Water Get No Enemy | Rethinking Water Infrastructure in Cape Town

Written by Khensani de Klerk 

It’s no secret that the drought and water crisis are on the top of Cape Town’s priority list at the moment. Coming from a fairly privileged position, the direct effects of the water crisis do not feel as critical as the statistics, highway signs and low dam levels make them out to be. Standing in the shower line at the gym, surrounded by warning signs of low water levels encouraging 2 minute showers does serve as a reminder here and there. This week for an Urban Infrastructure course I take in the City Planning programme at UCT, we went on an excursion around the metropole. When we came across a walk in Khayelitsha followed by a drive past Blikkies Dorp when I began to realize the severity of the complexity of this crisis. The crisis is not only about our low water levels, but also about the ever-present overlooked struggle that is a lack of access to water and other forms of infrastructure that constitute daily needs and functions in underprivileged areas. It isn’t the privileged in Cape Town CBD who will feel the severe effects of the water shortage, but rather those in areas with poor infrastructure provision. Not to say that it won’t affect us all, the tone of this post is to be far from facetious.

The reason for this week’s post was born out of my curiosity to investigate the severity of the water crisis coupled with my frustration of what the day to day situation looks like- a picture where Cape Town is relying solely on the agency of good citizens to decrease their water consumption whilst waiting for the rain which we all hope will come. However, in exploring South African urbanization trends in my Urban Infrastructure course, it became apparent that the underlying issues are greater and speak to various degrees of control that various characters in the spectrum of society have; from the citizen, to the municipal manager, to the Minister of Public Works, to the President, to the global stakeholders involved in water imports and exports all the way to good old mother nature, the external driver that will determine how climate change will effect the roles of the aforementioned stakeholders (Thanks/no thanks to us). As Fela Kuti put it in his lyrics “Water get no enemy”,  it is “water you go use”. We rely on water for sustenance, and with a fast growing population, we seem to be water’s greatest enemy.

And so, this article serves as both a means of challenging existing infrastructure in Cape Town, touching on Caron von Zeil’s Reclaim Camissa, a project that addresses activating the existing underutilized pipe system in Cape Town that runs litres of fresh unused mountain water into drains or sewers that lead straight to the ocean. This post also seeks to broadcast and share information on the fundamental details of the water crisis to aid in conversations and debate we have on a day to day basis that I often found myself confused in. All in all, governance and agency seem to be two themes that run through today’s article, as well as where to find information about this looming reality in a world that is constantly washed by fake news and information, hype and rumor.

“Water risk inhabits a landscape of rumor, stealth and speculation – on materialities such as pipe locations, water pressures, and the timings and operations of valves, as well as on networks of power and influence that might underpin the appearances and disappearances of water”, as presented in the March 2017 Water Services And The Cape Town Urban Water Cycle document, a good source of information with regards to water education is provided to the general public.

Where does Cape Town get its water? Currently Cape Town has 14 dams that it relies on for water collection and storage. Together these dams have a water capacity of 900 000 MI. “Most of this capacity is provided by six large dams: the Theewaterskloof, Voëlvlei, Berg River, Wemmershoek, and the Steenbras Upper and Lower dams.” (City of Cape Town 2017). An interesting history is given on each dam in the document which is worth checking out, as a side note. For the purpose of this post, I felt it necessary to present a recent table published a few days ago on May 22nd by the City of Cape Town expressing the water storage percentages. The table also gives reference to water levels in previous years to show or highlight a potential pattern of general water levels decreasing, confirming and reiterating a decline in annual rainfall in Cape Town.

Current Week Dam Water Levels
Major dams Storage
Ml % % %
Capacity 22/5/17 Last week 2016
Berg River 130 010 31.7 32.4 27.2
Steenbras Lower 33 517 25.1 26.5 35.9
Steenbras Upper 31 767 57.2 56.7 55.7
Theewaterskloof 480 188 14.3 15.0 30.6
Voëlvlei 164 095 16.3 17.2 21.0
Wemmershoek 58 644 36.1 36.0 47.0
Total Stored Ml 898 221 184 231 190 300 274 026
% Storage 20.5 21.2 30.5

The numbers are frightening to say the least. What is important to note here is the total % storage presented in the last line of the table. This gives an indication as to how much water that can be consumed at the moment, keeping in mind that the last 10% of water in dam cannot be used due to the need for over purification. Therefore when we read the most recent data collected from May 22nd , we can see that we have “access” to only 10.5% water in Cape Town. The above presents main issue number 1: climate change driving low water levels.

Issue number 2 which I find more pressing, lies in the exceptional population growth accelerating at a much faster rate than infrastructure growth. Our current infrastructure is struggling to accommodate the growing population. From 1995 with a population of 2.4 million, Cape Town is expected to have 4.3 million people by 2018, with dam infrastructure remaining the same. How do we work around it? Should we be working around it, or rethinking it completely? It seems as though a step forward lies in strategic planning and good governance What this means is that we shouldn’t see the current water crisis as a temporary phenomenon that will resolve in a year or two. It’s a long-term problem. We will need substantial government intervention to make Cape Town’s water supply sustainable.” (News24 2017)

 However, from reading proposed infrastructural advancement proposals online, it seems as though there is a stagnation in implementation or a reluctance in government to take action on ways in which creative infrastructural extension can aid in future provision for water services and access in Cape Town. The current agenda from the public eye is focused on water conservation and reducing consumption, which don’t get me wrong, is highly important. But in resonance with the concerns of other fellow Cape Townians and online writers It’s 2017, and Cape Town’s dams are sitting at 11%. Experts have always told us that the bottom 10% of water should ideally not be taken out both for ecological reasons and because it needs extra purification. This effectively means the well in Cape Town has run dry and the worth of water has shot up to the top of every Capetonian’s serious concerns. How did we not see this coming?” (Diko 2017)

And there is no doubt that we could have seen it coming. Research through Reclaim Cassima, a project that uncovered and documented the vast amount of fresh water that flows to waste underneath Cape Town” gives thorough evidence of the political stakeholder conversations pre-empting the water crisis as a result of climate change. Filmmaker Sven Harding, took a trip down the well preserved tunnels and researched along similar lines, reporting that WaterAid’s regional policy and advocacy manager Chilufya Chileshe said, “The global water crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing us today…As the global urban population rapidly expands, we’re seeing that growth in developing cities is typically unplanned and water, sanitation and hygiene services are not keeping up.” (Harding 2017)

The possibility of drier seasons in Cape Town is not an un-discussed issue in governing structures with the capacity to affect change on a wider scale, and so, having tagged the city of Cape Town in this post, I hope that more transparency for future water security plans in Cape Town can be provided.

There is a plethora of issues that need to be addressed beyond what the city has implemented at the moment (such as fixing water leakages, implementing water restrictions, educating people about water usage. More can be found in their documents on the city of Cape Town website):

  1. As a preface, Visiting Professor of Urban Studies at the African Centre for Cities, AbdouMaliq Simone, puts it in his chapter of Infrastructural Lives titled Relational infrastructures in postcolonial urban worlds, in cities where there is limited access to basic services, the needs and voices of those who have no access to them cannot be ignored. Sustainable infrastructure therefore should reconcile environmental interests with human interests, particularly those of underprivileged groups.” (Simone 2014). Broadening water access to disadvantaged communities needs to be addressed in this time of water crisis. Potentially by extending infrastructure and looking towards networked infrastructure; of course how this is funded is the greatest challenge but provision through political budgeting, community economic incentivized systems and coproduction should be explored. Any economists and politicians reading this? The comment section is your canvas.
  2. A transparent pubic strategic plan addressing how the City of Cape Town aims at addressing population growth exceeding the growth of water infrastructure needs to be addressed. Perhaps there is no distinct answer to the crisis at the moment, but as a government, the responsibility to keep societies’ best interest in mind is mandatory and by thinking about the long term, citizens can be aware of the situation and how to aid in it.
  3. Penetrating communities across the demographic and economic spectrum with incentives, and education that does not rely solely on the agency of the citizen consuming less water needs to be addressed. The sad fact is that some people, who have access to water, don’t care to reduce their consumption where as others use their self-made grey water systems to flush their toilets with shower water. There is an imbalance in agency and perhaps there always will be. But how can policy, regulation and law begin to speak to water consumption? In my opinion, if a household exceeds a specific amount of water per month, a high inflation on rates should take effect for that household, provided leakages have been addressed and rights have been respected. However, I am uninformed in that regard, and it is not my position to suggest such plans with little knowledge of the factors driving current rates and taxes. It is obvious that in this capitalist structure, money is an influential driver, and in privileged areas where water consumption is equally as high, perhaps the response in that realm may lead to positive change. The pie chart below presented by the City of Cape Town shows a breakdown of water consumption in Cape Town. All in all, what needs to be addressed is discourse around the water crisis issue, if we are to capitalize on coproduction to ensure infrastructure can accommodate rapid urbanization, and speak to long term water security.

Screen Shot 2017-05-27 at 5.32.43 PM



  1. City of Cape Town. WATER SERVICES AND THE CAPE TOWN URBAN WATER CYCLE . Public information paper, Cape Town: www.capetown.gov.za, 2017.
  2. Diko, Yonela. Cape Town’s Water Crisis: Is this the deadliest failure of the DA government? May 21, 2017. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2017-05-21-cape-towns-water-crisis-is-this-the-deadliest-failure-of-the-da-government/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=First+Thing+Monday+22nd+May+Knight+Knox&utm_content=First+Thing+Monday+22nd+May+Knight+Knox+CID_9e3b10c0b2ca6f53fdd75b4b9ed0c2c3&utm_source=TouchBasePro&utm_term=Cape+Towns+Water+Crisis+Is+this+the+deadliest+failure+of+the+DA+government#.WSn5LROGMp- (accessed May 27, 2017).
  3. Harding, Sven. Why Cape Town’s Forgotten Tunnels Could Provide the Answer to the City’s Current Drought. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sven-harding/cape-town-tunnels-drought_b_9619340.html (accessed May 27, 2017).
  4. What”s causing Cape Town’s Water Crisis? May 17, 2017. http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/whats-causing-cape-towns-water-crisis-20170517 (accessed May 27, 2017).
  5. Simone, AbdouMaliq. “Relational infrastructures in postcolonial urban worlds .” By Stephen Graham and Colin McFarlane, 17-39. New York: Routledge, 2014.


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