The last drop: is Cape Town’s water crisis making inequality worse?

Cape Town is in the midst of a water shortage that’s affecting 3.7million people- but how did it escalate so quickly and what will this mean for inequality?
Lóránt Szabó/ CC BY-SA 2.0/ Flickr

Cape Town authorities were very serious when it came to water management.

Just 3 years ago, Cape Town had beat 91 other countries to win first prize for the ‘Water Conservation and Water Demand Management Programme’ award at the C40 Cities Awards. The biggest water users were published in a ‘name and shame’ list and those who used more paid higher bills. The city had invested in desalination plants, in an attempt to diversify the city’s water supply.

Water success to water stress

Fast forward to February 2018 and Capetonians are now being rationed to just 50 litres per person per day.

To put that into perspective, that’s just a sixth of the average amount American uses a day, and just one toilet flush uses 9 litres of water.

Dr Kevin Winters, from the University of Cape Town, told Words in the Bucket (WIB) that  Cape Town is “unlucky to have 4 years of drought” but added that climate change and increasing water demand from urbanisation has also played a factor.

The 6 dams that supply Cape Town’s water are now only 23% full, with the largest, supplying half the city, at the lowest levels.

The change in circumstance have been rapid and Capetonians are now living in fear of Day Zero- the day taps will be turned off and water will only be available from water stations.

The exact date of Day Zero has changed repeatedly but taps will officially be turned off when dam levels reach 13% and the ration will fall to just 25 litres of water each day.

Class divisions exacerbated by the crisis

The crisis has brought the focus on an issue that has daunted the history of South Africa for centuries: inequality. 24 years after the end of Apartheid, South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world and class divisions have already been highlighted in the crisis.

The solution to the water shortage problem is very different depending on Capetonians class. Richer residents simply pay thousands for boreholes and wells, or pay for overpriced bottles of water, whilst poorer residents in informal settlements must depend on the government. The government has said that the poorest will be prioritised in emergency plans, but after decades of marginalization it is hard to gauge whether its a promise that will be kept.

There is a real lack of understanding of how the other half live. Poorer residents are struggling to understand why living on 50 litres a day is such a challenge– after all this is something they have always had to do, says Voices of Africa.  Whilst richer Capetonians are upset about the water that is wasted in informal settlements because of leaks and old taps, despite townships using only 4% of Cape Town’s water.

It seems that the crisis has highlighted the distance between classes and races in the country.

What will happen after Day Zero?

Dr Kevin Winters is unsure about what Day Zero will bring, “It is hard to be able to manage situations in a city where inequality is a day-to-day reality. The ability to contain unrest and conflict around a water station will be difficult to achieve.” he told WIB.

Class divisions have been exacerbated by the crisis and not just between the richest and poorest. Residents in suburbs have been making complaints about richer neighbours that are continuing to use excessive amounts of water by watering gardens or filling up swimming pools.  

With 18,000 people collecting water from each station and stories of water related crime, where thieves have been stealing water,  Cape Town officials must work hard to avoid Day Zero from occurring.

The escalation of Cape Town’s water insecurity raises questions for other urban areas as climate systems change weather patterns. Sao Paulo, Jakarta and Mexico City have all had issues with water security in the past couple of years, with some residents in Mexico City having to wait for water deliveries.

The next few months will be challenging for Capetonians and may be a warning to urban areas around the world.

Ailish Craig

Ailish Craig is a recent Geography and Economics student from the University of Southampton, where she enjoyed the conflict in interests between the two subjects. Ailish has spent time volunteering in Nicaragua, on a natural resource management and sustainability project. She has a keen interest in how developing countries will be effected by climate change and how impacts can be minimised, as well as women’s rights.
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