The Politics of Drought

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By Mbalenhle Khuzwayo

This article can also be found in the print Edition 2 of VARSITY Newspaper.


Cape Town has experienced drought stress since 2014, but the severity of the situation deepened this year with the arrival and eventual conclusion to Day Zero. Consequently, there has been emphasis on reducing water consumption and saving water.

Cape Town is currently the first major city in the world, that has come this close to running out of water. South Africa has about 4000 dams, only 350 of which are owned by the government and the rest are privately owned. However, only 6 major dams provide water supply to Cape Town, all of which are privately owned.

Image from wikicommons

These dams prioritize agrarian water consumption with the rest of the city having to make do with the remains.  Agriculture is a significant part of the South African economy but its maintenance currently exists at the expense of South African citizens. The phrase “being poor is expensive” comes to mind when discourse around saving water is around how water in the informal settlements is wasted.

When in actuality being poor and wasteful is counter-intuitive to saving in general, not just water which is critical for survival. For instance, in Khayelitsha, thousands of inhabitants share a single tap which is used to fill up single containers for an entire household to utilize. Centering poor South Africans as scape goats for Cape Town not meeting water saving targets, is problematic to say the least.

Especially, when the areas with the most water consumption, according to the department of water and sanitation, are places like Crawford, Constantia and Tokai in the top 10. Which are middle class to upper class suburban areas that have pools and garden fountains that consume large amounts of water collectively.

Yet, there is little to no coverage on how the wealthy are the least accountable in reducing water consumption often at the expense of the poor.

The drought is not under anyone’s control; however, alleviating excessive water consumption of an entire city is a collective effort. If those who have had to make do with little to nothing during their menstrual cycle, what is stopping you as an individual who has more? If anything, I am personally grateful for the awareness this water crisis is creating about socio-economic inequality and how as a country we all need to do better by each other whether in Khayelitsha or Constantia something has to give. Especially for the greater good.

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2 thoughts on “The Politics of Drought

  1. Niel Reply

    Dear Editor,

    Just some points of clarity on this piece “Politics of Drought”.

    Firstly, according to the 1998 National Water Act, all water resources in South Africa (surface and ground) belongs to the South African State. Where water resources are held and used in privately owned dams it is only allowable under Government issued Water Use Licenses.

    Secondly, the current breakdown of dam ownership (a list of registered dams can be found at indicates that there are currently 4183 private dams and 744 State/Government owned dams (Municipalities, Government Departments and Water Boards). However, these figures are misleading in terms of total water capacity as most of the private dams are small farm dams. If you look at total capacity then Government/State dams have a total storage capacity of 30 019 603 m3, while privately owned dams only have a total storage capacity of 3 092 531 m3. In other words, privately owned dams only constitute about 10% of total dam capacity in South Africa.

    Lastly, it is not true that the 6 major dams that provide water to Cape Town are privately owned. The major dams, which provide 99% of water to the Western Cape Water Supply System, the Theewaterskloof Dam, Wemmershoek Dam, Steenbras Dams (Upper and lower), Voëlvlei Dam, and Berg River Dam are all owned and operated by either the Department of Water and Sanitation or the City of Cape Town.

    While there is perhaps a need for discussion on the allocation of water resources by the government and discrepancies in use between rich and poor households, the underlying narrative that the majority of water resources in South Africa are privately held is patently not true.

  2. Niel Reply


    Apologies, the figures for total storage capacities are 30 billion m3 for government and 3 billion m3 for private dams respectively and not millions.

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