Climate change is often framed as a futuristic threat — a problem that will affect the “next generation” of humans.
But in Cape Town, South Africa, climate change is causing real suffering right now. The city is facing a devastating drought and could become the first major city in the world to run out of water.
While the rest of the world is talking about climate change, Cape Town is already experiencing its devastating effects.
As the city’s water supply dries up, it approaches a cataclysmic moment that has been colloquially referred to as “Day Zero.”
Day Zero, which sounds like the title of an apocalyptic movie, is the moment when the city’s dam levels dip below 13.5 percent capacity. At this moment, the city would be effectively out of water. Taps would be turned off for each of Cape Town’s 4 million residents, who would instead be forced to crowd around 200 centralized water stations across the city.
In 2017 and 2018, Cape Town came extremely close to hitting Day Zero.
Fortunately, after nearly hitting Day Zero, the city’s water levels have rebounded (at least for the moment). This was largely thanks to timely spring rains and a slew of water regulations implemented by the City of Cape Town, including advocacy campaigns and higher taxes on water consumption for homeowners.
Both during and after these Day Zero threats, the media and several think tanks advanced a narrative that the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents were not harmed by the water crisis.
“For people living in [impoverished] settlements…little will change as a result of the crisis.”
That’s what the Overseas Development Institute, a global think tank, contended after analyzing the situation.
The reasoning behind these claims was that the City of Cape Town never explicitly cut off access to the city’s communal taps — the shared water sources that many impoverished residents use to fill up buckets. Therefore, since these taps were never turned off, the poor were unaffected by the water crisis, the argument goes.
GroundUp, an independent South African news organization, concurred, arguing that those living in Cape Town’s impoverished neighborhoods — referred to as “informal settlements” — were spared from the water crisis’ wrath:
“For residents of Cape Town’s informal settlements, tighter water restrictions won’t make any difference.”
I was immediately skeptical of these assertions. It seemed like the narrative that the threat of Day Zero did nothing to affect living conditions for Cape Town’s poor was missing something essential.
So I decided to test that narrative out.
Earlier this year, I lived for five months in Cape Town as a study abroad student.
Throughout the semester, I made connections in the city’s townships through volunteer work and a homestay our exchange group participated in.
When I told the people I met through these experiences about the media’s narrative — that Cape Town’s poor were unaffected by the water crisis — they looked at me with disbelief. They couldn’t believe what the media had reported.
Through these interviews, along with multiple conversations with University of Cape Town professors and city experts, I discovered that the media’s narrative was incomplete.
Although the city indeed kept water in communal taps flowing and directed most of their water taxes towards those who could afford it — efforts that should not go unrecognized — the city’s impoverished and most vulnerable residents were still harmed by the water shortage in subtler ways that many analysts and media sources have either missed or ignored.
After investigating this issue, one conclusion became overwhelmingly apparent:
As the devastating effects of climate change spread across the globe, it will be the poor and marginalized who are most affected. While those with economic resources may escape its worst consequences, climate change will further entrench society’s most vulnerable in a sea of inequality.
And Cape Town is no exception.
What you’re about to read should serve as an early warning sign about the inequality embedded in the effects of climate change — and the need for economic justice to be considered in any holistic climate change plan.
The following is a release of my findings.
The story begins with contaminated water.
Zanele Filha lives in Khayelitsha, the largest and fastest growing township in Cape Town. She works as the Centre Manager for the Khayelitsha branch of SHAWCO Education, a non-profit providing numeracy and literacy training to impoverished children.
Every afternoon, Fihla and other SHAWCO volunteers make dozens of peanut butter sandwiches for the young children attending the organization’s programs. Served alongside each sandwich is a small plastic cup filled with a mix of fruit juice and water, which is gathered from a small tap on the side of the facility. Diluting the juice with water helps SHAWCO save money on groceries.
These daily sandwiches and drinks help fill gaps in nutrition for the children, practically all of whom are food insecure. But when Day Zero struck, the ability of SHAWCO to provide this service was put under threat.
During the water crisis, the quality of water in places like Khayelitsha became rapidly degraded. Filha said she received Whatsapp messages from the city and heard messages on the radio warning about the unsafe water quality.
Although water was still flowing from the communal taps, it was undrinkable. As a result, SHAWCO was forced to purchase a large number of plastic water bottles to continue serving the drinks to the kids, an expense that was unsustainable for the non-profit organization.
“It was not about less water, it was about the affected water,” Fihla explained.
With the water unsafe to drink, many of Fihla’s neighbors in Khayelitsha had to resort to extreme measures to get their hands on safe, clean water.
Some went to the nearby township of Nyanga to gather clean water from their communal taps, hauling the water home on public transportation and returning home late at night, Fihla said. Others went to locations closer to central Cape Town such as Mowbray, waiting in long queues after work to fill up their buckets.
Those who didn’t have time for this journey were forced to boil the water from Khayelitsha’s communal taps to make it safe to drink. The problem? Practically no one living in Khayelitsha’s tin shacks has regular access to electricity. Instead, many of the township’s residents purchased paraffin gas, which they would boil to purify the water. This was an unsustainable expenditure for the extremely poor, Fihla said.
Mama Noxie experienced the same issues in Gugulethu, a township in the western outskirts of the city.
“We were told not to use [the] water [from the] pipes to water plants,” she said. “We had to buy water. It was so expensive for us.”
The problem of water contamination in Gugulethu got so bad that trucks filled with water bottles made several trips to the township to supply its residents with clean water, Mama Noxie told me.
But it wasn’t enough.
“There was a [long] queue, and people were grabbing those water [bottles],” she said. “People were standing [in the queues] because they wanted to survive.”
What’s going on here? Why did Day Zero result in lower water quality in Cape Town’s informal settlements, even though the communal taps weren’t turned off?
According to Horman Chitonge, a professor at the University of Cape Town who works with the Future Water Institute, a research organization focused on sustaining water, the problem is rooted in the increased concentrations of dirt in low levels of water. As the city’s reservoirs lost copious amounts of water last summer, mud contaminated the remaining supply, rendering the remaining water unsafe to drink.
“The water levels [went] down quite dramatically, to the point that when pumping the water, you’d pump a lot of mud,” Chitonge said.
For the rich — a disproportionately-white demographic living in affluent suburbs across Cape Town — plenty of alternatives were on the table for gathering water. Some drove their cars to the springs to stockpile water without breaking a sweat. Others purchased bottled water at grocery stores with little concern for its cost.
Those who were more concerned about Day Zero installed large tanks outside their homes to stockpile water. Some even hired companies to drill boreholes in their backyards to access underwater reservoirs for R85,000 ($6,000 USD).
Those living in the townships weren’t so lucky.
“In the richer areas, you can actually drive out of here and go buy water. Water will be there in the shops,” Chitonge said. “But if you’re in Khayelitsha, those options are not viable.”
The low quality of water in Cape Town’s informal settlements during the Day Zero threat was just the start.
While about 13 percent of Capetonians live in informal settlements — the dense clusters of tin shacks that rely on the communal taps for water — the rest of the city’s poor live in low-income houses, which typically feature in-home running water. Many of these homes are fully subsidized by the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).
“The poor should not be regarded as one homogeneous group…within the poor there are the poorest, and then the not-so-poor,” Chitonge said. “The not-so-poor, they were affected [most] seriously.”
Although the “not-so-poor” living in RDP houses have regular access to in-home running water and aren’t forced to rely on communal taps, they’re still far too poor to foot the bill for the running water they receive. What’s emerged is a system where about a quarter of Capetonians don’t pay their water bills, simply because they can’t afford them, according to Kevin Winter, a sustainability scientist at the Future Water Institute.
“The city is probably just dead scared of trying to collect…water revenue from people who traditionally just have never bothered to pay,” Winter said. “There are thousands within Khayelitsha living in RDP houses who absolutely refuse to pay rates and service bills.”
This dynamic has created a rift between the local government and the city’s “not-so-poor,” and when a new stimulus entered the equation — the Cape Town water crisis — it turned into a crevasse.
Once the city’s dam levels began to drop, the City of Cape Town began installing Water Management Devices in certain homes to monitor and restrict water usage. The devices would automatically cut off water once a household used 350 liters of water in a given day.
During the crisis, the city installed 250,000 Water Management Devices across Cape Town.
Were the city’s richest residents the ones who were targeted with these Water Management Devices? To little surprise, they weren’t.
Reports show that at least 64 percent of the Water Management Devices were installed in poor houses.
“If you are on this side of the city — the Southern Suburbs — there were no restrictions,” Chitonge said. “But on the other side…the moment you run out of your water for the day’s allocation, it gets cut.”
The disparate allocation of the Water Management Devices was a way for the city to cut water consumption without angering its most affluent stakeholders. And it had devastating consequences for those living in impoverished communities.
Although she was personally unaffected, some of Mama Noxie’s neighbors had Water Management Devices installed in their homes. She told me that the amount of water these devices permitted them to use was often insufficient for drinking, flushing toilets, cleaning, and cooking.
The water restrictions on poor households were especially harsh for large families, as the 350 liters per household per day cutoff failed to account for differing family sizes.
While the city government assumed family sizes of four when drafting its limits — therein granting 88 liters of water per person per day — many family sizes in poor neighborhoods exceed that figure.
In fact, families of eight or more who had Water Management Devices installed in their homes would actually be receiving less than 50 liters of water per person per day — something that violates the city’s Free Basic Water guidelines, which guarantee daily access to a minimum of 50 liters of water for each Cape Town resident.
The Water Management Devices (WMDs) also led to leaks and in certain cases broke, completely blocking water access for poor households. For some residents, these leaks used up their daily water allocation by the time they woke up in the morning, and the city government was slow to respond. The devices became so problematic that some Capetonians began referring to the devices as another brutal instrument with the same acronym: Weapons of Mass Destruction.
These issues led to immense panic for some poor homeowners. Winter said that during a meeting, he received a call from a poor resident (who managed to obtain his cell phone number). The resident cried, “I’ve run out of water. What do I do right now?”
All the while, as the city was trimming water use in its low-income neighborhoods, life was business-as-usual in Cape Town’s affluent residences.
As the threat of Day Zero loomed over Cape Town last year, the city’s most affluent residents panicked over how the shortages would limit the comfort of their lives. How it could drain their swimming pools. How it could prevent them from watering their lawns. How it could degrade their verdant golf courses.
Of course, none of this really happened. As the threat of Day Zero came and went, the wealthy adjusted their water use in comfortable ways without sacrificing the majority of their water-intensive pastimes.
Abby, a student at the University of Cape Town who requested to have her last name omitted, told me that although she attempted to reduce her water usage, she — like most wealthier Cape Town residents — regularly exceeded the city’s recommendation of one 90-second shower per day.
“A two minute shower I can do, [but] not on days when I wash my hair,” she said. “I take two showers per day, sometimes more…on a normal schoolday, what will happen is I’ll get up, shower, then go to school…come home, and shower.”
And while poor households were given insufficient water for washing, cleaning, and cooking, the rich were allowed to continue directing vast amounts of water towards non-essential services.
The city estimates that half of all residential water use in Cape Town is allocated towards unnecessary activities like filling pools, watering gardens, and washing cars.
As we were about to finish our interview, Winter told me that he suspected that to some degree, the city was uncommitted to reducing the water consumption of its most affluent residents, as water fees from rich households were one of the leading sources of revenue for the city government. He described this as “crazy” from a sustainability standpoint.
The rich contributed most heavily to the crisis. But it was the poor who suffered its worst effects.
South Africa is the world’s most unequal country in terms of wealth inequality.
The country has the world’s highest score on the GINI Index, which measures a nation’s gap between the rich and the poor. This disparity is especially pronounced in Cape Town, the country’s most affluent city.
South Africa’s wealth gap is largely a result of Apartheid, which created a racially stratified economic system that has hardly eroded after 25 years of democracy.
Sadly, the water crisis exploited this wealth gap, pushing the poor into deeper struggles, while doing little to alter the comfortable lifestyles of the rich.
Cape Town’s response to the city’s water crisis was clearly flawed from the lens of economic equality. It targeted poor households with Water Management Devices and did far too little to assist informal settlements with accessing clean water when their communal taps became dirty.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure other cities—both in the U.S. and around the world — would do any better when faced with a similar predicament. And that’s what’s so scary.
Looking to the future, the picture looks even more bleak. The threat of Day Zero is still on the horizon.
“It’s not a question of if it ever comes. It will come,” Chitonge told me.
But due to a lack of long-term thinking, the wealthiest Capetonians are becoming even more liberal with their water use as the threat has been pushed back a few years.
“It’s a dead issue now, because we’ve got water,” Chitonge said. “They only [take action] if it’s declared a disaster zone or there’s a drought.”
The poor, on the other hand, await the real Day Zero.
In the event of a true Day Zero, Capetonians would be forced to gather water from 200 water distribution centers, which will feature immensely long lines.
A typical workday for many poor Cape Town residents is to leave for work at 4 a.m. and return home at 6 p.m., according to Nikiwe Solomon, a Future Water Institute researcher. How will impoverished Capetonians find time to collect water after work, while also spending time with their families and investing in the education of their children?
Under Day Zero conditions, health effects to poor populations would exceed those that Cape Town saw last summer. Sanitation deficiencies could lead to life-threatening diseases like dysentery; illness could spread as hand-washing becomes increasingly difficult; and dehydration could cause heat strokes.
And Cape Town — a city already known for its violence and high crime rates — could see large increases in gang activity. Just last summer, criminal gangs in Cape Town stockpiled giant containers of drinking water to form a black market, leading some to call water “South Africa’s bitcoin.”
In many ways, Cape Town serves as a microcosm of the challenges the world will face in the coming decades.
If Cape Town is any indicator, the rich will have the resources to adapt to these situations; it will be the poor that are most susceptible to disease, dehydration, despair, and death.
Climate change and economic justice are not separate issues: they are intertwined. If we’re worried about minimizing the negative effects of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions and simultaneously invest in the poor to give them the resources necessary to protect themselves from its impacts.
Climate change is inextricably a story of inequality. And it’s essential that we recognize that when we combat the problem.