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

Nate Millington, Suraya Scheba

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

From 2015-2018, Cape Town, South Africa, was marked by fears of a water crisis in which the city’s taps threatened to run dry. While the city was ultimately able to avoid citywide rationing, Cape Town’s experience of crisis raises profound questions about the politics of water governance in an era of climate change. In this paper, we locate the city’s crisis experience in the contemporary politics of water governance in South Africa. We argue 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 the arrival of climate change. In responding to the possibility of a financial crisis brought on by reduced water charges associated with reduced water consumption, the city undertook two foundational changes into the nature of water governance. The first intervention was the withdrawal of the universal provision of Free Basic Water, available in South Africa since 2001. Second, the city reconfigured existing tariff structures with the introduction of a revised water tariff. Both of these changes mean that the city has moved further into commercialisation and valuation practices in the context of restricted monetary flows, and both have implications for equitable water access and distribution into the future. Through an understanding of contemporary governance in South Africa as reflective of a complex and 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, and offers insight into what form urban climate change adaptation may take into the future.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Urban & Regional Research
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2020

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