Cape Town Water Wars: A Literal Shitstorm
In Cape Town, one of the most unequal cities in the world, poor people are taking the buckets they use for chemical toilets and turning them into weapons, as the water shortage intensifies class conflicts
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Cape Town, South Africa. It is on the brink of running out of water. Historically, Cape Town a port city situated in a natural bowl to catch the fresh rainwater, was recognized for its lush, green vegetation. But for a few decades now it has been suffering from water shortages, and now it is gripped by the worst drought in a century.
Residents will have to queue for emergency rations, come April. Dam levels fell below 30 percent in the first week of this year. If it hits 13.5 percent, then residents will have to queue for their water collection at many points. Some 200 sites may have to be set up across the city.
Mainstream media has picked up this story, as Cape Town is the world’s first major city to run out of water; but what they are not talking about is the drought’s link to climate change. With us to discuss all of this from Johannesburg, South Africa, is Patrick Bond. He is professor of Political Economy at Wits University in South Africa, and author of <i>Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis from Above, Movement from Below,</i> and co-editor of <i>BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique.</i>
PATRICK BOND: Great to be with you again, Sharmini. Thanks.
SHARMINI PERIES: Patrick, the water shortages in Cape Town appears to be a slow moving environmental disaster that Cape Town has been unable to prevent. What is causing this crisis?
PATRICK BOND: It’s certainly the amplification of all of these weather vectors that have brought the whole country into a drought situation. Most of the country did recover about a year ago, but we had a two-year drought that left rural areas devastated and then there were major storm events. As you say, Cape Town’s been suffering a creeping drought, but we’ve had unbelievable storms that have wrecked huge swaths of the infrastructure in Johannesburg here, as well as in the port city of Durban.
All three of the major cities between about three and a half million people in Durban, four million in Cape Town, a little over four million here in Johannesburg … What they’ve really shown, these storm events and the drought, is how unprepared major cities in a fairly sophisticated economy, which is a major greenhouse gas emitter, not only therefore is a villain, but also a victim. The inability of the city of Cape Town –and they’re run by a center-right government, not the African National Congress but the Democratic Alliance — their inability to manage this and to run a mitigation and adaptation program that would work may well cost the mayor her job. Patricia De Lille is on the verge of being kicked out of the mayorship by her own party, and the water crisis and its mismanagement is the central reason.
As you say, Sharmini, it does mean for “Day Zero” as it’s called — April 20 is now the predicted date at which there won’t be water in the residents’ taps — they’ll have to start queuing up in just 200 water collection points, for those four million people. It may well be quite a disastrous situation, particularly given the water apartheid that Cape Town has inherited from centuries … Since 1652 when Dutch settlers arrived with the Dutch East India Company. This is really a city in which white people have taken vast amounts of water for the English gardens or swimming pools, leaving the Africans and colored people without sufficient water, and now the chickens are coming home to roost for everyone.
SHARMINI PERIES: Patrick, this is not only a war and a crisis, but a slow-moving economic crisis and also a pending food shortage crisis. Elaborate on this for us.
PATRICK BOND: Well, there’s quite an interesting debate and it’s, as in California, an awareness raising, at which where is this sort of bulk water going, and it turns out that 60% of the incoming bulk supply to Cape Town has already been reserved for the commercial agriculture. Now, that’s not necessarily the kind of staple foods, the maize meal, the corn that is the basic staple for most of the residents, but instead it’s actually used for irrigation, and that’s often in this wealthy agricultural area, for the finest wines in Africa and some of the finest in the world, as well as the famous tea, the Rooibos Tea.
The stress agriculturally, on these two products – the vineyards that create these beautiful wines and the Rooibos Tea. This red bush Rooibos Tea, may well put them out of business entirely in coming decades. That’s one of these adaptation questions. Can there be different agricultural systems or better irrigation systems, or should we begin to think about these cities as really having to undergo … That this changes everything. A revolution that Naomi Klein and her major book on the topic, on sort of taking advantage of these crises and using them to re-jig the local economy. The production system, the agricultural system, the urban form, to make it more compact and water efficient. The consumption norms and disposal systems. All of these now must come up for debate.
What’s interesting in Cape Town, is that there’s a long tradition of environmental justice, and yet, because I think true across the world, many of our local environmental justice movements have been oriented to stopping pollution or addressing very localistic systems. Food systems, for example is a very important part of the Cape Town progressive community, but it’s not yet been the ability to connect the dots and to put climate justice onto the national agenda and to ask the questions, should this new government that’s about to take power nationally, as we have a new incoming president of the African National Congress. He may well take over the presidency of the country in coming months.
Cyril Ramaphosa, but he comes from the coal industry, and Shanduka is his company, and that as well as Lonmin, the Marikana massacre thing, and that may mean we’ll see a revitalization of carbon-intensive economic activity. Notwithstanding this huge wake-up call that Cape Town’s drought and probable desperation water-rationing now represents for this country.
SHARMINI PERIES: Patrick, you mentioned this earlier. The people that are going to be most affected by this crisis. So, describe the class nature of the crisis and what we can expect as the problem deepens.
PATRICK BOND: Along with Johannesburg, which is the widely acknowledged by UN-Habitat and researchers, the most unequal city in the world here. Cape Town’s in the top five, Durban as well in the top 10. These three cities, these South African cities, have had exceptional urban resistance from shack settlements and townships and low-income suburbs, from women, from environmentalists, and from labor. The South African working class, according to the World Economic Forum is considered the most militant in the world, and we have the most corrupt capitalist class in the world, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Bank regularly acknowledges it’s the most unequal country in the world. This is an explosive situation. The question is: Will there be a possibility to bring environmental justice into a sort of maybe even eco-socialist approach to addressing this?
We’ve seen just one indication in Cape Town that’s been quite explosive, and that’s the use of shit. I know shitstorms and shit houses and shitholes are regularly discussed in the United States, but in Cape Town, shit has been used by people in the townships, Khayelitsha specifically, as a weapon of the weak, because there aren’t flush toilets in these sites. There are chemical toilets and various kinds of pit latrines, and that gives the poor people the ability to take their buckets, their large plastic containers, and use those as weapons. We’ve begun to see a class struggle take place over water, or specifically the lack of water.
The most famous moment was two years ago, three years ago, 2015. When shit was used to … Thrown on Cecil Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town, and lead to that statue being removed in a huge movement. #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall — an emerging of radical students. So there’s something quite evocative, a sort of nuclear weapon, if you will, of poor people, their last resort is the sanitation system breaking down. That’s all they’ve got at hand and that would be, I would suspect, something we’ll see much more of as the water wars break out.
Johannesburg had, along with Cochabamba, Bolivia, about 18 years ago in the famous 2000 battles … Johannesburg, Cochabama, were the water wars of the 21st century, and in those cases it was privatized water. Johannesburg, it was a big French company, Suez, and they were tossed out by activists after about six years of a contract with the city they wanted to extend for 30. What I suspect might now happen with these water shortages, is we begin to see a different kind of water politics. Not really necessarily about privatization, but about the physical scarcity of water when we have a water apartheid, poor people in these vast townships just not given enough historically, and they’ll see the big English gardens, the swimming pools … Mostly now these swimming pools, they’re not allowed to be filled.
I should add that there may be a break in this drought. It might come in June when the winter rains start again, but in the meantime what I think many people are asking: Will — in a context of lots of political turmoil in South Africa — will water become one of the sites of struggle that helps to fracture an existing system in which the center-right, the centerist politics of the African National Congress, the neoliberalism, and in Cape Town, the Democratic Alliance can be challenged from below in a way that might teach the rest of the world the first major city running out of water, what will the activists do to take advantage of that? We’ll soon see.
SHARMINI PERIES: Finally Patrick, as I mentioned in the introduction, a lot of the world’s mainstream media is talking about the water crisis in Cape Town, but they’re not linking it to climate change. Is South African media doing so, and if not, what are the ways in which this link can be made for people to get a better understanding of the changing climate and this crisis?
PATRICK BOND: I think that’s the right question because as Naomi Klein put it, you really need to connect the dots. This changes everything, and looking at political economy and in politics in a cultural and a gendered and a highly racialized inequality in Cape Town through the climate lens should add quite a bit to us. One would be the tourism industry in Cape Town. Vast industry, lots of low-income people working in the hotels, working in the various aspects of the tourist trade; food and services. That will be under pressure, and yet the attempt by the tourist industry is to pretend it’s not happening, and to tell people, “No, no it’s fine. You can come here. We’re gonna have some water for you.” There’s a sort of fakery going on in tourism, because that’s a lifeblood of this city.
The second is that there’s been a purchase, it’s actually being confirmed this week, it’s by Sinopec, the big Chinese company of Chevron’s refinery and retail shops. So Chevron, a huge oil company from the U.S., dastardly company, one of the worst, very implicated in climate politics of denialism and massive emissions and no mitigation and terrible pollution in all of its sites. That would be one of the sites where if Sinopec, the Chinese company with a terrible record on its own takes over, I would suspect we’re gonna see some politics of resistance amongst climate justice activists who know the oil industry, and Sinopec has this potential huge refinery in Cape Town. They’ve committed over $500 million to expending that. That’s a very serious climate crime that’s about to be committed, and I don’t think the activists in South Africa are going to stand for that. So, these are the sorts of struggle sites; water, tourism, a new owner of the major refinery system in Cape Town.
Like we’ve seen in Durban, South Durban, one of the sites of the biggest refineries in Africa, amazing struggles there. Here in Johannesburg, major struggles over the extent to which urban social movements can access energy and electricity, whether that comes from coal or huge solar potential. This is a country that has some of the worst extremes of abuse, but some very talented people at the grass roots, so I learn a great deal from them. I’m sure we all will.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright.
Now, I did say that was the last question, but I cannot let you go without asking you this. This drought condition that South Africa faces is really a much bigger sub-Saharan African issue if we look at the current map that Princeton University African Flood and Drought Monitor has provided us. That there are droughts going on all over the sub-Saharan African part of the world. Tell us a little bit more about that link.
PATRICK BOND: I would also add North Africa, which is going to certainly experience the sort of 40 degree Celsius conditions regularly, and maybe the Qatar World Cup in the least, won’t even happen in 2022, because the climate will have advanced rapidly. So, North Africa’s the most threatened, but yes. The East African zones, particular in the horn of Kenya, running up through Somalia, have had terrible ongoing droughts. Water wars on the Nile with new dams that Ethiopia and Egypt are contesting, and in West Africa and Central Africa where we were seeing terrible civil wars … Your viewers will know about the DRC in Sierra Leone and Northern Uganda, South Sudan, and these war sites are also the sites that are — Darfur maybe most spectacularly — where climate change has had an impact on the way in which desperation of herders and farmers lead to these conflicts.
Yes, there are studies going on and I certainly resort occasionally to the U.S. Pentagon-funded Minerva Program, which works with University of Texas in Sussex, to identify the correlations between social protests and anger and frustration, fury really on the one hand, and the climate crisis. As we’ve seen in many African sites and you could look at Syria, you could look at many other places, these are the sites where we’re beginning to find massive rebellions emerging.
If we were talking, Sharmini, five years ago, people would have said, “Well, Africa’s rising.” It was a sort of hope that the commodity boom that sort of petered out by around 2011 and ended with a crash in 2015, that that commodity boom would allow African sort of trickle-down to work and keep this continent moving forward. In reality, Africans are uprising against this Africa Rising expert-oriented, commodity driven, highly unequal system of accumulation, and I think climate will amplify that, and the question is whether networks like the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance with over 1,000 groups and members, this group, and begin to generate a really serious political economy that demands a new system locally, as well as globally, and now with Donald Trump having walked out of Paris, one of the big questions many would ask is well, since Paris provided the liability protection so you don’t have a climate debt if you sign onto Paris, you don’t have to worry about your historic debt, that’s part of the deal that the U.S. State Department cut in Paris in 2015.
Now it’s time, not only for Africans, for all affected people by climate change, by the youth in the United States or a couple of dozen kids … Jim Hansen’s grandchild as well … Suing Donald Trump for climate damage, and I think that whether you like the courts or not, the idea is very important. We should now be talking about those vulnerable parts of the world, the vulnerable generations who have to live through a future of extreme weather events and global warming, and in this part of the world, we’re already seeing in Cape Town some of the worst micro-impacts of that if we see a major city, the second largest in South Africa, four million people, literally run out of water.
SHARMINI PERIES: Patrick, I thank you so much for joining us and always very informative. Thank you.
PATRICK BOND: Thank you. Good to be with you.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.