Opinion Piece

Jeff Rudin: Cape Town’s drought – the lessons of the lessons unlearnt

Failure to act on the connections between South Africa’s droughts and climate change is a tragedy of unlearnt lessons. By JEFF RUDIN.

This is an extended version of an article appearing in the forthcoming issue of Amandla!

We take a raincoat when the forecast is rain. But, when the forecast is recurring floods, droughts, hurricanes, heat waves, food insecurity, epidemics and climate-induced mass migrations and related conflicts… we do nothing. The real tragedy of the already traumatising Cape Town drought is our dismal failure to confront the realities of people-made, climate change. This occurs even when the real-time presence of climate change is occasionally acknowledged. Worse still, this is not a prediction about lessons that will not be learnt. We know enough to know the enormity of what we already haven’t learnt. (Cape Town’s 7 March announcement that the dreaded Day Zero will not happen this year is, crucially, conditional on both the arrival of expected winter rains, as well as the continuing enforcement of the severe drought restrictions. The analysis offered below is not disturbed by this announcement.)

Those of us living in Cape Town are likely to believe that we are the first and only South Africans to have had to face the nightmarish prospect of waterless taps. We forget the disastrous drought that hit KwaZulu-Natal in 2015, followed by a not dissimilar drought that struck many parts of Gauteng. And we forget that the Northern Cape and many parts of the Eastern Cape, including its major cities, are, like us, in the tight grip of droughts; droughts that aren’t supposed to be happening with such frequency and duration.

The Government does little to correct these perceptions. To be sure, it builds on them. It is far happier leaving us believing that droughts are temporary, naturally-occurring events that are sometimes caused by something with an unpronounceable name: El-Niño (or is it La Niña?).

The Government publicly – if unintentionally – affirms that it has no intention of learning the big lessons. Its February Budget statement alerts us to this alarming fact. Instead of the required huge increase in water infrastructure projects (and jobs), we are getting huge cuts in infrastructure expenditure; rather than measures to prevent droughts, the Budget offers drought ‘relief’.

The Government’s action is at once astonishing and utterly predictable. Ignoring what is happening in Cape Town and elsewhere is simply astonishing. It is predictable because it is so in keeping with the established pattern of ignoring the warnings foretelling the drought. Despite politicians from all three spheres of government blaming the unpredictability of a once in every 300 or 1,000 year event and, when not blaming each other, blaming Cape Town’s domestic water users, and while others attribute the drought to divine revenge, they cannot claim ignorance.

The Department of Water Affairs, the Western Cape provincial government and the City of Cape Town co-hosted the UN World Water Day at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in March 2011. They were thus all together in the same venue to hear the warnings from the government’s own science council, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), about the climate change threat to the Western Cape’s water resources.

Seven months later, the Government released its National Climate Change Response White Paper. Amongst many other things, this key document states:

The South African Government:

  • Accepts … that warming of the climate system is unequivocal and that … human activity is primarily responsible for this warming ….
  • Regards climate change as one of the greatest threats to sustainable development and believes that climate change, if unmitigated, has the potential to undo or undermine many of the positive advances made in meeting South Africa’s own development goals…
  • South Africa is already a water-stressed country and we face future drying trends and weather variability with cycles of droughts and sudden excessive rains. We have to urgently strengthen the resilience of our society and economy to such climate change impacts and to develop and implement policies, measures, mechanisms and infrastructure that protect the most vulnerable.
  • Parts of the country will be much drier and increased evaporation will ensure an overall decrease in water availability
  • Climate modelling suggests that the western and interior parts of the country are likely to become drier.

Other warnings about ‘the western parts of the country’ and Cape Town in particular go back to at least 2001. Two reports from 2002 warn of dangerous water scarcity in Cape Town. The Department of Water Affairs’ (DWA) Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS) Reconciliation Strategy of 2007 was especially noteworthy. It listed 20 options ranging from new dams and groundwater sources to water reuse and desalination. In March 2009, the WCWSS noted that the Berg River scheme solved the problem until 2013 “after which additional resources will have to be implemented and/or developed.” This 2009 report further noted several options for implementation by 2019 or earlier. In 2012, the National Water Department urged the municipality to implement 10 augmentation steps to ensure water supply by 2015. Even the National Development Plan of 2012 got onto the act. With specific reference to the Western Cape, it mandated ‘water-reuse and groundwater projects, which are to be completed by 2017’ [p.187].

Climate change – or, more accurately, the (effective) denial of climate change – explains why all these numerous and varied requirements and warnings were ignored.

The Voëlvlei Augmentation Scheme provides a more detailed six-year history of this pattern of denial. The Scheme calls for the surplus winter rain that flows into the Berg River to be pumped into the Voëlvlei Dam for emergency use. Voëlvlei, the 3rd largest of Cape Town’s 6 dams, was one of three interventions identified in 2011 for implementation by 2019. However, good winter rains in 2014, together with Cape Town’s water conservation and demand management efforts, put back the date when extra water would be needed to 2022; a date subsequently extended to 2024. Nonetheless, the Department of Water Affairs’ Strategy Steering Committee (SSC), consisting of representatives from all 3 government spheres in the Western Cape, agreed that a definitive decision regarding the various feasibility studies by both the Department and the City of Cape Town had to be made by October 2015, at the latest. At this 2015 meeting, the city rejected the Voëlvlei Scheme because of the cost. Xanthea Limberg, the city’s mayoral committee member for infrastructure, explained the thinking behind this now much regretted – and enormously more costly – decision: It is not practical to ring-fence billions of rand for the possibility of a drought that might not come to pass.

A drought that might not come to pass” – said not in 2015 or even 2016 but, almost unbelievably, last year – exposes thinking unpenetrated by climate change. In this world, droughts are natural events that occur very occasionally and last for short periods. “The rains will come, if not today, then tomorrow or at the latest the next day” is the mantra of this anachronistically pre-climate change thinking.

Denying climate change was described some years ago as humankind’s “long suicide; the protracted death of a species we still flatteringly call homo sapiens.

The clever people advising the politicians on Cape Town’s water, in 2014, expressly ruled out climate change from their predictions. Being generous, it might be said that this was before Cape Town’s supposedly once-in-every-several-hundred-year-drought. With the benefit of hindsight, most people presumably now accept the fact of the drought. However, this doesn’t mean they accept any significant connection between the drought and climate change. Professor James Hanson, a former Director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space studies in the US and globally recognised as a leading climatologist, addressed this very point, even though his focus was US heat waves rather than Cape Town’s drought. In a 2012 Washington Post article entitled, Climate Change Is Here And Worse Than We Thought, he noted: “New analysis shows it is no longer enough to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, … analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

The Financial Times, however, is having nothing of this. A recent cover story on Cape Town’s drought – The Day When Taps Run Dry – is telling. Despite its near 4,000-word length, climate change is not mentioned at all; and this in a major article published as recently as 22 February this year. Instead, it offers geographical location as the sole cause of the drought: it is our misfortune, according to the FT, to find ourselves physically located in that part of the world that unavoidably makes us a water-scarce country. And that’s it; there’s nothing that can be done other than adapt to the bad hand dealt us by nature.

Perhaps it is not surprising for a financial journal to ensure that climate change does not impede the business of money-making for the already privileged.

This protection of the class interests of the rich and would-be rich lies behind many of the other unlearnt lessons of Cape Town’s water woes. They include:

Coal. Our new President promises a “new dawn” for the mining industry and coal is central to that (actually far from new) strategy. Behind coal mining are not only the very powerful and well established transnational mining houses and their multinational investors but the politically connected and increasingly assertive BEE interests, represented, most publicly, by the Guptas.

Forget that coal is the major source of the carbon dioxide that is the major source of the greenhouse gas that is responsible for climate change. Forget that the government has repeatedly pledged itself to reduce those very gasses as part of its international obligations.

The present point is that coal and water do not mix well when water is scarce, for the whole process of burning coal to produce electricity is enormously water-intensive. Eskom’s coal-fired power stations alone use 327 billion litres of fresh water, amounting to a staggering 10,000 litres of water per second. If Cape Town’s taps are turned off, the daily amount of water for each of its four-million inhabitants will be 25 litres. This means that the water Eskom uses every day is equivalent to what 3,456,000 Capetonians would use, assuming all of them were able to collect their daily allowance.

Outsourcing and Corruption

Four times as much rain falls on Cape Town than is actually used. And, yet, its residents face the prospect of no water! Cleaning and storing the mass of wasted water involves massive infrastructural developments as well as other large-scale adaptations. These developments and adaptations include storm-water harvesting (with ecological urbanism and Sponge Cities with their perforated roads and pavements being amongst the most recent of them); dam augmentations; waste-water recycling; desalination; and rainwater harvesting on a massive scale (to preserve dam water in winter rather than necessarily making households, schools and public buildings water-self-sufficient in summer). All these measures involve capital investment on a massive scale. Very large corporations (especially those burdened by huge amounts of idle capital) are eager to lay their hands on the expected very lucrative contacts. And therein lies problems that are more than just the normality of large public procurements inviting corruption. The Guptas, alas, are no more than the tip of this iceberg. Among these additional problems are:

Capping Capitalism’s Right to Maximise Profit

Commercial agriculture uses 66% of South Africa’s water, receives a government irrigation subsidy of R1.5-billion, and yet contributes only 2.5% of the country’s GDP. Worse still, social need plays little if any part in deciding what is grown, produced or exported or how much is grown, produced or exported. The drought and the climate change-guarantee that droughts will recur much more frequently and last much longer than hitherto should act as a catalyst for a just transition to a much more rational use of precious water. Food security and jobs mean that this alternative ‘radical transformation’ can’t happen all at once. But both the push and pull of the drought ought to lead to its urgent commencement.

Without water, there would be virtually no manufacturing. As with agriculture, the logic of the drought impels a just transition to a socially rational and just removing of the profit maximising imperative that currently determines what gets manufactured and in what quantities. Such determinations are effectively left to the biggest investors and their managerial hired guns. One of the lessons of the drought is that this decision-making monopoly needs effective democratisation.


This takes us back to Councillor Xanthea Limberg. Her defence of Cape Town’s further postponement of the Voëlvlei Augmentation Scheme almost certainly has a significant party-political component. It was a Democratic Alliance (DA)-lead Council that took the decision. This is not to say that the ANC would have taken a different one. But the decision is at least consistent with the DA’s own view of the world, which is an explicitly business-friendly one. Small government is integral to this view. So, too, is the idea that the spending of public money is merited only if private money can’t – or wont – be involved. When public money has to be spent, the guiding principle is fiscal sobriety, that is, the less the better. Cities unprepared for droughts are the unavoidable outcome of this Margaret Thatcher type thinking, which is vibrantly alive in South Africa within the Treasury, universities and all main political parties.

Climate change is the first inadequately recognised lesson of the drought. Climate change is, moreover, the first ever phenomenon that not only affects – or will affect – everyone worldwide but, indeed, threatens the very survival of our species. In other words, we ought to take it seriously. Certainly, no less seriously than war. No self-respecting nation would ever be expected to surrender because it couldn't afford the war. Yet, affordability has been the constant measure used in justifying all the delays detailed above that have brought Cape Town to its present prospect of close down.

Cape Town’s drought, recently elevated to being a national disaster, ought to compel us to heed the warning of Neil Armitage, who heads UCT’s Urban Water Management research unit: No one cares about water until it’s not there

Acknowledging climate change ought to be a no-brainer. The enormously difficult next step is to act on it. The governments of the world (apart from the current US one) readily accept climate change’s threat to humanity; they’ve been doing so annually since 1994. The trouble is their paralysis beyond talk in a world in which all (voluntarily or otherwise) bow before giant corporations and multinational investors.

Failure to act on the connections between South Africa’s droughts and climate change is a tragedy of unlearnt lessons. Compounding the tragedy is insufficiently recognised very good news: Climate change is made by people. This allows people to unmake what people have made. Unfortunately, we know enough to know that undoing climate change requires much more than just recycling our household rubbish or showering instead of bathing. The challenge is for each one of us – the generation of the Big Drought – to give the lie to I know, but I don’t want to know that I know, so I don’t know. DM