The Politics of Drought

Courtesy of The Economist, an article on Cape Town’s water crisis:

AT THE edge of Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, Ntombi Mlityalwa is filling a huge old paint tin from a standpipe, with which she intends to do laundry. As water gushes, she says that it is not always so easy. The tap she is using serves an entire street of shacks. Recently, the pressure has fallen, and sometimes the flow runs dry in the morning. “We struggle when there is no water,” says Ms Mlityalwa. Since Christmas, she reckons the pipe has gone dry three days each week, forcing her to travel to another.

Ms Mlityalwa’s struggle is, these days, something that also terrifies wealthier Capetonians. This year the city is in a desperate bind to avoid what it calls “Day Zero”, the point when the water level at dams north of the city falls to 13.5%, forcing the adoption of emergency rationing. On that day, which is currently predicted for June 4th, taps to suburban homes will be cut off, as will those of most businesses. Water will keep flowing to the city centre, to some informal settlements and to schools, hospitals and the like. But most people will have to join a queue and fetch water from distribution points, where they can get a daily quota of 25 litres per person. As things stand, the disaster may yet be avoided. Day Zero has been delayed to June from mid-April in the past two weeks. Even so, the water shortages facing one of Africa’s richest cities will not be over.

Cape Town gets almost all of its water from rain-fed dams north of the city. Most winters, they are replenished as a cold front moves north from Antarctica and dumps water on the mountains. But over the past three years the rain has barely fallen. Such a severe drought as the current one would only be expected once every 300 years, says Piotr Wolski of the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town. The system coped well with two years of drought, but the third has drained the dams (see chart).

The weather is, however, only part of the problem. That Cape Town’s growing population needs more water has been clear for years. In 2007 the government warned that the city would need new water sources by 2015 or else it would risk running out. The city government, which is controlled by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s biggest opposition party, introduced measures to curb consumption such as fixing leaks and forcing people to install meters. That delayed disaster. But the national government, which is responsible for providing water in bulk to the city, did much less. Indeed, it continued to allocate much of the water stored in the dams to farmers at subsidised prices—almost 40% in 2015 and 25% this year—instead of to the city, even though agriculture makes up just 4% of the province’s economy.

The crisis has not affected Cape Town’s economy much. But if the taps run dry, all that would change. So the city is engaged in a frenzy of contradictory messaging. To foreign investors, it says business continues as usual. To residents, it says that using more than 50 litres per day is practically treason. Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape province, has converted her Twitter feed to an educational guide on why not to flush the toilet. Patricia de Lille, the city’s mayor, has taken to dropping in on residents who use too much water and asking them why.

Such exhortations have helped. Water use has fallen to the lowest level in years. But about half of Capetonians are using more than their ration. A new tariff system is meant to penalise such people with eye-watering bills. But few people seem to understand the system. Rich Capetonians are full of stories about neighbours still topping up swimming pools.

Assuming Cape Town does not run dry in June, it still faces the question of what to do next. If drought is “the new normal”, as Ms De Lille has termed it, then asking people to conserve water will only go so far. The national government would need to drill wells or build desalination plants. That is how cities such as Perth in Australia have survived droughts. But climate scientists say this drought may indeed have been as unusual as their models say. If the rains return, the expensive new water plants could end up being mothballed.

Either way, part of the solution is surely to adjust the price paid for water so that it gets allocated most efficiently. Letting a well-heeled German tourist use some to rinse beach sand off his bottom probably does more good for the economy than spraying it on a wheat field.

Under the current system, the government allocates too much of it to farmers, who have a vocal lobby. With proper pricing, politicians would not have to get involved (beyond ensuring that poor people got an adequate and affordable supply). If shortages drive up the price, that could spur investment to increase supply that the government is reluctant to make. Amartya Sen, an economist, observed that famines are not the result of poor harvests but of other factors, such as poverty. Similarly it is not droughts that cause cities to run out of water, but bad policy.

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 24th, 2018 at 9:53 am and is filed under South Africa.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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