Approaching Day Zero of Cape Town’s Water Crisis in the Aftermath of Apartheid

The South African Apartheid, which systematically separated the black and white populations–was officially dismantled in 1991. Before the Apartheid, native South Africans underwent hundreds of years of subjugation under white imperialist countries, namely the Dutch and the British. Stemming from centuries-long white suppression, the end of the Apartheid did not succeed in accomplishing total equality; in fact, wealth inequality is still very intact along racial divides within South Africa. Out of the 154 countries accounted for in 2017, South Africa had the highest Gini coefficient; the Gini coefficient measures inequality, and the higher it is, the more extensive the inequality appears to be.

Within Cape Town, South Africa’s most populated city, the African National Congress–the governing political party–was responsible for building residences for the impoverished. However, these residences were built on government land in townships in accordance with apartheid established racial isolation, relatively distant from job opportunities within the heart of Cape Town. As of October 2017, the South African economy is in recession, with a 28% unemployment rate and less than half of the working age black population is employed. Many people of color within Cape Town are also concerned that private interests within the city have redirected state resources on their own behalf by power of affluence.

The Theewaterskloof Dam, photographed via Sentinel-2B satellite well into the drought on February 10, 2018. As of March 12th, the dam is operating at 10.9% capacity. Source: Flickr.

This concern is even more prevalent now, as Cape Town is quite literally running out of water. The city is currently experiencing a record drought, and its reservoirs–Cape Town’s main water source–are running dry. It could become the first major city in modern history to be exhausted of water as a public resource. As of March 5, Cape Town is set to be without running water by July 15th, 2018, a.k.a. “Day Zero.” After July 15th, the people of Cape Town will have to queue for water at one of 200 designated pick-up points. 25 litres of water will be allotted for 20,000 eligible residents each day. As of the 2011 census, there are 3,740,026 residents in Cape Town. Each household is currently allowed to use 350 litres of running water each day, and if that capacity is exceeded, then a fine will be issued and a water restriction device will be installed to cut off water after 350 litres have been dispensed.

Wealthy residents of Cape Town are clearly advantaged in this troubling time. They are fully capable of paying fines for over-use of water, as well as utilising water delivery services and well-digging companies. Cape Town’s city councillor, JP Smith, has made claims that the residents of affluent Cape Town have shown blatant impudence regarding water conservation rules. While every person in the city is currently allotted 50 litres of water a day, more affluent residents are able to install wellpoints and purchase machines that pulls water vapor from the air, using the water to fill their swimming pools. Meanwhile, in some of the smaller, more impoverished settlements on the outskirts of Cape Town, locals can only get water from communal taps.

Although there is an offensive disparity in general attitudes toward water, metropolitan Cape Town is not entirely indifferent to the water shortage. The administrations of hotels, gyms, and office buildings have become more and more effective in implementing smaller scale water conservancy. These conservancy tactics range from removing bath plugs from hotel rooms so guests must shower instead to gyms utilizing a buzzer system which sounds in the showers of those who have been using running water for more than two minutes. Some of the city’s cafes have begun selling beverages in paper cups so they do not waste water while washing dishes. It is certainly an improvement that upscale establishments and more wealthy inhabitants of Cape Town are being cognizant of their water usage. However, the poverty-stricken people–primarily of colour–who are forced to live in the townships on the periphery of Cape Town have been applying similar water conservation practices before the drought began. Water saving habits are the norm in these townships, according to Makoma Lekalakala, who directs Earthlife Africa. She told The Guardian, “Using washing water to flush the toilet is what people in townships do all the time. So is washing with buckets and scuttles. I had my first shower when I was in my 20s.” The drought has thus far been a mechanism of exposing to the wealthy how their less fortunate neighbours have been living.

The township Khayelitsha of Cape Town. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The inconvenience that the water shortage has become for the wealthy is life threatening for the poor. Already, the cost of food has spiked due to insufficient water for irrigation; at the very least, Cape Town’s poor population will become severely malnourished, but starvation is also a possibility. The dangers associated with being compelled to drink water that may not be clean include deadly diseases like cholera, and the risk of parasite infestation.

As climate change generates odder weather patterns and recurrent natural disasters, Cape Town will not be the only city whose inhabitants are in danger. Before the drought, the city was hailed for its proactive water conservation methods. In fact, it won the C40 Cities Award in 2015 for Adaptation Implementation for its Water Conservation and Demand Management Programme. Still, the same Cape Town is facing apocalyptic conditions which are further exposing the evident racial and economic inequality. Indeed, environmental consciousness on a grand scale to limit climate change is ideal, but enabling economic mobility for those who are oppressed is correspondingly important. Social and civic structures which are unable to end long-term droughts are fully capable of ending racial oppression and marginalisation.

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