Commentary: In drought-hit South Africa, the politics of water

Unless something miraculous happens, the city of Cape Town, an iconic international tourism destination and South Africa’s second economic hub, will run out of drinking water in a matter of weeks.

Cape Town residents line up to collect water from a suburban spring as the city's water crisis worsens, January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The situation is dire. Cape Town’s more than 4 million residents have been told to cut their daily limits from 87 liters (23 gallons) to 50 liters per person (13.2 gallons.) That's the equivalent of a six-minute shower with a low-flow showerhead in a city where they already line up with containers at outdoor springs, leave toilets unflushed — and where the province’s top local politician calls unwashed hair a status symbol.

Should the water stop, Cape Town — ironically first settled permanently by the Dutch in 1652 because it was considered climatically ideal for a supply station to underpin the Southeast Asian trade of their fleet — will become the world’s first major city in which the taps literally run dry. There is no precedent to draw upon, but it is clear that this would have an enormous impact in a politically volatile and economically straitened country.

The shortage is the result of a three-year drought that emptied the city’s dams. But the manner in which this potentially disastrous state has been reached also has sobering lessons for an international political order in which catastrophic climatic events are more frequent and long-term planning less so. Government officials, scientists and politicians, especially in the more arid southern hemisphere, are watching intently, aware that one of their own major cities might be next.


It is a measure of the levels of anxiety, as well as a lack of confidence in the capacity of state structures to cope, that even the politicians seem to be relying on a miracle. Last November a popular cowboy-hatted lay preacher, Angus Buchan, was invited to lead a pray-for-rain gathering in this nominally secular country's parliament. Buchan, who arrived fresh, he claimed, from raising a woman from the dead, reassured his anxious congregants that the dams would be full by March 2018.

Whatever the timing, it promises to be a cliffhanger. Cape Town’s winter rainy season runs from May to August. Experts initially calculated “Day Zero,” the date upon which there is insufficient water in the Western Cape Water Supply System to push through the pipes to the suburbs and sprawling informal settlements that encircle the city, to be around April 16. It has since been pushed back to mid-May. With domestic consumption accounting for the bulk of water usage, officials are hoping their latest desperate cuts can stave off Day Zero until the rains begin.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Agriculture, especially the wine estates that along with the scenic splendor of the region are a major draw for the 1.5 million foreigners who visited the city last year, uses about a third of the water. Irrigation usage has declined over the past five years, although there have been criticisms of the national Department of Water and Sanitation for not cutting the agricultural allocation when the prospects of an extended drought became more apparent. Instead, they increased it.

It is this kind of blundering that lies at the nub of the unfolding natural disaster. For Day Zero is not primarily driven by climatic change, although climatologists agree that phenomenon plays an as yet scientifically undetermined role. “Simply blaming climate change is a cop-out,” says Professor Graham Jewitt, the Umgeni Water Chair of Water Resources Management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and director of its Centre for Water Resources Research. “It has become just another scapegoat for the blame game of the politicians.”

The core problem is that the city of Cape Town and its home province, the Western Cape, are governed by the liberal Democratic Alliance. That makes the Western Cape the only provincial government not run by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has dominated national politics since winning the country’s first post-apartheid elections in 1994.

Despite almost 25 years in power, the party of Nelson Mandela is still struggling to make the transition from being a liberation organization steeped in Marxist-Leninist notions of being the sole authentic voice of the people – widely-despised President Jacob Zuma often boasts the ANC will rule until “Jesus comes back” – to being just another political contender in a modern democracy.

Internationally, this translates into a stifling lack of pragmatism. The South African government, which is strongly aligned with the Palestinian cause, has snubbed informal offers of help made by the Israeli ambassador, according to the South African Jewish Report. Israel has substantial expertise in desalination technology, but last year the mere presence of a former Israeli ambassador on a panel to discuss water management aroused such protest that the event was cancelled.

Many ANC politicians would love to see the liberal ruling Democratic Alliance tarnished by failure in the Cape, perhaps opening the way to the ANC recapturing the province in 2019. Accusations and insults have been flowing thick and fast between the local, provincial and national tiers of government, each with its own legislatively determined role in the water procurement process.

Water and Sanitation has blamed the other two for not reacting vigorously enough when it became apparent, years ago, that densification — the city’s population has increased by 50 percent in the past decade — was going to strain water supplies. They, in turn, have accused national government of dragging its feet on capital funding for infrastructure and maintenance, as well as withholding emergency disaster relief funds.

While it is true that all the parties have made blunders, city officials probably shouldn’t be blamed for lack of long-term planning. Cape dams were overflowing as recently as 2014; the statistical chance of a three-year drought was said to be 0.1 percent. Given those odds, local authorities did not want to take the political risk of diverting funds sorely needed for social development.

But happen the drought did, and it has exposed the operational dysfunction in the national ministry. Just six weeks ago Water and Sanitation released its draft national water master plan for comment. Driven by what it calls a “sense of urgency,” it admits that “the current water crisis serves as a stark reminder of the impact of delayed action” in the augmentation of the Western Cape Water Supply.

Belated attempts are now being made to bring aquifer water to the surface, as well as an emergency desalination plant. In the long term, most crucially, residents have to get used to using water more sparingly, says Jewitt.

The immediate catastrophe of Day Zero can still be averted. With the direct intervention last week of Zuma’s likely successor Deputy-President Cyril Ramaphosa and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, the muddled responses of competing bureaucracies are at last being pulled together.

At the most basic level, cutting consumption to the new 50-liter maximum could move Day Zero along the calendar into the traditional winter rainy season. Of course, whether precipitation then actually materializes remains in the lap of the gods.

(Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect the revised date for “Day Zero.”)

About the Author

William Saunderson-Meyer is a South African journalist and writes the nationally-syndicated Jaundiced Eye column. @TheJaundicedEye

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.