The apocalypse in Cape Town

April 2018. First night on holiday visiting the family. Dinner on the beachfront of sunny Camps Bay. It rains. Blast! I remember thinking to myself, I didn’t come all this way for rain! I could have just stayed home!

A flood of people rush past us; cheering; laughing; some even crying. I watched in confusion.

Someone screamed “praise God for giving us water”. And it all became clear.

Cape Town, is situated in a semiarid region of southern Africa. The city drew the world’s attention in early 2018 as the first modern megacity to verge on turning off the municipal water supply, known as Day Zero. A modern apocalypse triggered by a three-year drought left reservoirs with 10% of useable water. However, this is not the only challenge the city faced, in fact this series of blogs will show how the drought exacerbated and highlighted ongoing socio- economic, political and environmental battles.

The video shows Cape Town’s water shortages were a result of many factors. For example, the city’s poor water management systems relied on rainwater to fill the reservoirs, contrary to decades of doubts.

History of Cape Town:

Prior to the drought, the city’s relation to water and other amenities was complex; racial inequality implicated service justice. This was caused by the spatial and economic segregation of people initiated in the Dutch and English colonial settlement and the Apartheid era (1948- 1994). During this time, indigenous communities were forcibly displaced into townships in low-lying areas prone to flooding with limited access to water and services (McDonald and Smith 2004; Mahlanza et al., 2016). The urban planners focussed on service delivery, urban rejuvenation and infrastructure investment creating spaces of hypersegregation (Currie et al., 2017). The division remains with an estimated 21% of the 4 million population (218, 780 households) living in informal settlements in townships (Currie et al., 2017).

Ironically, in 1994, when the post-apartheid government begun, there were many changes in legislation to improve equality in the country. Section 27(1)(b) stated “everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water,” (McKinley 2016). However, neo-liberal policies led to private companies owning rights to service provision which re-inflicted colonial legacies.

Figure 1, aerial image of different types of housing, Cape Town. Source: Quartz Africa

Urban Political Ecology

My blogs will use a theory to explore the many factors which have affected the flow of water in Cape Town. The most suitable is Urban Political Ecology (UPE), a theory which breaks down topics to understand the complex relationship between humans, nature, society and politics they entail (Zimmer 2010). For example, concepts of nature and humanity are intertwined in a metropolis which influence how the urban and environment influence one another, such as how water and politics influence each other (Swyngedouw and Kaika 2014). Furthermore, UPE dives deeper with the theory of ‘metabolism’ to demonstrate cities transform materials and energy in order to sustain their functions (Zimmer 2010). Metabolism therefore offers insight into the influences of the uneven flow of services around the city.

Other approaches such as ‘more than human geography’ (eg Whatmore 2006) in the same decade discuss only the social, cultural and political connections in relation to nonhuman forces. They are useful in understanding the composition of urban environments but fail to focus on how to use this knowledge to suggest or make a change. Instead, UPE will be used to show that understanding water exposes the unbalanced power dynamics and unequal spatial geographies which still exist in Cape Town (figure 1).

For example:

95% of Cape Town’s water is supplied by a regional, integrated surface water system managed by the National Department of Water and Sanitation. The aim was this would be affordable due to relying on rain-fed dams. However, an El Nino in 2015, a sustained period of warming in the central and eastern tropical Pacific which can disrupt Earth’s hydrological cycle by altering the spatial and temporal variations of rainfall led to a severe decline in rainfall in Cape Town (UN FAO 2016). For example, the rainfall declined from an annual 493mm in 1993 to 149mm in 2017 (Enqvist and Ziervogel 2019). By February 2018, the Theewaterskloof dam (largest in Cape Town) shoreline was receding by 1.2m a week, the highest decline ever seen. Using UPE shows the connections between the poorly thought-out reliance on water (political) and the environmental conditions drastically impacted the flow of water into the city.

Figure 2, source (Guardian 2018)


Overall, this blog aims to understand the racial flow of materials through the city and analyse the different management processes and infrastructures used to mitigate Day Zero. As established, political and socioecological debates will be encapsulated throughout.


Currie, P.K., Musango, J.K. and May, N.D. (2017). Urban metabolism: A review with reference to Cape Town. Cities, 70, pp.91–110.

Enqvist, J.P. and Ziervogel, G. (2019). Water governance and justice in Cape Town: An overview. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, [online] p.e1354. Available at:

Mahlanza, L., Ziervogel, G. and Scott, D., 2016, December. Water, rights and poverty: An environmental justice approach to analysing water management devices in Cape Town. In Urban Forum (Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 363-382). Springer Netherlands.

McDonald, D.A. and Smith, L. (2004). Privatising Cape Town: From Apartheid to Neo-liberalism in the Mother City. Urban Studies, 41(8), pp.1461–1484.

McKinley, D., 2016. Lessons in community-based resistance? South Africa’s anti-privatisation forum. Journal of Contemporary African Studies34(2), pp.268-281.

Swyngedouw, E. and Kaika, M., 2014. Urban Political Ecology. Great Promises, Deadlock… and New Beginnings? – (L’ecologia política urbana. Grans promeses, aturades… i nous inicis?). Documents d’Anàlisi Geogràfica, 60(3).

UN FAO (2016). Southern Africa El Niño Response Plan. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2020].

Whatmore, S. (2003). From Banana wars to Black Sigatoka. Another case for a more-than-human geography. Geoforum, 34(2), p.139.

Zimmer, A. (2010) ‘Urban political ecology: Theoretical concepts, challenges, and suggested future directions’, Erdkunde, 343-354.

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