OMNIA Q&A: Water Scarcity in Cape Town, South Africa, and Its Implications for the World

Nikhil Anand, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, discusses the looming water crisis in Cape Town, his research on water scarcity in Mumbai, India, and the future of water shortages globally.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

By Katelyn Silva

Nikhil Anand, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Cape Town, South Africa, has been experiencing drought due to low rainfall since 2015. The global news has been steadily reporting on the potential water-shortage crisis there, speculating on when Day Zero—the day when the taps will be shut off—will occur.

We spoke with Nikhil Anand, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and author of the book Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai, about the environmental, social, political, and technical causes of water scarcity around the world and what he expects for Cape Town.

What factors led to Cape Town’s water shortage?

Though many are talking about Cape Town right now, this is not just a Cape Town problem. It’s just one visible example. This is also not really an instance of a “global water crisis.” Instead, as Jamie Linton discusses in his book What is Water?, it is a crisis of the modern water supply paradigm. The historic ways of managing urban water are colliding with climate change and disrupting our expectations of regular supply. We often track water scarcity as a shortage of the absolute quantity of water that is available for people to use. But, scarcity is not just a result of physical, climatological reasons. It is also a result of the social, political, and technical ways in which water is drawn and extracted and how cities come to use that water. Scarcity emerges because of environmental, technological, and social relationships around water. It's not just a question of too little rain.

Do you believe Day Zero will come? If so, when?

I don't think Cape Town is actually going to hit Day Zero. As we have seen thus far, the closer we get to it, the farther away it gets pushed. It's a moving target. It goes back to what I was saying earlier, scarcity isn't about absolute water supply or absolute quantities of water, because if that was the case, Cape Town would have hit Day Zero by now. In reality, the city is doing things that enable it to push Day Zero months into the future, like reducing supply to agricultural regions. In this way, it becomes apparent that water demand is not a fixed number. It's tremendously elastic. So, scarcity is not caused by how much water we produce but also how much water we can consume. There's tremendous flexibility there to make do with less.

How does water distribution contribute to water shortages?

Since the mid-19th century, cities have been built and made possible through the tremendous achievement of large engineering works that draw water from rivers near or distant, consolidate those flows in treatment plants, and then send out treated water to residents of the city. It allows for standards of water quality to be maintained, but it is also a system that is tremendously resource-intensive. For example, a good amount of water is actually lost in the process of collecting and distributing water from distant watersheds. In Mumbai, for instance, the numbers are contentious, but 20 to 40 percent of water is lost somewhere along the way between the river and delivery to the people using it. Those numbers are not so different in Philadelphia, New York City, Trenton, or Boston. It’s a feature of aging urban water systems everywhere.

Could this water loss be prevented?

Yes, it’s preventable, but there is not enough political will to do it. These are tremendously old systems that would be exorbitantly expensive to replace entirely. It would cost billions of dollars. Now, in smaller cities, like Flint, Michigan, which experienced wide-spread issues with lead poisoning, there isn’t enough revenue to even maintain the existing system, never mind replace it. It’s also very hard to replace an entire system when water utilities need to send water through it every day to people who are dependent on it. Engineers also don't know which parts of the pipes are good and which are not until they get underground. It's very hard to mobilize the finances and the technical expertise needed and then cause large-scale disruption, in order to do more than that.

Your research looks into how blame gets disproportionately doled out when water shortages occur. Can you talk about that?

Oftentimes, what happens when we face a question of water scarcity is migrants get identified as the people who are at once the cause of the problem, and also who we can care least about in these urgent times. For example, you can think about the rhetoric in the U.S. around scarcity of jobs and immigration. The attitude in Mumbai is that migrants are from outside of the city and therefore, not entitled to city water, even though much of the water being consumed comes from the rural areas these migrants come from. On the other hand, migrants are blamed because they're seen as not civilized enough for the modern city. Some people believe they waste water or they don't know how to use it correctly. For example, poor people living in informal settlements in Mumbai or in South Africa, are seen to be using the water wastefully. I'm teaching a class on urban water in Philadelphia, and this is something that happened historically in the late-20th century here. African American communities were seen to be wasteful of the city's valuable water resources. These are common threads from around the world and they create divisions between people in times of scarcity. In Mumbai, you definitely saw the water department allocating different quantities of water depending on social class, broadly speaking, or housing type. And I would expect the same to be happening elsewhere. Those with means will also be able to build private wells and find other solutions.

The title of your book is Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Why did you choose that title and what does hydraulic citizenship mean?

If we look at different modern cities, for example, London, Manchester, New York, or Mumbai, oftentimes the moment of urban consolidation was centrally grounded in the extension of water services, municipal water services, or hydraulic engineering. These hydraulic infrastructures are inextricable from the history of the city and what it made possible. That's why I titled it Hydraulic City because it’s the kind of world you can see coming together by following water pipes. I am interested in rethinking cities not by the firmness of ground, but by the movement of water.

It appears that scarcity creates an anxiety among people that encourages them to change their behaviors. Would you agree with that?

Yes. It creates different kinds of anxiety for different people, depending on their caste, class, race, religion, gender, right? On the one hand it's completely right that necessity is the mother of invention. It makes people look for waters elsewhere. But on the other hand, it also produces an anxiety that fixes people in place and makes their politics more rigid and conservative. They think, "There's not enough. We better hold on to what we have." Scarcity politics can be a very conservative politics in the sense that it’s not inclusive, but instead draws lines between people.

Is water scarcity going to be the new normal?

The truth is that there is enough water (and food) for everyone on this planet, and maybe some more. It's about distribution. The distribution system is tremendously inefficient and tremendously unequal. We talked about like 30 to 40 percent of water getting lost. An equal amount of food is getting lost if you think about how much is being produced versus consumed. So, hunger is not really a problem of production, and neither is scarcity. It's a problem of distribution.

What do countries dealing with water scarcity need to do in order to avoid situations such as the one in Cape Town?

We need a new system that does not produce scarcity or inequality in the same way. Emerging water crises are demonstrating that large centralized water distribution systems may not be as durable as they once might have been. Their breakdowns are giving us a new way to imagine the technical systems on which we depend, and with that, our political and environmental systems. This is not to say that one paradigm is going to completely supplant the other, but I think that one paradigm will no longer rule the roost. We will have many different kinds of systems in the same place, operating at the same time. That's what I see in Mumbai. People are depending on ground water and river water. I think that's a positive thing.

Do you have any hopes for improvement in terms of more equal distribution of water?

Not without a fight. But, I think people are fighting. My book describes people in Mumbai who didn’t wait around for water engineers to act and give them their share of water. They took it upon themselves to hire their own plumbers and make their own designs and networks. Water is more equally divided now than it was 50 years ago in Mumbai. There are substantive improvements, but they are not improvements that have come from enlightened planning alone. They came through intense political demand and protestation from people in the settlements. It's not a pretty Utopia, but it definitely can be a world that's a little bit more engaged, more contentious and more equal.