The water unpacked

When you think of Cape Town, what do you think of?

The iconic Table Mountain? The meeting of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean?

✅[35+] Cape Town - Android, iPhone, Desktop HD Backgrounds / Wallpapers  (1080p, 4k) (1600x705) (2020)
Figure 1, Cape Town. Source B.

Or perhaps Day Zero. The demand rose in 2015 in Cape Town and is expected to continue to rise due to an increasing population size and demand for food and energy (Chen et al., 2016). Furthermore, the mixture of the physical and human factors of the El Nino and poor mitigating management strategies led to the drought which impacted the population differently due to the structural historic legacies of discrimination and segregation ( Grasham et al., 2009). For example, the peri urban unincorporated spaces (Anderson et al., 2008) known as the Cape Flats have been affected the most. Water as a resource connects and involves people, places and sectors of society making it a concern of local; global; public; private and nonprofit actors which is considered critical for development (OECD 2015). However, water governance in Cape Town, alike many in the ‘Global South’ is mounted with addressing injustices and hydrosocial relations in the urban ( Cousins 2017; Yates and Harris 2018).

The history of the flow of water

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company, the world’s greatest trading corporation settled by Table Mountain due to the plentiful water which could sustain their ships’ drinking water and to produce food for the crews (Enqvist and Ziervogel 2019). They created laws to prevent pollution so drove out local cattle herders and indigenous groups by force (Maki 2009). Therefore, the settlement that grew to be Cape Town was built on racial- biased conflict over access to water. In the following centuries, territorial expansion and colonial policies systematically supplied the white population and marginalised indigenous communities (Enqvist and Ziervogel 2019).

Only in 1840s, after 30 years as a colony of the British, was the city’s economy accepted for worth of water infrastructure (Maki 2019). The first reservoir was built in 1850 and the first dam 1893 to ensure a steady water supply to the city. The National Party who won in 1948 and formalised the Apartheid constructed a further 4 dams (figure 2). However, despite the socially constructed categories in the city, the population grew over three times faster than the “white” between 1950 and 1980 due to little employment opportunities in rural surrounding areas (Enqvist and Ziervogel 2019). To provide for the growing population, the water infrastructure had to extend.

The many layers of Cape Town's water crisis | Rethink
Figure 2, the Cape Town water system which shows the five dams. Source: Re.think


In understanding the provision of infrastructure, UPE scholars have urged the consideration of materiality into debates. This encompasses the biophysical characteristics of a resource and the ways it is accessed (for example water pipes) . Here, investigating the materiality of water access shows the influence of socio-political processes of urban planning have reproduced inequalities between spaces (Anand 2011) which was seen in the Apartheid. Furthermore, UPE literature points to the flow of water as racially constituted (Gandy 2004; Swyndegouw 2004; Bakker 2010).

In 1994 , 1-98% of the country didn’t have access to piped water (Cole et al., 2018). In 1999, following neoliberal policies advised by the World Bank, local governments employed private companies such as Suez for service delivery which used pre- paid water meters (Cole et al., 2018). However, non-payments led to approximately 160,000 household water cut offs between 1999 and 2001 (Cole et al., 2018). The spatial pattern of disconnections follow the areas unprovided for in the Apartheid. Figure 3 shows even today, the informal settlements have the lowest levels of access to safe water.

Fig. 5
Figure3, access to water by suburb, as defined as tap inside dwelling and/ or in backyard. Location of water treatment facilities is also shown. Source (Curie et al., 2017).

The flow of water in 2014:

The 21st century “water crisis” in Cape Town was not about not enough water but a “governance crisis” where the institutions failed to accommodate for the whole population effectively (Enquivist and Ziervogel 2019:2). The river catchment shown in figure 2 is almost wholly reliant on surface runoff where water is stored in the six dams and pumped into the city’s water treatment infrastructure (Obree 2004). Furthermore, in the years leading up to Day Zero, the water management company failed to check aquifer levels and evapotranspiration, forcing the system to be wholly reliant on rainfall. The dams have a capacity of 900,000m3, however in 2016, they decreased to 11% in 2018 (Currie et al.,2017) due to the lack of rainfall.

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Overall, unpacking water shows the affect the historical management has on present day flow and service delivery. Secondly, the reliance on rainfall has made the water system highly vulnerable which is very problematic in a period of significant global warming. However, this vulnerability is differentially experienced through dramatic differences in service provision. Now we have built up to why Day Zero happened, next week we will discuss how Day Zero was experienced.


Anand, N., 2011. Pressure: The politechnics of water supply in Mumbai. Cultural Anthropology26(4), pp.542-564.

Anderson, E.J., Kreuzer, S.M., Small, O. and Tate, M.L.K., 2008. Pairing computational and scaled physical models to determine permeability as a measure of cellular communication in micro-and nano-scale pericellular spaces. Microfluidics and nanofluidics4(3), pp.193-204.

Bakker, K., 2010. Privatizing water: governance failure and the world’s urban water crisis. Cornell University Press.

Chen, J., Shi, H., Sivakumar, B. and Peart, M.R., 2016. Population, water, food, energy and dams. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews56, pp.18-28.

Cole, M.J., Bailey, R.M., Cullis, J.D. and New, M.G., 2018. Spatial inequality in water access and water use in South Africa. Water Policy20(1), pp.37-52.

Cousins, J.J., 2017. Structuring hydrosocial relations in urban water governance. Annals of the American Association of Geographers107(5), pp.1144-1161.

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: Water6(4), p.e1354.

Gandy, M., 2004. Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city. City8(3), pp.363-379.

Grasham, C.F., Korzenevica, M. and Charles, K.J., 2019. On considering climate resilience in urban water security: A review of the vulnerability of the urban poor in sub‐Saharan Africa. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water6(3), p.e1344.

Maki, H., 2009. Multidisciplinary perspectives on Cape Town’s rivers and wetland heritage Rivers and Wetlands of Cape Town: Caring for our rich aquatic heritage, Cate Brown and Rembu Magoba (Eds.): book review. TD: The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa5(2), pp.298-299.

Obree, M., 2004. Catchment, Stormwater and River Management in Cape Town, South Africa. Journal of Water Management Modeling.

Swyngedouw, E. and Swyngedouw, E., 2004. Social power and the urbanization of water: flows of power (Vol. 226). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yates, J.S. and Harris, L.M., 2018. Hybrid regulatory landscapes: The human right to water, variegated neoliberal water governance, and policy transfer in Cape Town, South Africa, and Accra, Ghana. World Development110, pp.75-87.

3 thoughts on “The water unpacked

  1. Hi there Annie. Once again this is a great post and a very insightful one too. I love how you gave a detailed history of Cape Town and how it’s a complex city rooted in racism, discrimination and the Apartheid. I think it would be nice to have a post or two just about Environmental Justice itself, given that Cape Town and RSA has been historically divided and segregated by race. It would be nice to know if race and segregation has meant there are unequal externalities such as air quality, water quality or other flows. Likewise, I think a few subheadings would make this post even better!


    1. Thanks for such a lovely comment! I have taken on your advice and added subheadings, so thank you very much! I hope to discuss more of the effects of the segregation on externalities in the next coming weeks which will discuss that sadly the divisions affect the service provision of many flows.


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