“A city drowning in incompetence” – my Daily Maverick rant about the water situation in CT


(This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on the 22nd of January 2018.)

A city drowning in incompetence

This week the City of Cape Town announced that at the current rate the taps will run dry in Cape Town on the 21st of April and will soon announce the City’s 200 water collection points. These are central locations that can be secured with riot-police and include places like sports fields and schools. The Mayor has explained that after the 21st of April “citizens would line up to receive up to 25 liters of water per person, with a separate queue for the differently abled. Prior to filling their vessels, each person would be given a dose of hand sanitizer.”

I’m sorry but, what the fuck?!

How the hell did we get this close to what will be the biggest natural disaster of the post-apartheid period and the majority of Cape Townians are carrying on business-as-usual? Only 39% of residents are using less than 87l of water – the previous, and now surpassed, restriction (the current restriction is 50l person). In history, it has never happened that a city the size of Cape Town has run dry. As a Canadian headline announced this week: “Cape Town at risk of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water” (Globe & Mail).

It is clear that there has been an outright failure of leadership in the City of Cape Town. How is it that we have been having a drought for more than 1000 days, with water management experts advising the City on a constant basis and yet only now, with 90 days to go they are escalating things? Patricia De Lille has been the mayor of Cape Town for more than 6 years and the DA has run the Western Cape for more than 7 years. It’s been years in the making. It is beyond clear that the blame for this crisis lies ultimately with the City of Cape Town and their too-little-too-late responses to an imminent catastrophe.

How has the City not already exacted drastic action to ensure that we never reach Day Zero? Why has it taken so long to radically and drastically escalate the issue in the public’s mind? The province’s ‘Resilience Officer’ dealing with the drought is currently on gardening leave because of an internal spat about the MyCiti Bus procurement processes. The media strategy of the City of Cape Town is an absolute disaster. Why has the Province not passed emergency measures in the legislature to require all Western Cape targeted media outlets to devote at least 10% of their prime-time coverage to either public service announcements on the drought or how to reduce water consumption? Why is there no blimp above the CBD announcing “Day Zero: 21 April! REDUCE WATER or taps run dry”? Instead the City pushes its pathetic #ThinkWater message. Who is advising the City on their public relations campaign?! This is about an imminent natural disaster, not a preschool slogan for Water Day. If I can get daily SMSes for insurance I don’t want, or from political parties I won’t vote for, why can’t I get SMSes about what DayZero looks like, where my local water collection point is or some equally-scary information to make me change my behavior?

Tom Eaton points out that in 2018 Mmusi Maimane has tweeted as many times about his child’s first day of school as he has about the largest natural disaster in the post-apartheid period, that is to say, once. Of the 76 tweets in 2018 by @CityofCT (their official Twitter account) less than a quarter have been about water. More than half are inane messages like “Top of the morning to you, Cape Town. With a high of 22, you can expect clouds and sunshine with a windy afternoon.” I don’t want the City to wish me a joyous morning and a jolly good night. I want them to make sure that I have water in my taps.

Why has Helen Zille not called for a localized State of Emergency, which Section 37, 1(a) of the Constitution makes express provision for. That is, that Parliament can declare a State of Emergency in the event of a “natural disaster or other public emergency.” A city of 4-million people running out of water sounds like the definition of a natural disaster to me.

Of the City of Cape Town’s 7 big initiatives to get more water online (V&A, Strandfontein, Monwabisi, Harbour, Cape Flats, Atlantis and Zandvliet), 6 are delayed and behind schedule. The City’s threats of fining excessive users or throttling their water have not materialized. Together with these empty threats and in-fighting within the DA, the City has not managed to get water pricing right or publicly shame non-compliers? Why is there no publicly available list of the top 200 addresses that are openly flouting the City’s restrictions?

It’s also not as if this is the first time this has happened in the world. From 1997 to 2009 Australia faced the Millennium Drought. Melbourne, also a city of four-million people, managed to drastically reduce water consumption by 50% and pre-emptively implement a slew of policies and programs to avoid a humiliating and dystopian scenario of a city running dry. This included setting up an emergency body mandated with decision-making during the drought. It had an expert advisory group with independent experts and full transparency (Google “Low and Grant 2015 Fighting drought with innovation” for an academic overview).

The fact that we are approaching a natural disaster and the majority of Cape Townians are still living their best lives and ignoring the extremely mild reproaches of government means that someone needs to take drastic action. Whether that is the Premier, the Mayor or the President remains to be seen. Whoever takes up that mantle needs to step into the vacuum that has been left by a wave of incompetence and denialism. Call an emergency lekgotla with all the MECs, the top 50 CEOs, the vice-chancellors of universities, editors of newspapers, the heads of civil society etc.  Pass legislation that needs to be passed, take out full-page ads in every newspaper every day. How is this not the single most important thing happening in our province at the moment?!

This is not about the ineptitude of some dingy Department of Water official failing to plan properly but about politicians and bureaucrats doing too little too late. The scale of this crisis is such that, if unresolved, it could cripple the City. A fall in tourism, a loss of jobs, declines in property prices, widespread sanitary diseases. That sounds quite dystopian, but that’s what happens when the taps run dry. The DA and the City of Cape Town need to accept that they should have escalated this issue far sooner, and then begin a massive escalation initiative to hit the complacent middle-class with real consequences. The time for kumbaya messages is over.

*Note, DM made a few edits and I chose to keep my original wording 🙂 

6 responses to ““A city drowning in incompetence” – my Daily Maverick rant about the water situation in CT

  1. It is so frustrating to read this type of article. There is a crisis, absolutely, but when you write things like “We have been in a drought for more than 1000 days …” (just under 3 years) and in the same sentence “… the DA has run the Western Cape for more than 7 years …” you’re insinuating that they should have been able to sort this problem out in 7 years. Can you imagine the outrage if the City had spent time and money on addressing a potential water shortage 7 years ago when there were many more issues higher up the triage roster. You do yourself no favours by writing this kind of sensationalist journalism – unless your objective is to ratchet up the rage and feed the trolls who will lap up this type of hype. “The City’s threats of fining excessive users or throttling their water have not materialized.” – thats just rubbish. Keep to facts and don’t bang out populist rhetoric – it undermines your purpose.

  2. Dear nick, while I am not a HUGE DA fan, your oped piece is not accurate… The DA and specifically HZ have called for a state of disaster on multiple occasions… Are you simply incapable of using “Google” or did you leave this information out on purpose to create hot air?

    There have been multiple times when HZ has tried to get disaster status and emergency funds for Cape Town, specifically to deal with this crisis.

    I feel like if someone is going to write an article and have it up on a site like DM, that person should at least do some basic research…

    I found this in about 20 seconds… http://www.702.co.za/articles/282574/national-dept-took-19-months-to-declare-cape-town-a-disaster-area-helen-zille

    Will make sure to avoid your future posts as they seem to be aimed at creating a bunch of bullshit click-bate-angry-twitter-type-kneejerk-reactions, which quite frankly can just get stuffed.

    You and that other Nick from Ewn who posts unverified outdated pictures to cause racial clashing should start a news site. .

    Poor form…

  3. Excellent! But this morning did you see Helen Zille’s explanation of what the province and city are doing? Phew, a complex task! But they done too little too late. But national govt have not come to the party as she shows – refusing to declare it a national disaster zone and give national aid to any meaningful extent. And Israel have offered to help them with desalination technology and new machines that condense water from the air etc. Why did they not engage them months ago? Just google this and you can read.

    But, did Southall give you references?

    Sent from my iPhone


    I wrote the text below in response to another article on somebody’s FB page. The idea was to balance the assertions made by the author with more information and possible explanations. I hope it is seen as me playing devil’s advocate rather than it being a defence of the city’s responses. I’m sharing it here (with some modifications for clarification). If it resonates with you, feel free to share.

    Opinion pieces on the water crisis have been dominated by understandably indignant reactions that suggest that more could have been done sooner. Of course, we know that now but that’s possibly because hindsight is 20:20. Here I refer to the policy responses, rather than the acceptance of the Western Cape as a dry area, which we’ve known for some time already. Allow me to explain why I think that blame should not be isolated to the city’s administration, using a hastily typed collection of thoughts on the issue. This is not to say that they couldn’t have done better. This is simply an attempt to balance the discussion out there with some thoughts that have not been shared as often or as prominently. I type this from a layman’s perspective, so I’m happy to accept logical, informed and substantiated comments (either one of the three would also be fine).

    You have so many competing objectives from three levels of government, with two of them actively and passively undermining the City’s efforts to solve the problem. The delay in the now heavy-handed response to the crisis has probably been partly due to a possible financial waiting game being played between the municipality and province, and national government (possibly more responsible than suggested elsewhere), in terms of providing much-needed money for new infrastructure because (a) national government is supposed to be responsible for new infrastructure (one of the DA’s main reasons for doing an about-turn from coming up with a drought levy and then vehemently opposing it); and (b) because ratepayers want to make a point about tax fairness by protesting against a levy that would help postpone Day Zero, so no extra money for new infrastructure can be raised there.

    I’m sure that one can appreciate that tariff setting (in block or explicitly punitive form) aimed at drastically reducing consumption, and generating sufficient revenue, is likely to be a process of discovery rather than knowing from the outset exactly what the appropriate ones are. This is particularly so when water consumption patterns relative to wealth or incomes have not been studied in great detail. I imagine that one therefore only knows where the sweet spot is only once one has passed it, which is probably when revenue is in decline or when ratepayers start squeaking en masse.

    Balancing the competing objectives of revenue generation to finance emergency infrastructure projects, and consumption reduction, is particularly difficult in an environment characterised by animosity, slow moving and about-turns on policy responses from the Mayor’s own party. The proposed drought levy (which would have guaranteed income) has now been dropped in favour of a punitive tariff that is likely to raise less money if everybody sticks to the limit. This is what made the levy an attractive instrument, in that it tried to marry the reality of declining consumption (and consequently declining revenue) and the need to finance infrastructure that the responsible national department is unable to finance (Zille, 2017).

    Consumers have demonstrated that they’re willing to face years of economy-crippling water shortages to save a few rands and make a point about fairness. This in an environment where we’re on the brink of economic shutdown and contractors need to be paid to start and finish work on water-producing and saving projects.

    We’re also competing with other water-scarce regions for seemingly non-existent national government funding (the Eastern Cape for one). Then there’s population pressure. People moving here who need water, as well as people who’ve lived here for a while who eventually get access to municipal piped water.

    Spare a thought for a city administration who now gets it from all sides (not saying there’s no culpability), even though HELEN ZILLE SAID IN OCTOBER 2017 THAT IT IS NEITHER THE CITY NOR THE PROVINCE WHO HAVE DRAGGED THEIR FEET. There was an application to declare the province a drought disaster area in 2015 already. The WC government also proposed that all municipalities make provision for emergency water tariffs in their tariff structures in 2010 after the Eden district municipality droughts.

    I agree that it’s been left for too long but to blame the City or province alone for drowning in incompetence for water supply and demand problems is a bit rich. Blame the national government as well (who have the power to accept disaster status and who are ultimately responsible for infrastructure). Blame the DA for the timing of its in-fighting and its about-turn from suggesting a drought levy to then being fully opposed to it. Blame us for continuing to waste even after we saw the bottom of Theewaterskloof dam. And blame us and lobby groups for staging a tax revolt over a small levy when Cape Town is on the brink of collapse. The city’s citizens will bear the load anyway. It’s simply a question of whether you want to pay through ostensibly unrelated increases in other rates or charges, or through a notionally ring-fenced levy.

    On solutions, look at what the Australians did in addition to communication campaigns in the next paragraph (from Scientific American at https://www.scientificamerican.com/…/what-australia-can-te…/ ).

    I’ve highlighted in caps what needs lots of extra money to do, extra money that cannot be raised from a broke national department and money that cannot be collected from tariffs if water consumption is declining. The same extra money that justifiably irate (what a wonderful luxury in the face of a crisis) taxpayers, lobby groups and the DA suggested is unnecessary when they opposed a drought levy that would cost them a few rands each.

    Patterson (2015) writes:
    * “Prior to the drought, in the late 1980s, the city passed legislation that set the groundwork for an integrated government response in case of a drought. FEDERAL ENTITIES PROVIDED FUNDING TO THE STATE OF VICTORIA, WHICH IN TURN DISTRIBUTED MONEY TO THE CITY OF MELBOURNE. A regional water manager had the power to force water utilities, city agencies and reservoir managers to cooperate.
    * THE GOVERNMENT INVESTED MILLIONS IN INFRASTRUCTURE. That included a pipeline that would deliver water over mountains and a water treatment plant. It also invested more than $6 billion in the construction of the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant, which to this day has never been used.
    * REBATE PROGRAMS FOR RESIDENTIAL GRAYWATER SYSTEMS—used for gardening—were implemented.
    * THE GOVERNMENT INVESTED HEAVILY IN INCREASING THE USE OF RECYCLED water for both the agricultural and urban sectors.
    * CITIZENS ALSO INVESTED IN RAINWATER HOLDING TANKS—by the end of the drought, NEARLY 1 IN 3 CITIZENS OF MELBOURNE HAD ONE. Water flowing to rivers was reduced, and water restrictions were implemented and education programs launched to encourage the public to participate.”

    The question that I have to ask is: Why do some authors compare a city that could buy its way out of a crisis to one that can’t because the national department is broke, and because its residents who can pay want to quibble about a few rands?

    My sincere hope is that balanced perspectives eventually win out and that we learn from this crisis and work together to mitigate its impact. It’s more difficult to do so when sensationalism and panic threaten progress and survival.


  5. And the rest of the country is worrying terribly on a daily basis!!

  6. so doctor………….please explain what you mean by “begin a massive escalation initiative to hit the complacent middle-class with real consequences”?

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