By current calculations, “Day Zero,” the dystopian term for the date by which the city is expected to run out of water, and when all water will be rerouted to emergency pick up points, is June 4. This will mark the first time that a major modern city has run out of municipal water. In 2008, Barcelona came close. Sao Paulo, the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere, teeters on the brink. The government of Indonesia has given serious consideration to abandoning chunks of Jakarta, which is paradoxically sinking below sea level, drowning in torrential rains, and running out of potable water. What is now certain is that Cape Town will become a test case for what happens when climate change, extreme inequality, and partisan political dysfunction collide.
Perhaps the most confounding thing about Cape Town is its whiplash-inducing contradictions. Its highways, airport, shopping malls, and restaurants, would be the envy of any American municipality. While corruption certainly exists in Cape Town, until the whole place started melting down last year it was the only metro in South Africa to receive clean audits. Yet hundreds of thousands of people live in shacks and informal settlements, with access mostly limited to a shoddy rail system and an expensive private mini-bus taxi network. In this regard, Cape Town is both an African city and a European outpost at the bottom of Africa, at once developing and developed.
So how does an ostensibly well-run city manage to blow the water file so spectacularly? In part, it comes down to the fact that its administration was paralyzed by a sort of bureaucratic magical thinking that combined technocratic hyper-efficiency, an obsession with austerity-driven bean-counting, and an apparent belief that miracles are certain to fall from the sky.
Since 2009, the Western Cape, of which Cape Town is the capital, has been governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition to the African National Congress (ANC). (A DA-led coalition won Cape Town from the ANC in 2006. They now run the city outright.) The DA is a strange beast, a party with a white-dominated federal executive, and, until 2015, a white leader. There’s a longstanding perception that the party serves the white population’s agenda, described by its enemies as maintaining economic apartheid at the expense of black advancement—a notion that Cape Town’s spatial divisions reinforce. (The party’s former leader, Helen Zille, who has also served as Cape Town’s executive mayor, has a habit of posting tweets extolling the benefits of colonialism, which hasn’t helped matters much.) Culturally and politically, the Cape is a world apart from the rest of South Africa.
Accordingly, the DA has long pitched itself to voters as a “clean” version of the horrifically corrupt ANC—it self-identifies as a liberal, social-democratic party in the stodgy German mold. Back when the ANC ran Cape Town, the rains fell mostly on schedule, and planning for the worst took a back seat to systemic corruption. The DA promised that it would do better. Instead, it has been bad, but in its own special ways. Its near-messianic adherence to fiscal rectitude has meant that local bureaucrats have tended to ignore repeated warnings from civil engineers and climate scientists, who insisted that Cape Town’s water infrastructure, which relies exclusively on six dams in parched catchment areas, would not be able to meet demand should rainfall patterns change due to climate change. Theewaterskloof Dam, the biggest and most vital feeder site, is in an area of the Western Cape that has been subject to creeping desertification for at least a decade. It is currently at 11.7 to 12.5 percent of its capacity, and effectively unusable.