Let’s not build more damned walls

For those not aware, one of the most unequal cities in the world is facing a major water crisis. As we approach what Cape Town’s authorities have called “Day Zero” (the day the dams reach 13.5% capacity and we enter phase 3 of the water response — a drastically altered ability to access water, and limits of 25l per day) there are a lot of stories of empathy, humor and hope; but also a lot of blame, hate and prejudice.

Jonathan has a good heart

The latter cuts deeply along class and racial lines — unexpected in an unequal city where inequality was built on Apartheid.

Examples of this are videos, voice notes and rants about “car washing in informal settlements”, “construction in Sea Point” or building walls to stop those damned “rich cyclists from Joburg”.

All of these posts serve a pre-existing prejudice — and a shallow understanding of the economy.

You see, car washes in informal settlements are the livelihood of a low income family, with little or no alternative income or safety net. Further, the overall consumption in these areas is far below wealthier areas. When you’re collecting water from communal taps and have no baths, showers, basins or loos your water use is automatically going to be low. You’re also going to use, re-use and re-use before you finally toss very grey water onto the street (because you have no loo to flush).

Construction makes some developers a lot of money. But it also employs a lot of workers. When we call for all construction to be stopped because “why should developers continue to get rich”, we are not holding any empathy for the workers who will lose their contract work, or their families.

Similar things can, and are, be said about the Argus cycle tour.

Last week I shared some thoughts on the water crisis and economic water users on Facebook, here they are again:

“This week our building — a large office building in the CBD — sent a notice to all tenants saying that, collectively, on average, we have been using 80l/person/day. It was shocking. Our pressure has been turned right down for months, and at least in our little office we’ve been yellow-mellowing and all that.

We are office workers — as long as we have some sanitation function, we can survive with very little water and still get our jobs done. We can remain productive, and employed.

This same week I have heard of farmers laying off farm workers by the thousands; and of small water-based businesses being (photo-op-en-alles) targeted by law enforcement for using too much water.

This inequality has prompted the following thoughts:

1) as a principle, we should be endeavoring to keep as many basic functions of the city keeping going as possible, including work and employment

2) in particular, workers from low-income families who have very little capacity to absorb shocks should be protected

3) this requires, first and foremost, water use reduction to focus on the home (residential use)

4) in some ways the city was doing this through the restrictions coming first and hardest to households, and only much later to commercial users

5) unfortunately, a broad categorization of “commercial users” ignored the relationships between water use and production — which are not uniform for all sectors of work

6) sectors with a direct relationship between water and production (farming, certain manufacturing, food and cleaning services) should be the last to be targeted — especially those that have BOTH a) a direct water-production link and b) predominantly low-income workers employed

7) unfortunately, these sectors are also often the easiest to target for technical reasons (agriculture in particular) or visibility reasons (service work like laundromats, car washes or restaurants) (although, the City has every buildings water bill, so they do have “visibility” beyond what can be seen from the street)

8) if we want to minimize the impacts on our economy and in particular on low-income households, we need a more sophisticated method — not just “easy targets”, but targets with the highest/best ration of reduced water use : continued production and employment

9) if we do not do this, the water crisis WILL increase inequality AND increase the likelihood of massive social unrest

We need a JUST, RATIONAL and STRATEGICALLY impactful strategy for the business sector NOW, not just a technically easy one.

I am NOT saying that savings mustn’t come from across the board — they must; but what that looks like, and how it is achieved needs to be smarter and more nuanced.

I know that many will read this and think “too late! We have to avoid Day Zero at any cost”, and to a certain extent I agree, but when we consider that this is not a short-term crisis; we may we’ll be in a similar “avoid Day Zero” moment in 2019; and the economy as a whole has to emerge both strong and water-wise; a strategy that considers these ideas is necessary.”

We know where all the farms are and can more easily turn off their supplies; we don’t have good data on what business is there due to broadly categrised zoning schemes. However, we can certainly make some informed assumptions from zoning, location & water bill — and then go check. Office buildings that really do not require that much water for people to keep productive should be targeted for water management devices and shutdowns or fines just as much as residential.