Cape Town is running out of water – so why isn’t the government acting?

Cape Town residents protest in January. Image: Getty.

For the past few months, residents of Cape Town have had one thing on their minds: Day Zero. This ominous title refers to the date when the water supply will be cut off. Taps will run dry, and residents will have to queue, buckets in hand, at depot stations scattered around the city for their daily supply. No major metro has ever run out of water or had to plan for such an operation. 

While previous estimates had Day Zero scheduled for some time in April, it has now been postponed until next year – a result, the City claims, of residents saving enough water to maintain supplies until the upcoming rainy season. However, one would be justified in taking this with a pinch of salt. The city confidently predicted that previous seasons would bring sufficient rain to stave off a crisis, an estimate that proved massively incorrect. In fact, Cape Town has experienced three consecutive record-breaking years of low rainfall. Meanwhile, dams – the primary sources of water to the region – continue to see their levels drop at a rate of around 1 per cent per week.

South Africa’s Constitution guarantees access to water as a right and imposes a positive duty on the state to protect that right. Given this, the astronomical costs of Day Zero actually occurring, the electoral harm such a crisis could inflict and the profound embarrassment of being the first major city in the world to run out of water, it is remarkable just how dithering the political response has been.

The Democratic Alliance, which runs the city of Cape Town and the entire Western Cape province, is the largest opposition party in South Africa. With its impressive performance in the 2016 local government elections and the ruling ANC plagued by more corruption scandals than it can count, the DA had its eyes set on what was previously unthinkable: enough votes in the 2019 national election to govern the country, even if only in coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The water crisis makes this look increasingly unlikely. The DA argues that the drought was difficult to predict; that the national government has been uncooperative; and that the public has not done enough to save water. This last accusation is particularly surprising: attempts at spreading the water-saving message have been tame and ineffective. Almost no billboards have been erected with info on the crisis and no TV ads have been run.

And while the party attracted ire earlier this month for a series of incendiary  text messages about land reform, no such targeted system has been used to educate citizens about the water crisis.  Many of the DA’s broadcasts have been couched in a feel-good, unserious sentimentality, such as a 2016 YouTube video where Western Cape premier Helen Zille suggests “showering with a friend” to save water.  The launch of ‘Splash’, a water-saving mascot, backfired when the character faced online mockery for its unintentionally terrifying appearance.

The decision to scrap Day Zero for the year is baffling, too. There is no sign that it is any less likely to occur, and its looming presence, although dramatic, was clearly the most effective mechanism at encouraging water-saving. Reports already suggest that since Day Zero’s postponement, Cape Town’s water consumption has increased again. The DA seems to want to have its cake and eat it, attempting to warn residents of the impending crisis and urging them to change their lifestyles, while simultaneously avoiding any public campaigns that might make the city look anything less than perfectly functional or hamper tourism.

Climate change means water crises like the one facing Cape Town are likely to become a far more common occurrence. The New Delhi based Centre for Science & Environment think tank lists 10 cities that may face similar ‘Day Zero’ type situations in the near future unless drastic water-saving action is taken. They include including Beijing, Mexico City, Nairobi, Karachi and Istanbul.

If Cape Town is to serve as a cautionary tale to these cities, two lessons seem pertinent. First, act early. Cape Town officials were warned of the potential for a crisis as early as 2009. Despite this, water restrictions only came into effect in January 2016. While three water desalination plants are set to become operational this month, these remain a temporary solution, and work on them began far too late. Cities cannot control the climate, but they can prepare for it.

The second lesson is not to shy away from radical measures. Capetonians only started meaningfully saving water when the crisis began to feel like one. The city’s rolling back of measures like the Day Zero countdown simply breeds complacency among a population that needs to be vigilant. Attempting to downplay concerns to protect tourism and look good electorally runs the risk of exacerbating the problem in future.

Cape Town remains on the brink of an unprecedented disaster. Residents can only hope for an exceptionally wet rainy reason. However, with dam levels as low as they are, even this may prove too little too late.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.