In Cape Town, South Africa, a city of 4 million people, water rationing has been ongoing for months.
Predictions of when the city will run completely out of water (referred to as “Day Zero”) have pegged the date somewhere between mid-April to mid-May, though they’ve been recently extended to July 9 due to a decrease in water usage. Barring unforeseen heavy rains to quell the crisis, Cape Town could soon become a case study in how a major city reacted to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD)-driven drought.
Three years straight of unprecedented drought have left the city with meager water in its primary reservoirs, leaving it in a position to possibly become the first major city in the world to literally run out of water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report warned that long-term climate models indicate that a significant drying trend will continue across portions of western South Africa, with annual rainfall being reduced by up to 40 percent. Hence, Cape Town’s drought has been linked directly to ACD.
City officials have already announced that once the water capacity of the dams reaches 13.5 percent, water will be shut off for all except essential services, like hospitals and schools. Once taps are turned off for most, people will have to go to 200 municipal points to collect their 25 liters per day, under the watch of armed guards.
Meanwhile, the city may have bought itself a little more time by limiting water for agriculture, much to the chagrin of farmers.
Ebrahiem Fourie is with the Cape Town Housing Assembly, an independent community based organisation that fights against the neoliberal policies the City and National governments work to implement. He described how the water rationing is impacting the poor and working class far more severely than the upper class.
Fourie explained that a working-class household has 15 people on average, which includes extended family and “backyarders,” people living literally in the backyards of residences. The city is only allowing 25 liters per person each day. While middle-class and wealthy people can purchase bottled water to supplement these rations, lower-income people are left with an inadequate supply.
“The daily limit has very little to do with people’s real water needs, and has even less to do with the extra water needs of the very young, the old, the sick or the unemployed who [are] at home most of the day,” Fourie told Truthout. “Many backyard shacks have burnt to the ground, where mostly children lost their lives due to limited access to water.”
According to Fourie, who has been a water campaigner for four years, the crisis is already so severe for the working class that elderly people often don’t even have enough water to take their medications.
“People are struggling to live with dignity, as we are teaching our children not to wash their hands, and we don’t flush the toilets,” he explained. “There is a daily threat on our health — many suffering from diarrhea, skin diseases, etc. The poor cannot afford to buy water from the shelves of retailers.”
Residents of the city are being impacted psychologically as well.
Maryse Barak, a self-employed leadership and executive coach explained that her feelings about the crisis range from denial to anxiety to outright fear and sadness.
“My sadness is that the data about the relentless climate shift and its implications have been known for a long while,” she told Truthout. “I hear stories that the government was meant to have built dams but did not, that the province had money but used it for more immediate necessit[ies] — housing, etc.”
While she can understand the difficulties of arguing for the long-term view when faced with the increasing unhoused population, Barak added that she thinks that political agendas “have been more powerful than the willingness to care for the region and its people.”
It is exactly this old top-down, hierarchical power-over model of governance that the water crisis is highlighting.
Fourie and Barak are both working to assist the poor in the immediate term — and also to bring awareness to the need for community and a completely different paradigm.
However the water crisis unfolds, the disparity between these two models — the top-down framework and the community-based vision — will be made all the more clear. In the meantime, massive numbers of people are already struggling each day in Cape Town just to get their basic needs met.
Rich vs. Working Class
Fourie explained that Cape Town’s water crisis isn’t new, when it comes to low-income people: The working class has been feeling its effects since 2008.
Fourie has seen the City of Cape Town installing water meters in people’s homes, portraying the installations as part of an effort to help people manage their own water use. Hence, the City called the water meters “Water Management Devices.” In reality, the installations have been part of a long-term project aimed at privatizing the water.
Up until the current crisis, the City was “doing well” in this effort toward privatization according to Fourie — meaning that their efforts to privatize more of the water were coming along well — but that has changed dramatically now.
“‘Day Zero,’ and the immediate punitive financial measures taken by the City, [have] led to the uproar of many residents in Cape Town, who formed groups and protested…. They [saw the] scare tactics by the City as another attempt to privatize water,” Fourie explained.
This pressure from below (largely coming from citizen groups self-organizing themselves and working together) has given rise to participatory processes between the national government, provincial government and civil society. But while the process is portrayed as “consultation,” Fourie explained that many believe it is yet another attempt to privatize the water, “as there are lucrative tenders waiting in the wings,” he said.
Activists have set up the Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition, aimed at preventing the privatization of water.
Meanwhile, Fourie hasn’t seen anything of import being done by the government to help the poor during the water crisis, other than the City instructing them to install prepaid water meters, which everyone already opposes as they are seeing the privatization writing on the wall.
“The City is asking people to save water, which they do not have,” Fourie said, in addition to the fact that people are already having to pay more for water.
Another problem stems from the fact that Cape Town is sharing water information via social media, ignoring the fact that many poor people lack internet access.
Barak is seeing these elements brought to the fore by the crisis as well.
“It seems to me that the political differences between the province [Democratic Alliance] and the government [African National Congress] has had a lot to do with the inability to move rapidly on the growing danger of the water crisis,” she explained. “There has been an appalling lack of information about strategies going forward. It seems that the powers that be have been moving incredibly slowly toward acknowledging the size of the challenge and its ramifications on the population, agriculture and other businesses.”
Like Fourie, she is deeply disturbed by how Cape Town’s poorest are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Barak explained how many poor people already lack running water in their homes, and have to get their water from communal taps. Thus, they are already using the least amount of water of any group.
Given how many industries are impacted by the water shortage, the crisis is causing a loss of jobs, which particularly impacts working-class and poor people, according to Barak.
“The impact of this on the many many people dependent on work to sustain their lives is unimaginable,” she added.
Barak and Fourie are appalled by the “huge visible disparity” between how the rich are able to deal with the crisis versus the suffering and exploitation of the poor.
“Many of the rich own water-bottling companies, they can afford to buy water,” Fourie said. “The available ground water [springs] are usually in affluent areas, which makes them easy to access, and with the current water restrictions the rich have cars to load their water.”
Not only are many working-class people unable to afford to buy water; they often do not have cars to transport water from afar.
This is further complicated by the fact that most of the working class in Cape Town, like most major cities, live on the outskirts of the city.
The disparity goes beyond purchasing bottled water.
Barak noted, “Having money seems to support the denial and the ease with which people could pay their water fines and carry on using as much as they wanted.”
She explained that having money also means you can have a borehole dug into the ground in order to access your own water, something a working-class person would be hard-pressed to afford.
“Money means you can also outfit your home to save all the greywater and reuse it, and in some cases, get right off the water grid,” she added. “Money allows people to buy the new technology — ‘water from air’ machines.” (These machines are essentially atmospheric water generators equipped with technology necessary to capture, convert and regulate water from air.)
In addtion, having money means you can simply move to another city, or out to the country, for as long as you need to. It also means you can purchase paper plates, cups and hand-sanitizer, rather than having to use water to wash dishes and hands.
Fourie has seen a water crisis impacting the Cape Town poor for years now, as informal water settlements imposed upon them by the City have been causing many people to have to walk long distances and stand in lines for water.
Barak expressed her concerns about what all this could lead to.
“I have fear about the inherent possibilities of diseases and those attendant dangers,” she said. “I also get waves of anxiety about the possible violence and unrest because of even greater unemployment and of systems breaking down.”
Evolve or Suffer the Consequences
Fourie said the most difficult thing for him about the crisis is watching “the daily suffering of our peoples.”
He is angered by how “the neoliberal form of privatization individualizes our struggles. Everyone has similar struggles but is struggling in their own corners.” He is frustrated by the lies he hears Cape Town’s politicians telling people, coupled with how easily people are believing them, due to the desperate nature of the crisis.
Is it possible for large numbers of people to switch gears — refuse to believe the lies, and take collective action instead?
Barak points to the possibility of the community moving together toward a solution.
“It feels to me as if we are inexorably moving toward a tsunami-like experience with many unexpected and intense, possibly dire, consequences,” she said. “But where there is adequate factual information accessible to all, where there is the invitation to connect and explore what we can do together and overcome the fear of the historical divisions in our city … then there is possibility.”
Both Barak and her husband have become amazed by how little water they use every day and how easy it is to do so. Once the habit of being conscious of every drop set in, it became easy for them to save, to reuse, and to feel pretty good about what can be done.
“There are so many conversations that happen spontaneously between strangers to exchange ideas on what else one can do to save water and deal with the impact of, for instance, not flushing the toilet,” she explained. “In some ways, people are acknowledging that we are together in this and how can we support each other.”
Unlike a hurricane, earthquake, or other natural disaster, the crisis in Cape Town unfolding over months has provided people time to face it and strategize. Because of this, Barak is trusting that “the people,” collectively, can engage in ways that will bring them all closer together.
“Cape Town is one of the most divided cities in South Africa,” she added. “This could be an opportunity for positive change — or not.”
Fourie hopes that the water crisis is seen for the other kind of crisis the government has turned it into: a crisis of capitalism, a crisis of the rich seeking to profit from those being impacted the most severely by the lack of water.
“People are raising the question of, ‘If it’s a crisis, why? And why are soft drink companies and South African Breweries not forced to cut down on production?” he asks. “Day Zero is a straight-out attack on the working class, to push privatization and desalination [an expensive process by which salt is removed from seawater so that it is potable].”
Barak speaks of how she is watching a micro-example unfold across her city of what is befalling the planet.
“It is sad to see beautiful parts of Cape Town become arid and sandy, but that is a loss of what we created,” she said. “The Earth is fine, it will rebalance in its own time. But if we want to live on it, then a completely different relationship is demanded. I am awakening to this fact as the reality hits.”