Congress (ANC), as well as attempts to unseat then-Mayor Patricia de Lille from within her own party. Furthermore, plenty of Capetonians simply thought the Day Zero threat was a bluff.
Yet, despite the fact that South Africa has a tradition of vociferous citizen engagement (especially when it comes to infrastructure protests), the international media seized on the growing frustration levels to paint Cape Town as an unfortunate “first” victim of an ever-warming world. Such reporting raised the specter of a once-great city succumbing to drought-related violence. The Atlantic, for instance, referred to Cape Town as an “omen” of a looming future “where water will become a constant concern, and democracy will become contingent upon the taps.” And the New York Times wrote, “Cape Town’s problems embody one of the big dangers of climate change: the growing risk of powerful, recurrent droughts.”
But anyone who’s heard of economist and social philosopher Amartya Sen knows that these well-intentioned but simplistic accounts are not strictly true. A National Geographic piece ardently explained the urgency of climate change–induced extreme weather events for cities like Cape Town. However, it barely addressed the most striking Sen-inspired insight in the article, offered by a professor of water management named Arjen Hoekstra:
“Water scarcity and flood problems are primarily due to quick growth, increasing vulnerability, and insufficient preparation[.] Climate change, however, is and will worsen the situation in most cases.”
Indeed, politics and planning have a central role to play in the distribution of resources, especially scarce ones. If droughts do become more frequent, we as humans do have agency and can, in theory, plan for resilience. But are we up to the task?
Nearly every article written about the drought acknowledged that there is another way to look at the problems that beset Cape Town in 2017 and 2018, and similar ones that will undoubtedly crop up in other cities throughout the world in years to come. The City of Cape Town has a massive informal, majority-black African population; roughly 15 percent of households are located in areas where the primary means of accessing water on a daily basis is via a communal water tap. It is estimated that residents of these informal settlements already use less than 50 liters per person per day — the most extreme restriction placed on all the city’s residents throughout the course of the drought. The City of Cape Town’s Water Outlook 2018 Report estimated that the usage of informal settlements accounts for only 4 percent of total demand. As protesters in November 2018 pointed out in their complaints to the mayor, with or without Day Zero, low-income people must make do with a form of water access that sends their richer counterparts into a panic.
Even so, few writers truly grappled with the reality that South Africa is one of the most unequal places on Earth (its Gini coefficient was 0.63 as of 2015), despite it being one of the few countries that considers access to water (as well as electricity and other basic services) a human right. Although Cape Town was not the only city in South Africa suffering from a drought over the same three-year period (seven of eight metropolitan areas countrywide experienced water scarcity), the city offers a prime example of the various tensions in South African society driving such disparities. Wealth inequality, income inequality, racial inequality, infrastructure access inequality — the list goes on — all swirl beneath the fog that frequently blankets Table Mountain.
And it is this inequality, not the drought itself, that made the water crisis most terrifying. While those on towards the middle or lower end of the income spectrum struggled to meet usage restrictions, those who could afford it sought to remove themselves from the municipal system more permanently, drilling boreholes to tap groundwater directly. Driving around Constantia, a wealthy neighborhood, nearly a year after the drought ended, I saw gated communities with houses for sale advertising borehole water as a selling point. A recent PBS NewsHour report showed footage of a white woman describing the complexity of the expensive rainwater filtration system she had installed to ensure her household could conserve the year’s rainfall and be independent of the municipal water system.
The problem with such reactions is that water consumption by richer people cross-subsidizes consumption for poorer people. When crisis strikes and those with money opt out of the system, fewer funds are available to cover the cost of service for everyone, let alone improvements to the system that might make it more robust in the future. In turn, discrepancies in access to what are considered basic services breed the sort of anger and frustration that can turn violent. That’s why these disparate responses to the water crisis highlight what policymakers and citizens alike still struggle to accept: climate change is not, by itself, the existential threat; extreme inequality is.
And Cape Town is far from being the only major city grappling with rising inequality and its socioeconomic consequences. Countries all over the world, from India to the United States, have seen the rise of political leaders who have capitalized on the resentment that results from highly unequal societies, and cities have often proven to be the epicenters of clashes born of this imbalance.
In light of this trend, it is hard to make the claim that weather events linked to climate change, rather than the consequences of entrenched inequality, created the political and economic mess that Cape Town is still reckoning with. Events like Cape Town’s drought are not so much omens of political and economic instability as exacerbators of them. Disasters linked to climate change are something akin to the removal of the last block that topples an already swaying Jenga tower, one whose structural soundness has long been whittled away. In the years ahead, the problems will lie not so much in the destabilizing force of climate change–related disasters, but rather in cities that have been tottering under the weight of inequality to begin with.
When viewed through the lens of inequality rather than climate change, the irony of Cape Town’s success with demand management in the face of the water crisis is that it might have been too successful. In December 2018, by the drought’s end, the city remained below its consumption targets. As a result, it is now struggling to recoup the costs of providing water, likely because many people just never went back to their old habits or possibly because some customers turned to alternative solutions like boreholes. In response, the city lowered water restriction levels from Level 5 to Level 3, meaning that residents could use up to 105 liters per day instead of 70 (28 gallons versus 18.5) and at a lower cost.
Cape Town’s Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson reportedly billed this two-step restriction drop as a form of water management instead of a “complete abandonment of water restrictions.” But water management may serve as a technocratic euphemism for a different sort of panic — financial panic. As Ziervogel points out, it’s not hard to imagine that a municipal water utility that can’t recover its costs might not be so well prepared for the next drought.
In fact, this situation is more than ironic; it’s emblematic of Cape Town’s Achilles’ heel. Water demand management was already a key part of the region’s water management plan throughout the 2000s, even as the city’s population grew enormously — particularly its low-income population that moved to the city in search of jobs. But asking people who pay the most for water to use less as a means of managing a system that is not scaled up to cope with population pressure means that you have less money available to provide free access to those who need it. Indeed, demand management — or at least too much of it — only compounds the cross-subsidy conundrum.
As part of its drought response, the city did try to pull off rapid-fire procurement of desalination plants, which require huge amounts of power, as well as of wastewater treatment plants. It also began to develop groundwater resources. But this kind of reactive planning is expensive and extraordinarily difficult to achieve in a short timeframe, so with the pressure and costs mounting, the city understandably resorted to what it already knew how to do — manage demand. In doing so, however, the city further reduced trust in its infrastructure management competency. And by reducing the consumption of those whose usage pays for the maintenance of the water system, it has possibly laid the groundwork for the next water crisis. Despite it being common to hear that Cape Town averted Day Zero, the city’s root problem — extreme inequality — remains, and the climate is still changing, suggesting that it may have won a battle, so to speak, but definitely not the war.
Today, it is clear from the Cape Town news cycle that resource instability is not solely linked to the drought. Now the resource crisis du jour revolves around electricity rather than water. The combination of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, which typically supplies electricity to its southern neighbor, and the poorly timed collapse of some of Eskom’s (South Africa’s state-owned electric utility) generating infrastructure meant there was not enough electricity to go around. As a result, all South Africans (and I) endured weeks of scheduled, rotating load shedding in February and March 2019. For Cape Town, this meant that every section of the city had three scheduled two-hour blocks of power cuts every day, wreaking economic havoc for businesses during the day and creating frustration for families trying to cook dinner and do other standard activities in the evening after a long day of (interrupted) work.
Zoom out: an extreme weather event coupled with a strained and insufficiently sized system, leading to resource scarcity for many. At the same time, those who can afford them buy off-grid options (e.g., generators). Is this starting to sound vaguely familiar?
Ziervogel’s primary conclusion from her retrospective report offers needed clarity after so much chaos, but it is also more broadly applicable:
“Yes, cities need to pay more attention to how climate variability impacts on their resources, particularly water. But just as important is strengthening the governance of the water system. A well-adapted city is one that understands who is responsible for what and has strong trust and partnerships between and within government.”
That sort of trust and partnership will struggle to take hold in a city roiled by inequality.
There will almost certainly be another drought in Cape Town and another one after that, not to mention droughts in other major metropolises and secondary cities worldwide. Climate change will almost certainly make those droughts worse. But the resource struggles that many fear are already here and are mainly a product of inequality, not of climate change.
Managing demand for those resources may in some cases ease the strain, but it is no replacement for addressing the underlying driver of those struggles, which is that so many people around the world have little or no access to reliable water, electricity, food, or shelter. As we think about preparing for increasingly frequent, extreme climate events, surely every drop counts. But how well cities around the world respond to rising levels of inequality will ultimately determine how resilient they are to climate change, and to a host of other challenges as well.