Friday, 26 January 2018

Obsessing Over Day Zero

"Merely thinking about what the world wants gets you nowhere: you have to think about what the world ought to want, and just doesn’t know yet that it can’t live without."
Theodore Gray 

After three years of drought, Cape Town’s taps are set to run dry within the next few months. “Day zero”, as it has been termed, is ostensibly approaching unless some kind of “miracle” occurs. It is with great curiosity that I have been observing the prevailing obsession with “day zero”, which has quickly become the centre-piece of social media, news media and social conversations.  The only other topic that is receiving as much airtime is the ‘who is to blame?’ brigade, that has gradually grown in chorus as middle class outrage has grown.

Cape Town’s middle classes are used to living in a relatively well-run city, and apart from electrical blackouts and load-shedding that occurred years ago, and the avalanche of summer fires that spark up every summer, there has been little that directly affects their lives in a debilitating way. Of course, the same is not true for the poor and working classes, who struggle with service delivery, affordability and access to infrastructures. The lives of those living in informal and semi-informal settlements are undoubtedly worlds apart from their middle class counterparts; temporary outdoor sanitation, shared water standpipes, illegal electricity connections, shack-fires and un-managed waste, pollution and drainage plague their daily lives. You won’t hear much about that however. Instead, as journalist Chris Bateman put it (somewhat hyperbolically),

“The indigent, who’ve always collected water from communal taps – might finally have something we don’t – running water”.

Yet while the plight of the poor evokes sympathy from the middle classes, it rarely evokes the same levels of outrage that have unfolded at the imaginary of day zero as it quickly approaches. Images of Armageddon scale end-of-days disaster scenarios unfolding are heatedly aired and rapidly amplified on social media. Everything will grind to a halt, we are told. The city’s economy will implode. Do we know what we are in for?

Well prepare for long-queues of outraged residents jostling, fighting and spitting bile, an unholy urban mess requiring martial law style intervention by the military to contain. Prepare for the death of tourism, agriculture, industry, schooling and the closure of all official local government offices and businesses. Prepare for serious damage that will be done to bulk water infrastructures as water pressure and regular supply are denied, destabilising infrastructure due to irregular flows passing through the system (this concern is entirely valid and foreseeable).

Cape Town’s middle classes, who are typically unschooled and inexperienced in undertaking efforts that necessitate collective action are falling over themselves, spluttering with prescient rage  at the denial of their ‘basic human rights’. There is even a petition to the United Nations that has done the rounds on social media; a truly ironic and self-centred undertaking given the patent invisibility of the plight of the poor and marginal in the city. In a spectacular act of real-time revisionism of history in the making, we are reminded, more than anything, of the particular middle class predisposition to render themselves ‘more equal than others’. First among equals so to speak.

In my daydreams I picture the middle classes rising up, appropriating Ses'khona’s “poo-protests” and laying waste to City Government buildings with mountains of portaloo poo that has gone uncollected for too long. Perhaps the DA will move Herman Mashaba down to run Cape Town in the wake of Mayor Patricia de Lille’s soon-to-be departure. Anything’s possible it seems, when a city runs out of water.

I am labouring the point, but it is particularly bizarre to observe how the discourse over day zero has emerged. Day zero is being treated as an end-point, an insurmountable eventuality that will cripple all the key functions of life, work and service provision in the city.

The reality, however, is that this drought has been three years in the making, and for many years now, those who understand that the climate is changing, and that the Western half of the country is steadily drying, have been making the case for adaptation. For over a decade many of us have been actively engaged in educating and informing leaders, policy-makers and planners that there is a pressing need to begin preparing for water-scarcity conditions to unfold in the city (i.e. whether they occur gradually or abruptly). The need to adapt to the new reality has been made abundantly clear, not just to those in power, but also to the very same middle class citizenry who now appear to be caught totally unawares in the cross-fire of the impacts of a severe, long-term drought.

The issue that should be provoking outrage is the slow progress of efforts towards adaptation. We know what is happening with the climate in the Western Cape. Why have we been so slow to prepare for it? And yes, the bulk of the blame should be going towards local and provincial government for their lack of preparation and their inadequate communication and planning for adaptation. However, middle class ignorance must also be taken to task in this respect, as an active, educated citizenry who are themselves pushing for adaptation and embracing behavioural change would go a long way towards speeding up the transition to a more water resilient city and province. This is a fact, it is not speculative. We’ve been slow to act and we’re paying the price.

I for one am glad that day zero has sparked up the fears and imaginations of the city’s middle class residents (as well as businesses and industries they own and/or work in). This is simply because the greatest difference in potable water consumption and sanitation can be made through their actions and forward-looking investment in water efficiency measures. It is they who – with the support of local and provincial government – can make the largest difference in ensuring the long-term sustainability and resilience of the city and provinces water supply. Yes it is true that industry and agriculture are the largest consumers of water overall, but there is a lot that can be done simply by adapting middle class households and residential properties, as well as businesses, to the realities of water scarcity.

If day zero is the tipping point that will help catalyse this transition then it would have served a good purpose. However, if it turns out that day zero comes and goes within a month or two - and private sector water providers spring up and take the gap (which is a high likelihood) - then it is likely that all the hype around it would have proven largely ineffective, as the middle class citizenry return to ‘business as usual’ yielding little long-term behavioural, infrastructural and systemic changes to speak of. It would all have merely been another storm in a teacup and it might even result in a push-back and distrust of ‘disaster narratives’ that emerge in the future. The upshot of ‘crying wolf’ may be an even more disengaged and apathetic citizenry, who have many other pressing concerns in their daily lives to attend to.

We have the attention of the broader citizenry right now. It is worth making strategic and visionary use of it to seed and catalyse the transition to a new understanding of climate change, resource scarcity and the need for adaptation in the city and province. It is worth capitalising on the attention that is being drawn to the issue to stimulate broader engagement and involvement of the citizenry, business, industry and agriculture in the processes of planning and development in the city and province.

This is a key moment for the city. It can unlock a wholly new, constructive trajectory for the city and its residents. It is an opportunity to increase mutual understanding and dialogue, and forge unity in the citizenry and the various sectors of society in the Western Cape. We can begin learning how to work together, and to actively take control of the processes of preparing for the future. We can become more engaged and socially cohesive at the local level, and learn to work together to safeguard our communities and work-places from the eventualities of the 21st Century. Ultimately, we can strengthen local democratic practises through this crisis.

The problem with how the day zero narrative has been unfolding is that it has been bereft of stabilising, visionary leadership. Rather, the city and province miscommunicated the extent of the crisis for a few years in the run-up to day zero in order not to ‘panic’ the citizenry and the various sectors of the economy. Moreover, there were some industry and business actors who simply refused to believe local government’s projections, relying instead on their own internal experts who made false assumptions and made incorrect calculations as a result. I recently spoke to a senior official in government who was exasperated at having to wade through bogus calculations and correct them. There are even industry players that decided to escalate production, in a ‘tragedy of the commons’ styled set of logics. There is little doubt that strong, concerted leadership could have diminished these challenges and helped to forge a broader consensus on how to mitigate water scarcity.

While the proverbial glass may not be half-full in reality, it is worth considering what can be gained through this crisis. It may well not last much longer, but it will undoubtedly revisit us because we live in a province that is extremely sensitive to climate change impacts. 

The Western Cape Premier’s Helen Zille’s very latest piece was all scare tactics and alarmist bluster, sounding the alarm about the great emergency that has descended upon the city as if we didn’t know it was coming for ages. It was absolute guff, and for more reasons than I can deal with here! The fact is that these ‘crises’ and ‘anarchy is on the horizon’ narratives are part of the problem. Calm down, plan and do your job. Moreover, do what you should have been doing ages ago when you learned that climate change would ultimately impact the Western Cape severely, even if there wasn’t a clear idea of when exactly each crisis would take place. It is not only disingenuous; it is blatant lies to suggest that this crisis somehow ‘crept up’ on officials (as she puts it “Suddenly, after months of coaxing”). The truth is that there have been very many studies and documents that have warned of the eventuality of drought and water scarcity in the Western Cape. And all this has been written about and communicated many years ago when Helen Zille herself was Mayor of Cape Town.

Yet for all the 'coaxing' (and now the turn towards punitive measures), the average citizen has precious little at their disposal to meet the city’s new 50 litres per person per day limit (i.e. now reduced from 87 litres), simply because the tools to monitor, adapt and limit usage have not been put in place. Indeed, how does an average citizen actually know how much water they are using, and simply at the household level at that? Many are already making courageous efforts to save water, but what enables them to know how much they are using? How much does a dishwasher use? How much does a washing machine use? How much water does a shower or a bath use up? What about cooking, making tea and coffee? How do you calculate your usage; does it include the flushes at work, or the teas and coffees you purchase. How much double accounting is going on? How much is being left out that should be counted? Is there an app that one can use to get an estimate at the very least? If these tools exist, why are they not widely publicised?

Placing the blame on a confused citizenry that has been misled about the real nature of this crisis in the run-up to the crunch point is – simply put – ridiculously poor leadership. It appears that even when we are deep in substantive crisis, our politicians are more likely to think about how it affects their votes, and as befits them, put their effort into scripting a narrative that conveniently casts them in heroic terms. The average citizen should, at this point, feel fully justified in telling them to take a hike. They screwed it up; they should rather be honest about it, humbly beg forgiveness and get on with the job of fixing things. And to be sure, the fixes need to be constituted of more than just short-term disaster risk management planning and implementation; it needs to be constituted of a clear set of actions that will help build resilience of the city and province into the long term.

Failure to take actions, implement plans and put the tools in place to reduce water usage, have more accurate monitoring and evaluation, and significantly transition our bulk and local water infrastructures to high-efficiency recycling and reuse will – in short – be a charade of leadership designed to cope with short-term crises and not addressing long term systemic vulnerability. This failure would essentially mean that while the middle classes invest in boosting their resilience (and as private sector water services expand), the real crisis that is building – where the poor and marginal are increasingly squeezed by higher tariffs and service delivery failures, ultimately leading to outbreaks of disease, deaths and unconscionable and inhuman living conditions – will largely remain unaddressed. In the end, a lack of long-term planning may mean that “let them drink wine!” might well end up being the only recourse the middle class takes in respect of the poor and marginal in this city, as has been the historical tradition in the Western Cape. 

P.S. After posting this blog on 26/1/2018 the City of Cape Town has put out a guideline to how to achieve 50 litres per person per day in the form of the infographic below. Better late than never they say, but this piece argues otherwise ... nonetheless, please share it widely, even if you're not in Cape Town!


  1. 26 January 2018

    MEDIA RELEASE: Seasonal Forecasts under the current drought conditions in the Western Cape

    The South African Weather Service (SAWS) has noted with regret reports attributed to Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille that the province “finds itself facing a crisis because SA Weather Services (sic) got their predictions all wrong”. The Premier’s statement is disingenuous and extremely opportunistic coming as it does in the midst of a water crisis.

    Zille goes on to claim that “The South African Weather Services (sic) have said to me their models don’t work anymore, in an era of climate change”. We view this in a very dim light as the Premier only had one briefing from SAWS and already draws conclusions on our work. This is regrettable as SAWS would not comment on policy makers and the lack of action on advice that we have given. SAWS has had discussions with the Premier and respectfully requested her to refrain from casting aspersions on the work of the Service. The Weather Service has further more offered the Premier access to all weather information and resources to enable her to speak from a position of knowledge rather than speculation. Now it seems this offer was not taken up.

    SAWS is tasked with providing timely and accurate scientific data in the field of meteorology to the South African population. The organisation plays a vital role in South African public life, not just as a provider of key services, but also in empowering citizens to adapt to the effects of ever changing weather patterns. SAWS is in a unique position to provide valuable meteorological drought monitoring and outlook support information to society. The organisation hosts a comprehensive data bank of climate variables across the entire country, including the Western Cape Province.
    e was also recorded in 2014.


    The Premier must appreciate that she is not a Meteorologist nor a Scientist, therefore we would be interested to know who her sources on climate change and the role of weather services are. We trust that the Premier will avail herself and her team of advice and access to credible information provided by this competent service and will stop making unwarranted comments about the scientific work of the South African Weather Service and frankly all scientific communities, including engineers providing information to her and other policy makers. Blaming the weather, or climate and the Weather Service is a cop-out for policy inaction and ineptitude in implementation of multidisciplinary research and reports that have long pointed to the water challenge in the country, the Western Cape and in Cape Town.

  2. Dear City of Cape Town residents, I would ask that you please share this with your friends and family.

    I completely understand the anger of Cape Town residents. I myself am angry.

    As DA Leader I put trusted, competent colleagues in mayoral positions.

    These Mayors account to me as Leader.

    In the case of Patricia De Lille, I was not satisfied with the way the City of Cape Town responded to the drought crisis. Many of you have told me that there was not enough clear and consistent communication on the water situation in Cape Town. I agree.

    It is for this reason that I have stepped in. I have taken political control of managing the situation and established a new Drought Crisis Team.

    Under the circumstances, it would not be right for her to continue managing the crisis, so we made changes and now need to ensure that we focus all resources on defeating Day Zero. This is my only mission now.

    To be completely open with you, the City plans to have 120 megalitres online by May 2018, but until then we need to reduce consumption.

    I want to ask that we all pull together and ensure that we use less than 50l per person per day. We can #DefeatDayZero

    In our own home, we are committing to use 40l per person per day. With some effort and planning, I know our family can do it.

    I will ensure that absolutely everything that is humanly possible is done to give us the best chance, but I need your help.

    Mmusi Maimane

  3. Day Zero has been cancelled for 2018, and many people are very unhappy about it:

  4. Dam level has already risen to 21.4% & more rain is on the way
    "South African Weather Service has predicted that a cold front will sweep over the Western Cape and rain will begin falling on Sunday evening.

    There is also an 80% chance of rain forecast for Monday, a 50% chance for Tuesday and on Wednesday we can expect 70%."