The Atlantic

What's Actually Behind Cape Town's Water Crisis

Blame austerity-obsessed technocrats, irresponsible development, and willful ignorance.
Source: Mike Hutchings / Reuters

The city of Cape Town was plonked by its founders onto a peninsula where the Indian and Atlantic oceans merge, often violently, beneath the imposing banks of Table Mountain. To its north lie the fertile fruit and wine farms that weigh down the city’s restaurant tables with unimaginable bounty. Every day when the clock strikes noon, a cannon blast echoes from Signal Hill, a reminder of the city’s colonial heritage. It was established first as a vegetable garden by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, then repurposed as a stronghold for the British until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910; later it served as the apartheid regime’s parliamentary stronghold. In 2014, The New York Times declared it the best place in the world to visit. Britain’s Daily Telegraph concurred.

Today, Cape Town faces two catastrophic, extinction-level botherations. First, the rains that once fell so reliably during the winter months have tailed off. For the past three years, they have barely fallen at all—a phenomenon one meteorologist calls. Second, Cape Town is one of the more unequal cities on earth, with the wealthy, mostly white, population living in toney coastal and inland suburbs, and the poor, mostly black, inhabitants shunted onto the flatlands, an hours-long commute from the city’s economic hub.

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