Day Zero and The Infrastructures of Climate Change: Water Governance, Inequality, and Infrastructural Politics in Cape Town’s Water Crisis


From 2015 to 2018, Cape Town, South Africa, was marked by fears of a water crisis in which the city’s taps threatened to run dry. We argue in this article that Cape Town’s crisis of water scarcity was a product of the convergence of ongoing contradictions in South African water governance as they came into contact with shifting infrastructural priorities associated with climate change. In its response to the possibility of a financial crisis brought on by reduced water consumption, the city withdrew the universal provision of free basic water (FBW) and reconfigured existing tariff structures. Both changes meant that the city moved further into commercialization and valuation practices in the context of restricted monetary flows. Based on an understanding of contemporary governance in South Africa as reflective of an often contradictory need to balance municipal budgets while also correcting for apartheid inequities, we argue that ongoing experiences of climate change are stretching existing municipal budgets in ways that threaten to deepen existing inequalities. Ultimately, we suggest that Cape Town’s crisis is critical for understanding how climate change is reconfiguring existing governance dynamics at a planetary scale, thus offering insights into what form urban climate change adaptation may take in the future.