Thursday, January 25, 2018

Reflections on the Cape Town Water Crisis


Larry Swatuk

The city of Cape Town, South Africa faces an imminent threat due to prolonged drought. The drought has been so severe that the city faces the prospect of what it calls ‘Day Zero’, that is, the day - hypothesized to be April 12th - when quite literally the taps will be turned off and the city will no longer be able to deliver potable water to its more than 650,000 customers, amounting to some 3+ million people. In preparation for Day Zero, the city has established a water-delivery contingency plan consisting of some 300 hundred water collection points where each citizen will be entitled to 25 litres of water per day. This is the World Health Organization approved minimum for the maintenance of human health (but little else). At the same time, the city has a number of new delivery systems in various stages of completion, including a number of desalination plants – Cape Town municipality is a coastal environment, surrounded by the sea on three sides – as well as numerous boreholes. Citizens are being encouraged to do their part, by cutting usage to 50 litres per person per day for the next 150 days. For a family of 4, this amounts to about 6 kilolitres of water for the household, the amount guaranteed as ‘free basic water’ under South Africa’s Water Act, but which, under the circumstances is being billed at about $0.40/Kl for all but those designated ‘indigent households’. There are also a wide range of restrictions in place governing the use of water – no car-washing or plant-watering with potable water, for example – and stiff penalties to be meted out to transgressors.

Understandably, the water crisis has created a political firestorm across legislative levels. The City is controlled by the Democratic Alliance (DA), as is the Province. The National Government – who has jurisdiction for water affairs – is under the control of the African National Congress (ANC). Politicians of every stripe are using the crisis to point fingers at those they believe to be the cause of the problem. Quite rightly, they are arguing that this is as much a crisis of governance and management as it is a result of natural processes. Quite wrongly, they are unsurprisingly blaming each other. The ANC is blaming the DA. The Federal DA, under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, and the Provincial DA, under the leadership of Helen Zille, in turn have blamed both the ANC for inaction and politiking, but also Mayor Patricia de Lille, for ineffectual leadership (among other things). On Wednesday, the DA caucus within the Municipal government passed a vote of no-confidence in Mayor de Lille. At the same time, the Federal DA has announced its ‘Rescue Plan’ under the moniker #DefeatDayZero (see the Twitter handle @Defeat_DayZero). Among the rescue team, Patricia de Lille is conspicuous by her absence. In her stead is Ian Neilson, who will surely be appointed the caretaker Mayor once the DA finally gets around to kicking the right honorable Mayor de Lille to the curb.

I was recently in the Western Cape and was able to see how invested most citizens (and those others dependent upon City of Cape Town water, such as Stellenbosch municipality) are in conserving water as best they can. It has even been raining a bit over the last little while, but the hot summer takes almost all of the rainfall back directly as evaporation. Presently the dams stand at a collective 26% of capacity. This is not nearly enough to satisfy the usual daily usage of somewhere around 900 Ml. Mayor de Lille has been exhorting citizens to use less, to bring total usage down below 500 Ml/day. She has been quite strident in her criticism of the non-participation of many in a situation that requires ‘all hands on deck’. Her churlishness and threats of imposing a drought levy (based on property size as opposed to actual use) opened the door for her political opponents. So, as Cape Town lurches toward Day Zero, how is it that a world city could get itself into such a predicament? And how will it get itself out?

First things first, drought is natural. So is flood. Cape Town is subject to extreme events. A drought such as the present one is not unusual – there have been similar events three times over the past 100 years. If drought is normal, how is it that every drought becomes a crisis? This is a good question with an easy answer: because at the end of the day, it always rains. Most everywhere in the world, a dominant water management practice is, in the face of drought, we must pray for rain. And rain it will. Like I said, it is raining in Cape Town now. There are two significant differences with these past severe droughts, however. First, population increase: the Cape has been growing in leaps and bounds since the end of apartheid in 1994. The City says that it adds 8500 new water and sanitation customers every year. So, the most serious stress on the City’s water management system is the flood of people into the region. At present, approximately 64% (i.e. 345 Mm3/a) of the captured water resource goes to the city, with some 7% delivered to other municipalities (37 Mm3/a) and 29% to agriculture (158 Mm3/a). The system is comprised of 6 dams, 11,000 km of pipe, numerous reservoirs, underground aquifers, wastewater treatment (and reuse) plants and sea outfall systems. In other words, it is not unlike any other major city in the world: heavily dependent upon complex technologies and large amounts of financial capital to sustain itself. It is a mistake to blame the poor, who comprise the majority of the municipality’s population. It is estimated that informal settlements, for example, use only 5% of delivered water. The big consumers are the wealthy and these are not only South Africans; they come from all over the world, building giant homes, buying properties in gated communities, on golf estates, driving the expansion of other major municipal water users such as high end malls such as those at the Waterfront, Tyger Valley, Claremont and Canal Walk.

The second factor that makes this drought different is the region’s integration into globalization, in particular global commodity chains. The region is a major exporter of fresh fruit and wine. These are water-intensive industries. Post-apartheid has witnessed major expansion of the wine industry in the Cape. While these industries are increasingly ‘water wise’ – for example, installing drip irrigation systems – they are many. And ‘many’ means much more water. So the stress on the system is immense.

If we are to point fingers and lay blame, we should look to history. It is always fashionable in Africa to blame colonialism for much of the continent’s woes. I do it all the time in fact, in my classes, and I’m going to do it again here. Cape Town was settled by the Dutch in the mid-17th Century. What ‘settled’ means in this case, was they began to recreate their world in this ‘new world’: to build a little Amsterdam at the tip of Africa. But Cape Town is not Amsterdam. The Western Cape is a winter rainfall region. This means that it gets the bulk of its rainfall over a 3-4 month period (May-August), with much lesser amounts falling through the hot summer months. This is quite the opposite of most of the temperate world, where precipitation days are in the order of 300+/year and where winter months constitute ‘free storage’. In the Cape, when it is cold, water falls and flows intensely for a short period of time. That water then slowly disappears over the hot summer months (it is estimated that evaporation from the City’s dams accounts for 15% of total water use).

The Dutch and later English and still later independent-South African answer to this was to dam it and divert it. In other words, to flatten out the hydrograph, to make ‘flow’ look more like Holland or England, by capturing it in the winter, thereby making it available throughout the year. New Holland? No problem! Except there is a problem: what happens when it fails to rain? Well, we know what happens: we are watching the crisis unfold today before our very eyes.

Urban form is also a serious problem. Being ‘developed’ means copying the West. If Western cities pave over their landscapes then so should we. If Western cities create elaborate storm water runoff systems to ensure that basements do not flood, then so should we. And so we see an urban form at the southern tip of Africa that looks eerily like that of any coastal European or North American city. If there is year round precipitation, this is generally not too problematic. But if rains are short and intense and you live on a coast, what you have done is help the very water you need in the hot dry summer to run away to the sea. Is this not the height of foolishness? We do it everywhere around the world, so Cape Town is in good company when it comes to building cities a certain way because you have always done so. These path dependent practices must stop! In the short run, Cape Town needs more water now. But in the longer run, Cape Town needs to rethink its urban form, to use this point of acute crisis to initiate innovative practices that help the city recover its African identity. We all need to soften our cities, to rip up the endless kilometres of tarmac and cement and concrete and replace it with indigenous green spaces, to soak up the water, not rush it away. To encourage infiltration, natural plant growth, and discourage evaporation and massive stormwater runoff. Psychological studies are out there articulating the myriad health benefits of green space. People are happy in parks, are they not? And people should be brought into the conversation about what might be done, how, when and to what ultimate purpose. This crisis creates an opportunity not only to rethink the City, but to rethink citizenry and urban governance.

But (poor) governance is at the heart of this crisis. As stated above, South Africa’s political leaders are engaged in a blame-game, scoring cheap political points rather than engaging in constructive collective action. Even DA leader Maimane appears to be on the campaign trail with his ‘Defeat Day Zero’, rather than on the social action trail. If you think I misjudge him, then ask yourself, where is Patricia de Lille in this effort? Should she not be on his ‘list’ of those involved in the ‘rescue plan’? Cape Town cannot be allowed to reach Day Zero. Given that water is a national priority, the ANC must reach out to the DA and work with them on this issue. The recent announcement by the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molelwa, that groundwater restrictions were now in place looks very much like a potential bridge to be built across the political party abyss.

However, even if the ANC and the DA come together, one wonders where the citizenry are in all of this. Without doubt there is a lack of trust between the state and civil society. Understandably, this stems from the apartheid years. But it has lingered due to a continuing inability of elected officials to do the right thing. My dear friend, Lewis Jonker, used to explain state inaction this way: 'If you are always planning, you are never failing.' In other words, rather than take the hard decision now (that might be politically costly in the short run, but the right thing for society in the long run), government would rather commission a study to 'look into' the issue, while, in the meantime, dithering along. In the case of water governance and management, this means praying for rain. There is a very large literature out there chronicling the gap between beautiful plans and ugly outcomes across the water governance and management landscape not only in the Western Cape, but in the country, the region and the world. (We would do well to watch the Cape closely; in some ways, it is the 'canary in the coal mine', signalling a fate that awaits many a city around the world. Did someone say 'climate change'?)

In the absence of good governance, there is currently a borehole drilling bonanza underway across the middle-to-upper class households of the municipality. It’s called ‘self-help’. It’s the sort of private sector involvement that reinforces the lack of trust between governors and governed, however: I better look after myself because the state is useless. At the same time, one wonders how the poor feel in the middle of all this. To be sure, should day zero arrive, hundreds of thousands of ‘Capetonians’ will not even notice. They have been struggling with ‘day zero’ for many years. Whenever there are water restrictions, there is always a build up of animosity not only between the state and the poorer sections of the citizenry, but also between the rich and the poor: those who live in Retreat look across the railway tracks and up the hill at Constantia and see very little evidence of compliance with water restrictions. The poor ‘pay’ through a loss of access because the state can control the flow to community taps; while the rich ‘pay’ the increased levies with little discernible impact on their disposable incomes. Even with Level 4 restrictions in place, households that approximate Western-use levels (i.e. 20-35 Kl/month) will pay no more than $200/month to continue on their profligate way while facing the most severe drought in living memory. And, should they not wish to pay, they can invest the approximately $5000 it is costing to sink a borehole deep enough to satisfy your ‘normal’ household water needs. Drought? What drought?

The water crisis, I fear, is exposing the hidden underbelly of social fractiousness that exists not only within the Western Cape but across South Africa as a whole. If you scan the Twitterverse or Facebook you will find no shortage of commentary that says it will be nice to see the rich queue along with the poor for a change. One wonders how you build social capital where people are so unevenly impacted by the impending shortage of a non-substitutable, essential resource such as potable water. One hopes that rationality will emerge from across the political spectrum and across civil society so that all South Africans see the Cape as an opportunity to build social bridges rather than blow them up.

I have no faith in the Municipal government to impose stiff fines on transgressors, nor to show the leadership necessary to enforce higher tariffs that make everyone feel the economic pinch should they choose to ignore calls to do the right thing. In the short term, as I said earlier, the focus therefore must be on increased supply: ship-borne desalination brought in from elsewhere; boreholes drilled and reticulated to the system. This will cost a lot of money. Cape Town should not be made to stand alone. There is no shortage of resource access, use and management expertise across the country, the region, the world. We should put our heads together and be part of the solution, rather than gaze on at the problem as though we were rubbernecking at a crash site. The Cape Town crisis is a national emergency and the ANC must mobilize the necessary resources now. Maybe a useful start would be to drain out-going President Zuma’s pool at Nkandla and ship that water to State House in the Cape. Every little bit helps.

No comments: