Throughout 2016 and 2017, and continuing into the present, the City of Cape Town was marked by the threat of a water crisis that received considerable global attention. While the possibility that the city’s water will be cut off in the near future appears to have passed, the city remains threatened by scarcity due to its broadly arid climate, continued population growth, unequal consumption practices, and the possibility of changing weather patterns as a result of global climate change. Arguing that water will only get scarcer in the years to come, Cape Town’s municipal government has encouraged voluntary reductions in water consumption. Additionally, they have charged for excess water use and continued to rollout water management devices for residents deemed to be over users. The city has also called for the acceleration of augmentation schemes, including desalination and groundwater access.

Cape Town’s experience with water crisis is globally significant, suggesting the critical overlaps between scarcity, infrastructure, inequality, and climate change. As with the nearly catastrophic water crisis that affected São Paulo, Brazil in 2014 and 2015 (See Cohen, 2015; Cruxen, 2016; Millington, 2018) Cape Town’s experience of water crisis appears to bear some connection to changing climatic dynamics (See Wolski, 2018; See too Muller, 2018). These climatic shifts, however, are intimately related to the local politics and inequities that mark Cape Town’s post-apartheid water supplies. In this sense, Cape Town’s water crisis was not marked by absolute scarcity, but rather specific forms of elastic scarcity that were created through particular modulations of infrastructure, politics, and service delivery. Scarcity, as political ecologists have argued (See Mehta 2013; Scheba & Scheba, forthcoming) is never fixed; it is, rather, produced. Increasingly, the rigid infrastructures of water provisioning are being challenged by new social, environmental, and financial dynamics associated with shifting configurations of neoliberalized governance. This is made still more extreme in contexts of existing infrastructural inequalities.

Queuing for water at Newlands Spring. Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Nate Millington, 2018.

Anticipating Crisis

Water crisis in Cape Town was and is a material reality, one that has reshaped existing geographies of water access in the city. It is also an anticipatory project that is working to generate institutional shifts. To put it in Paprocki’s (2018) terminology, we might say that climate crisis and the discourses that surround it are a form of anticipatory ruination, a “discursive and material process of social and ecological destruction in anticipation of real or perceived threats” (2). In our framing, crisis has a temporality–a rootedness in the past–but also a performativity that gestures towards the future: climate crisis unlocks new financial, infrastructural and legislative possibilities. Ironically, we argue, these new possibilities serve to entrench existing unequal socio-natural conditions. While we are witnessing an apparently radical reconfiguration in the deployment of techno-managerial instrumentation in crisis conditions, these in turn serve an existing path dependency predicated on inequality and uneven access.

While city administrators and politicians – acting alongside a number of expert advisers, including a few engaged academics – have been centrally concerned with overcoming and consequently learning from crisis, it is equally critical that we understand what the crisis has enabled and produced. Paying close attention to the new politics of water in Cape Town’s post-crisis moment is of critical importance, especially as the city’s water woes have picked up global visibility. While it can be argued that the Cape Town crisis has been overcome for now, perhaps of greater significance are the blind-spots inherent in the conception of crisis as a threat to status quo arrangements of water access. In our analysis, it is only this threat that has been averted through the mobilisation of a repertoire of technical and infrastructural interventions. These include new technologies of demand management and the development of desalination technology.

Paradoxically, these efforts to preserve a particular exclusionary ‘normality’ in the context of changing climatic conditions – in essence a new normal – have necessitated the constitution of new water governance configurations and techno-political arrangements. Furthermore, these shifts, are arguably functioning in a perverse double movement in which access is returned to those already accounted for while the vulnerabilities of a precarious population are intensified. These dynamics are enabled through the mobilisation of crisis. Hence, ‘post-crisis’ should not be taken as a condition to be unequivocally celebrated. Instead, to take seriously the temporalities of the crisis is to become aware that the crisis continues to haunt the city in uneven ways.

Remaking Water Governance through Crisis

South African water governance, post-apartheid, has evolved in variegated ways in which market environmentalist, conservationist, and welfarist principles have all converged. Linked to this has been a process of water commercialisation, rather than outright privatisation (See Bakker, 2013). The current crisis, we argue, has been used to support the intensification of processes of commercialisation. These processes could work to deepen marginalisation in the name of conservation in the coming years.

Specifically, we argue that policymakers have used the crisis to largely make two interventions into the nature of water governance in Cape Town. First, a significant consequence of the drought has been the withdrawal of the universal provision of the first six kilolitres (6kl) of Free Basic Water, with access dependent on residents registration as indigent (City of Cape Town, 2018). Since 2001, South Africa has had a Free Basic Water (FBW) policy, “to ensure that the constitutional right to water is realized for everyone in South Africa, regardless of ability to pay” (Rodina, 2016: 58). This currently requires municipalities to provide at least 25 litres per person per day or 6 kilolitres (kl) per household per month, and that access is provided within 200 m of the home.

A significant consequence of the drought has been the withdrawal of the universal provision of the first six kilolitres (6kl) of FBW, with access entirely dependent on residents’ registration as indigent. Upon registration households receive their first 10,5 kl of water and 7,35kl of sanitation costs free, per month (City of Cape Town, 2018). The process of indigent registration can serve to deepen inequality, however, as the registration process is itself flawed and exclusionary with households required to ‘prove their poverty’, through the provision of extensive documentation (See Socio-Economic Rights Institute, 2013, 2018; Dugard, 2016). This exclusionary effect is further intensified by the associated installation of a water management device (WMD), conditional upon indigent registration. Water demand management technologies, which include WMDs, serve to restrict water access above the FBW quantity (Loftus, 2005; Von Schnitzler, 2008). Since 2007, around 250,000 devices have been rolled out, largely in homes deemed indigent. The city started installing these as a credit control measure with these devices designed to automatically cut water once the FBW limit has been reached. An extension of the prepaid devices detailed by Von Schnitzler (2016). they allow for residents to receive 350 litres of FBW per household per day.


Rainwater tank in Cape Town. The sale of these tanks grew substantially during the city’s water crisis as some residents sought new means of water access. Photo: Nate Millington, 2018.

Given that these have largely been installed in indebted homes, the installation of WMDs has disproportionately affected poor households. Residents in low income communities contend that they have been adversely affected, citing technological breakdown and faulty design. Additionally, these technologies can result in restricted water allocation as household surveys often do not account for the number of household members nor the number of households on a single plot. As a result of these dynamics, the intensified roll-out of an already contentious technological intervention as a fundamental crisis response can serve to deepen existing urban inequalities. In response to the water crisis the number of devices installed has increased substantially to 2000 per week. They are now being used to actively target excessive users, functioning as both an instrument of debt management and a means of water conservation (Galvin, 2018).

Second, the crisis has unlocked new possibilities for the expansion of desalination as a means of water provisioning. Currently three temporary desalination plants have been constructed, with the city locked in a billion-rand deal with Proxa for two plants, in Monwabisi and Strandfontein. The company was awarded the contract to construct and operate the plants that will contribute 14-million litres to the approximately 500-million litres that Cape Town currently uses per day. Proxa will charge the city close to R500-million a year for this water for two years, after which the plants will be closed down. Significantly, desalinated water costs approximately R40/kilolitre compared to surface water at a cost of about R5/kilolitre (Whittles, 2018). Given the costs associated with desalination, it is unclear what role desalination will play in the coming months. Nevertheless, we raise concerns about the role that desalination can play in addressing longer-term water demand and the implications this has for the commodification of water, through enrolling water as a direct accumulation strategy (Smith, 2007). As a water source that is decoupled from existing water sources, desalinated water can shift existing infrastructures and ecologies in unexpected ways (Williams, 2018). Paying attention to the role played by desalination in the future of South African water governance is subsequently critical to understanding the short and long-term effects of the city’s water crisis going forward.


Climate crisis is an anticipatory project where a projected future is animating contemporary interventions, thereby unlocking new financial, infrastructural and legislative possibilities. These new possibilities are, we suggest, indicative of the performative ways in which climate crisis as both a material reality as well as a future possibility is animating present interventions. Cape Town’s experience with scarcity, however, suggests a worrying dynamic: that climate change will lead not to new modes of living, but rather the entrenchment and intensification of existing ones. While Cape Town’s water crisis resulted in a reconfiguration of existing patterns of water distribution, this did not involve a radical break with the existing unequal arrangements that mark the city.

Our analysis presents a reading of crisis as a contributor to both change and stasis. In light of this apparent contradiction, we contend that crisis mobilisation, as an anticipatory projection on to the future, can be read dialectically. On the one hand, it opens up possibilities for new techno-managerial arrangements and forms of nature’s commodification. On the other hand, it closes down prospects for alternative modes of living by entrenching and intensifying existing inequalities.

In this sense, Cape Town’s experience with scarcity brings into view the difficulties of fully recognizing and responding to the uncertainties of the present in ways that can develop democratic infrastructures and forms of access into the future. In order for climate change to not just deepen vulnerabilities for the already precarious while enabling opportunities for select interests, we need solutions and politics that take seriously existing geographies of scarcity and unequal access in the present. A key question then is how climate change – as both a disruptive and productive process – could be alternatively harnessed to shift urban geographies toward greater equity through political mobilization.

Suraya Scheba (University of Cape Town, Environmental & Geographical Science Department)
Nate Millington (University of Manchester, Department of Geography)


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