ANALYSIS: What caused Cape Town's water crisis?

AS AN analyst and commentator, the question I get asked most has shifted from who will win the ANC’s presidential nomination to how did Cape Town get itself into such a water crisis.

While within the Mother City a blame game seems to be the only way for politicians to attempt to absolve themselves of direct responsibility, the truth is that the looming Day Zero has a host of geneses. And, given these multiple causes, there should be little surprise as to the pending crisis.

Firstly, South Africa’s budget planning is myopically short-term. The country has lurched from election cycle to election cycle as both national and local spheres attempt to plug the deep holes in social expenditure and exclusion. Politically, elected office bearers regard this as providing immediate benefits to the poor and in return, expecting electoral rewards at the polls.

Ultimately, the constant election cycles over the five-year period -  punctuated mid-term by local government elections - exacerbate this short-term planning. As a result, holding back funds or the reallocation of budgets is simply put on the back burner. It’s all about instant gratification from the limited funding options available.

Limited budgets for cities

Connected to this is precisely the limited budgets that cities have to work with. And, equally, the lack of adequate financial inflows at national level too. While poverty alleviation drains large portions of the fiscus, low growth rates, business-unfriendly policies, high unemployment and broad-based economic stagnation perpetuate the limited financial resources available for allocation.

No surprise therefore that immediate deliverables are prioritised rather than longer-term infrastructural needs.

This is so patently evident in the R50bn budget shortfall that will need to be plugged by the minister of finance. The increasing shortfalls due to dampened confidence and poor governance prevent adequate forward planning. We will in a few weeks be consumed by more tax increases just to balance the books.

The underperforming domestic economy which largely failed to recover following the global credit crunch has been further dampened by a deteriorating political environment, in which graft and wasteful expenditure further limited available resources.

Add to this the deep debt malaise for both individual citizens and municipalities and once again, the options for critical longer-term delivery becomes limited.

Political rivalry not helpful

To top this all off, the adversarial relationship between national government and the Democratic Alliance-led provincial and city administrations in the Western Cape does not help matters.

As the Zuma administration became increasingly consumed by opportunities for self-accumulation and simultaneously more populist in an attempt to halt the growth of the DA, attempts to embarrass a DA-led administration became a possible vote-catcher. This sabotaged what should have been a cooperative atmosphere across the spheres of government. 

Both provincial and national governments now need a new relationship - less adversarial and more inclusive. This in itself will provide some sentiment boost to Capetonians, even if the taps do run dry.

Failure to plan ahead

And even if we exclude political rivalries, the simple neglect for infrastructure and forward thinking across a host of critical functions – from electricity to the rail network - contributed to a failure to plan ahead.

But equally, the narrower focus on immediate delivery to the poor obscured the need to address the longer-term trends which connect climate change with urbanisation.

For over a decade, most Future Studies have identified these two factors as high risk – especially in the developing world. No one can argue that the broad effects of water scarcity (climate change) coupled with the massive drift from rural to urban is a surprise.

Two-thirds of the world’s population are expected to live in cities by 2030. At Davos this last week, extreme weather once again topped the risk charts. No political leader can say they were not warned.

This adds a complexity of a host of interacting parts to the management of this increasingly multifaceted puzzle. And while one would like policies to come from national government (since they have the ability to dispense financial allocations), the reality is that local city administrations on the ground are better placed to identify and understand the pressures and specific effects on their jurisdiction.

Yes, we have had no shortage of workshops, bosberaads or lekgotlas, but have we really gone out and started to consult global experts on the many challenges of urbanisation? It brings opportunity, but size and resource pressure bring fragility as well. This is not unique to Cape Town or other South African cities – globally, we should look to learn and accept advice.

Let's harness global expertise

At this late stage, Cape Town could still leverage its perilous position by calling for outside help. This could act as a prototype response for other cities in the world which will also be affected by water scarcity in the future. The expertise is out there – and we should be willing to embrace it wherever it might come from.

National government too, needs to move from its recent suspicion of the outside world to a new embrace. It’s not just about gaining foreign investment, it should be an embrace to harness global expertise – and Cape Town does need it urgently.

There is an extreme complexity to all these issues which touches upon almost every aspect of the political supply chain. It is time that politicians are set straight by citizens, civil society, academics, the private sector and global innovators to move them beyond their political point-scoring.

Cape Town and South Africa urgently need a multilateral approach to the water crisis, while the country requires the same for other pending social challenges.

We live in an increasingly complex world where immense opportunity and debilitating challenges run side by side. Our politicians may need to become more like economists or scientists to effect meaningful change. A more holistic approach to governance and a change in the core talents of our politicians is long overdue.

  •  Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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