Cape Town in crisis

Cape Town is dealing with one of the biggest climate change-linked water crises to face a modern city. This should serve as our wake-up call: we must transition to a new, shared way of organising around increasingly stretched resources, writes Leonie Joubert.

picture of a water tap with a rusty lock on it

When Cape Town’s taps run dry, they run dry for all. (Public Domain)

Threatened with thirst, Cape Town feels like it has gone a little mad.

Late on the night of February 16th, a man – a doctor, according to the eye witness – pulled a gun in a small crowd of people in line to collect spring water in a wealthy neighbourhood at the foot of Table Mountain. The city is facing emergency water rationing, so even the wealthiest are beginning to top up their limited municipal supply by collecting water from springs that tumble naturally from the ground around the base of this iconic mountain.

It started simply, as arguments do, but quickly escalated. This particular spring is on private property, but the homeowners decided to pipe an outlet into the street, and invited anyone to come along and collect water.

One man came to join the queue at about 10pm, but started moaning at a woman in the line about how tired he was of waiting to get ‘his’ water. She voiced her objection; things got heated; the man, who seemed ‘unstable’, pulled out a knife; someone else pulled out a gun. Apparently a ‘bohemian’-type woman stepped in and diffused the situation.

Cape Town residents now have to keep their daily water use to a maximum of 50 liters (13 gallons) per person per day, as the dams run dangerously low following three years of unprecedented drought. Things are so bad now that the city has warned it may cut off water to homes and businesses in June, so it can trickle-feed what’s left in the dams to critical services like hospitals, and to the communal taps in the slum settlements. People in the ‘suburbs’ will have to collect a daily ration of 25 liters (6.5 gallons) per person from 200 temporary water distribution sites around the city. Going on current dam levels, ‘Day Zero’ may arrive on June 4, and could last three months.

When the city first warned that Day Zero was a ‘thing’, it notified the public that the military and police would be on standby to deal with any civil unrest that might result as people queued for water.

No one expected conflict to arise so soon, though, even before Day Zero came.

Sharing the ‘commons’

Cape Town, like Sao Paulo, Melbourne  and California in recent years, is at the frontline of crisis-managing water, as climate change threatens this resource. If taps really do run dry in June, Cape Town will, quite literally, shut down.

What this crisis, and the incident in the queue for the spring water both highlight, is the opportunity they present for society to find new ways of viewing and managing resources in these days of ‘late capitalism’.

Sacred Economics author Charles Eisenstein writes about how capitalism has conditioned us to believe that we live in a world of scarcity, and that each of us is a solo agent, competing with everyone else for scarce resources. The behaviour at the spring water queue demonstrates some of the worst manifestations of human behaviour when that belief takes root.

The environmentalist and thinker George Monbiot has been writing for years about the opportunity presented to us, as the system begins to fail and the environmental and health costs of extractive capitalism start to manifest themselves in so many forms (think about climate change, the hunger-obesity crisis, environmental degradation, the rise in mental health issues – all examples of the externalities of the modern, industrialised, capitalist world starting to count themselves into our accounting books).

The water coming from that spring, which now has even relatively well-off people coming to blows, comes from a natural water system that no single Capetonian owns. It’s a common resource that needs to be managed by the wider community, for the benefit of everyone.

The tricky thing with the city’s utility systems, is that while the water in it is a basic human right, as upheld by our Constitution, installing and maintaining the infrastructure that delivers that water to citizens still has to be paid for. While the city is obliged to make sure that every household receives a minimal free amount of water in order to be healthy. Once water demands in a household exceed that, it’s usually the wealthy who can afford to buy more than they need and, in times of such scarcity, can eat into reserves that should be fairly distributed to everyone.

The same applies to energy. The wind and solar energy that moves through the city each day should be freely available to everyone. But the technology to capture, store, and distribute that energy has to be paid for by someone. How will the state, and the wider society, organise itself so that even the poorest, who can’t pay, get the energy they need to not just survive, but thrive?

As the dams here run dry, there are still many homes in wealthy neighbourhoods that have water in their swimming pools, and are using well beyond their daily 50l ration, seemingly unaware or unconcerned that every litre squandered today, is a litre removed from the system when the taps run dry four months from now. And when they run dry for one, they run dry for all.

How the city decides to discipline wasteful users, and whether or not citizens choose to cooperate with each other to share water in these desperate times, only time will tell.


Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her work focuses on climate change, energy policy, urban food security, and giving communications support to various academic and civil society organisations.

1 Comment

  1. The specific point is fine but the broader one is not. It’s clear that in conditions of extreme scarcity, many societies revert to strict socialist rationing as fairest. If you do’t do this you end up with the black satire of the siege of Paris in 1870 – the poor ate rats, the rich ate the giraffes and hippos in the Jardin des Plantes zoo. There is no sign that this observation supports a wider critique of capitalist resource allocation.

    In particular, it does not apply to wind and solar energy. The resource is not scarce. South Africa is big and sunny, and can generate far more solar energy than it can possibly use. The same is probably true for wind, at least on the coasts or offshore. The income will go to landowners and investors in the equipment, earning a standard rate of return. These are not arbitrary or abusive rents.

    The system does face the general problem of widening inequality, see Piketty. This is even more visible in South Africa because of its colonial and post-colonial history, and inequalities of class are magnified by those of race. Renewables don’t make this worse, and can even alleviate the problem if you encourage individual and community ownership of generation, as in Germany.

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