Stacey F Williams and Shoks Mnisi Mzolo
February 20, 2018

The protracted drought afflicting Cape Town means many things to different people. It exposes Africa’s most beautiful city for its litany of contradictions and threatens its share of tourism revenue as holidaymakers look elsewhere.

The crisis, precipitated by the merciless climate change, is also something of a political football as power mongers use it as a pretext to settle scores. A case in point is the shoving of Mayor Patricia de Lille, falsely accused of fraud, as head of the city’s response to the drought – a crisis which would have been sorted had her predecessors acted in time given that meteorologist raised the matter 20 years ago. So, the sudden urgency to desalinate, or to convert sea water for domestic usage, justifies the civil sector’s suspicions that politicians in the Democratic Alliance, which runs the city, and commercials interests conspired. There is more to the raging dryness than meets the eye. Whatever the reasons, it is the poor who stand to lose tourism-related and informal jobs. This category is also stuck between thirst and unsafe tap water, a recipe for diseases.

This is because, to quote Jaye Pather, who lives and works in the central district, prices of bottled water have skyrocketed. Quick research shows that, while bottled-water sellers are profiteering from drought, this good is now out of reach for the lower rungs – limited by the municipality to make do with a daily ration of 50 litres per person – and hence their resorting to unsafe water which, as Pather says, tastes like “metal”. For context, the daily tap water ration is half the 100-litre recommended by the World Health Organisation. This prompted farmer-activist Nazeer Sonday to liken the municipality’s actions, in a newspaper opinion piece, to “slow violence” and termed the crisis “a metaphor for the commodification of our commons – in this case, water”.

Since boiling river water – to treat it so it’s drinkable – can trigger unaffordable electricity bills in poor areas such as Khayelitsha, Langa and Mitchells Plain, some residents drink it unpurified, exposing themselves to an unfolding health crisis contends recent graduate and Cape Flats resident Lebo November also citing adverse economic impact. Jeering at 50-litre restrictions as one-sided, she worries the municipality is “taking away the income” of township businesses like salons, car washes and property owners (renting out their space to small ventures). A case in point is Execuwash which now buys recycled water – naturally lifting overheads and dragging profits south – to stay afloat, says Naieem Hanware of his family-owned car-wash business. In contrast, Wandisa Dzingwe admitted to saving more water in Port Elizabeth than she did in Cape Town, her new home, thanks to her mother’s personal concern about usage.

“Surely the government should’ve seen this coming,” Dzingwe said, when government’s management of the situation came up. She is not alone. “What’s happening is ridiculous, because we’re relying on dams when we know the water will inevitable evaporate and be absorbed into the ground. Then we talk about ‘day zero’ when the dams are empty, but there’s plenty of water underground,” says a recent Masters graduate in hydrogeology. Day zero, likely in May, refers to when the authorities will switch off taps in the city and station water trucks at roughly 200 sites where residents would queue for their water allocation which would be halved to a mere 25 litres (barely enough for a bath and flush).

Broadly, whatever the angle, things are bleak. Pather’s view echoes that of Sibu Mtsi, a Thornton resident who claims that “in poor areas it has [become] harder, especially in terms of getting clean drinking water.”

A totally different picture emerges from wealthy suburbs such as Marlborough Park, to the east of the dry Cape Town formerly known as //Hui !Gaeb and now nicknamed Mother City. Marlborough Park residents refill their pools and use sprinklers to shower lawns. The same applies in many other affluent areas including Bantry Bay and Clifton. That said, municipality restrictions are applied selectively with the rich ignoring the pressing need to preserve water for the sake of the rest of the city that is home to four million people, making it South Africa’s third-largest after Johannesburg and eThekwini (Durban).

A throwback shows a disjuncture between these behaviours and sustainability awards bestowed on the picturesque Mother City. Not only does it stand out as one of the world’s most “green” cities but also received kudos from a climate change-focused global cities initiative known as C40 award for its efforts in the context of water management. In a twisted irony, population growth is driven by low-income earners (a common trend from Bogota to Lagos and London) whose per capita usage pales against what you would find in upmarket suburbs not least Clifton with its glistening swimming pools. So, the improving personal usage ratio – amid wasteful habits by affluent residents – is a direct result of the growth of the low-end

“We have reached the point of no return,” De Lille, the mayor, once told the media, moaning the unashamed waste by sections of her city, a situation she said would precipitate what is known as “day zero” when the municipality would switch off the taps and slash personal provision. “It is quite unbelievable that a majority [of] people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards day zero.” Sonday, a farmer, describes the term as a “fear mongering expression”.

While day zero spells huge profits for the water industry with some households resorting to stockpiling despite inflated prices, the crisis has exposed other fault lines. SA Breweries, an Anheuser-Busch InBev unit, was slammed for its “minimalist offer” of water bottles totalling 9-million litres when taps run dry instead of acting now to prevent a health crisis. At the crux of the outcry is the fact that the brewer benefits from spring water, a national good. “[Your] minimalist offer of handing out bottled water to the masses on day zero was highly insulting when you receive millions of litres of our spring water for free, every day,” retorted the Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition, consisting dozens of civic organisations.

The showering lawns and sparkling swimming pools in rich areas stoke a sense that there is fear-mongering. The postponement of “day zero”, by a month to mid-May, has reiterated this belief. For its part, the municipality says this day was pushed back amid a decline in agricultural usage by farmers in the Western Cape province who draw their water from the same supply system after using up their allocated share. This development is notable because agriculture claims 30% of the provincial water usage.

“This should fall to approximately 15% in March and 10% in April. It must be noted that the city does not have any control over agricultural releases, so this is the best estimate we can make,” the municipality said in a statement but neglected to explain its curious reluctance to clamp on wasteful consumption in leafy suburbs. “[We] need to get our consumption down to 450-million litres per day to prevent the remaining water supplies running out before the arrival of winter rains. We cannot accurately predict the volume of rainfall still to come, or when it will come.”

To keep to a 50-litre daily limit, though applied unequally, means a two-minute shower and flushing the toilet only once a day. Politicians say they are also playing their part to comply. Provincial premier and former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said on social media she was washing in a bowl. “It wasn’t funny,” retorts November. “I don’t know how to talk about this without being emotional.” She insists residents in rich, usually white areas, have sufficient supply. Zille, labelled “pot stirrer” by the Mail & Guardian, is notorious for racist comments. Owing to the legacy of apartheid, a crime against humanity, race tends to determine where one lives and remains a proxy for privilege, economic power and income levels.

The disbelief in the severity of the water crisis seems to be in tension with the claims of the awareness and understanding of city folks. From the affluent to working class areas, residents know the situation is bad thanks to the media coverage (with farmer Sonday deriding ‘day zero’ as a “fear mongering expression”), but rich areas – if you except drinking water – are spared as law enforcement officers hardly venture there whereas “water is switched off in the townships on weekends. No consultation,” complains a livid November.

Since the water provided by the municipality is undrinkable, the tap to spring water in Newlands, to the south of the Mother City, is available to just about anyone. The downside is that the spring, at an SA Breweries complex, is out of the way for the poor of the Cape Flats – near the Table Mountain and home to apartheid-style matchbox houses and slums. A local noted that bathing in buckets and using boiled water has become a way of life in areas like Khayelitsha, also on the Flats. “They (Khayelitsha residents) are affected differently, honestly… ‘Rhondies’ can go to [Newlands] to get water, but Khayelitsha have to use the same water from the same tap as before,” said a woman from Ottery, a southern suburb. Rhondies are residents of a Rondebosch, a middle-class neighbourhood home to the University of Cape Town (UCT).

However, areas open to large numbers of the public have changed their visible water usage. Public toilets have become unpleasant to use, because of poor hygiene habits being practiced in the name of saving water. Students at UCT and elsewhere are concerned about toilets that are not being flushed on campus. Further, hand sanitisers have replaced handwashing water at the Cape Town International Airport. Companies are asking employees to bring water from home and business travelers, used to complementary bottled water, are now required to buy water and hotel visitors urged to stick to the two-minute shower regime. Worse, some toilets don’t provide hand sanitiser, as a local who prefers anonymity lets off. “I just don’t think water should be restricted in public areas,” she says. The size of her family of six adults has forced them to ration their water very carefully to avoid fines and manage without Newlands water, because it is not conveniently accessible to them.

As the city crawls towards dry taps, the question is how residents and political leaders are responding to the threat to their livelihoods. Tourist operators and hairdressers are some of the early victims. Health is already taking pain as airborne and waterborne diseases creep in. There is consensus about the municipality’s local government’s ineptness. “How we respond to this water crisis will determine whether we have access to water as commons – shared equitably by all, or water commodified, privatised and only available to the wealthy,” wrote Sonday, the Philippi Horticultural Area activist. Accusing government of failure to invest to meet water demands of a growing community, he added that the crisis is far-reaching and extends to food security.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello,

    My name is Katie Loyet. I am currently studying abroad through Semester at Sea and just visited Cape Town. I am writing to you today is that I saw your article and was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the drought as I am in a journalism class and doing a piece on the Cape Town drought. It would be helpful to be able to gain insight on this issue from someone who is in the journalism business and experienced it.

    Thank you for your time.

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