Our Burning Planet


Why punitive, technocratic approaches to water management are not the solution

Why punitive, technocratic approaches to water management are not the solution
Illustrative image | Sources: A young child carries fresh drinking water from a public tap to her home in the impoverished settlement of Masiphumelele in Cape Town, South Africa, on 18 June 2015. (Photo: EPA/NIC BOTHMA) | Protesters run with looted goods on 13 July 2021 in Eshowe, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Volksblad / Mlungisi Louw) | Open Street Map

Water is a critical and scarce resource that will be increasingly threatened by climate change and unequal access to it highlights the need for transformative adaptation. 

This essay considers urban adaptation and water governance in the light of lessons learned from work undertaken by the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) with communities in Cape Town. 

As highlighted by the Presidential Climate Commission’s Synthesis Report, water is a critical and scarce resource that will be increasingly threatened by climate change, and equitable allocation of this resource will need to be ensured through a just transition. Any transition would be demonstrably unjust if the poorest sections of the population were left without equitable access to water. This is equally true of other essential needs, such as housing, waste management and employment. 

Achieving zero carbon emissions is, by itself, of little value to citizens if they lack a secure water supply, decent shelter, a clean and safe environment or a livelihood. 

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The just transition

The concept of the just transition emerged in the 1970s to address the impact of environmental legislation on energy-sector jobs. Practical examples of the just transition still tend to focus on this aspect of the just transition. The Just Transition Center highlights Spain as an example where coal-sector workers who have lost jobs as the country transitions to renewables receive training and/or compensation. 

More recently, reporting by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and South Africa’s Presidential Commission on Climate Change have recognised the broader meaning of the just transition. But, as Neil Overy and Richard Halsey argue, South Africa remains at the preparatory stage of the just transition, and “little has yet translated to tangible action on the ground”.

The Global North may be in a position to adapt to climate change with fewer major social or ecological breakdowns, whereas in the Global South the same impacts are far more likely to be catastrophic given the levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality and the ways inequity restricts our ability to adapt to climate change. 

This point is clearly illustrated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its recent Sixth Assessment Report. Part 2 of the report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, notes that the “vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change differs substantially among and within regions, driven by patterns of intersecting socio-economic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalisation, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, and governance. Approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.”

In wealthy countries where access to welfare, housing, water and sanitation, health care and the like are nearly universal, the ability to shield citizens from climate disasters and respond effectively to disasters is high. Nations in the Global South are already experiencing worse climate impacts than the North, and this trend will increase with rising temperatures and more extreme weather events. 

For example, Madagascar’s environment minister pleaded for “climate solidarity” at the 2021 UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), as the country faced what was termed the world’s first climate change-driven famine. At an international level, the tendency to focus narrowly on the energy transition reinforces climate injustice, with the implicit neocolonial understanding that developed countries can continue to benefit from their historical and current high use of fossil fuels, while developing countries are blocked from exploiting new fossil fuel resources.

It is imperative that a just transition rapidly build a society better able to adapt and respond to the increasing impacts of climate change. In South Africa, even without climate change, the burdens and pressures on society are overwhelming. Climate change adds additional pressures. A just transition has to encompass building a far more equitable future as a fundamental part of ensuring South Africa’s adaptation to climate change.

High levels of unemployment, poverty, food and housing insecurity will ensure that those living on the margins are further marginalised and bear the brunt of climate change. These stresses have already begun to highlight fault lines in the fabric of South African society in the form of persistent service-delivery protests and the civil unrest and rioting* that took place in South Africa in July 2021. Although the unrest was primarily in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, the rest of the country was on a heightened level of alert, as the riots resulted in an estimated R50-billion of damage and 354 deaths between 8 and 17 July.

There is understandable concern that continued civil unrest will undermine South Africa’s development and lead to its being regarded as a failed state. A failing state would struggle to access international climate finance and be unable to implement the wide array of policies and development interventions needed to adapt to climate change. Adapting to climate change is not a luxury for the country, nor is it only relevant for wealthier citizens; it is fundamental for the survival of the just, sustainable and democratic state envisaged following apartheid.

Water access and governance context

Water security issues and unequal access to water highlight the need for transformative adaptation. Adaptation is not about tweaking the system; it requires fundamental change. 

Existing problems show that governance systems are ill-prepared for the adaptation challenges we face. Water is a critical and scarce resource that will be increasingly threatened by climate change, hence the need for a just transition that ensures an equitable allocation of this resource.

In the Western Cape, water availability is predicted to decline as climate change takes hold. EMG’s work on the 2009–10 drought along the Garden Route and on the 2015–18 drought in Cape Town highlight important lessons:

  • In both cases, there was a lack of political will to invest in water infrastructure prior to the drought. The emergency plans to add water supply on short notice, such as through desalination, were costly and proved to be a poor use of resources, further highlighting the need for proactive investment in water infrastructure.
  • Government was slow to respond to the severity of the droughts and only imposed severe water restrictions when supply levels were critical. A more long-term approach would help avoid the need for severe restrictions when drought occurs.
  • Government did ultimately impose severe restrictions, increased tariffs and initiated consumer education campaigns that succeeded in drastically reducing water use by households. In Cape Town, both rich and poorer households were using 200 litres of water a day towards the end of the drought, highlighting that water inequality is not inevitable.

The South African Water Caucus (Sawc) is a network of water activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that for two decades have been fighting for water justice and a government more responsive to the needs of the poorest people. Sawc has engaged with national policy processes and issues such as water quality, drought response and water pricing and tariffs. It is comprised of provincial groups that respond to issues of particular concern at a local level. Western Cape Water Caucus (WCWC) activists have long been struggling to ensure that households have dignified access to basic water and sanitation. Since 2008 a key focus has been resisting the rollout of water management devices (WMDs).

The current water governance approach in South Africa assumes that it is reasonable to restrict access to water if bills are not paid or if indigent households use more than their allocated amount. The legality of restriction by prepaid water meters was clarified in the Constitutional Court’s Phiri decision. This ruling has enabled municipalities to implement the use of WMDs rather than focus on addressing the underlying systemic and socioeconomic conditions preventing payment. WMDs in Cape Town are set to cut off water after users consume the daily limit of 350 litres. WCWC activists have fought against the use of WMDs for over 10 years. Ongoing problems relating to these devices have included the following:

  • Lack of consultation around their installation;
  • Undetected leaks that lead to daily water cut-offs;
  • Technical failures of WMDs that lead to cut-offs;
  • Disagreement about the number of people in a household, especially when it includes backyard dwellings;
  • People still getting bills after being told that the WMD would mean no more bills; and
  • Lack of technical assistance when problems are experienced with WMDs

These issues have persisted, despite the WCWC’s efforts to engage authorities to find resolutions. In a tacit understanding that WMDs were problematic, the City of Cape Town (COCT) agreed to decommission their use from July 2021. The new ‘free-flow’ metered system introduced late in 2021 means that indigent households will now have flow restrictors put in place if they use more than 15,000 litres per month over a two-month period. The City affirms that indigent households “will be responsible for ensuring [that their] water usage remains below the current limit.” WCWC members argue that this new approach fails to address underlying issues relating to water access. These include water-billing issues being unresolved when households dispute high bills, household leaks being unresolved and disagreement about whether the allocated amount is adequate when multiple households live in backyard dwellings.

EMG argues that the ongoing failures in access to water and sanitation by poor households indicate the need for a fundamental change in approaches to governance and community engagement. Put simply, there is a continued failure of the City of Cape Town to address the needs of a growing population of poor residents”.

A new understanding of governance is needed in the context of climate change, such as ‘transformational adaptation’, to ensure that a just and resilient future is possible. Transformative adaptation acknowledges that climate change is not a standalone issue but combines with other drivers of change. Environmental scientist Giacomo Fedele and colleagues illustrate examples of transformative adaptation, including “the revitalisation of rivers and relocation of human activities in flood plains (as opposed to building channels and dikes) and ‘the creation of multi stakeholders’ committees for managing water use quotas during scarcity (compared to top-down decisions)”.

The prevailing technocratic approach may work quite well as an approach to water management, in terms of water supply and demand, but it fails to sufficiently consider lives and livelihoods and thus meet people’s fundamental needs for equitable access to water and sanitation. This approach serves the needs and interests of wealthy households in the leafy suburbs, where concerns are heard and responded to. A genuinely transformative governance approach would seek to negotiate and resolve underlying issues in poor communities as well. Issues around WMDs in Cape Town illustrate a clash of realities around how leaks should be fixed and billing should take place at a household level. 

Instead of there being communication on how issues such as household leaks could be fixed in the complex lived reality of poverty, people are stuck with a punitive approach. Johan Enqvist and colleagues argue that this relates to authorities’ tendency to treat all citizens as if they do or should live in a formal context in order to access water services. 

A just transition demands that systems be put in place to ensure genuine dialogue between all citizens and government.

Community Resilience in Cape Town project

Given the challenges outlined above and the desire for change, activists, NGOs and academics established the Community Resilience in Cape Town project to explore ways of resolving issues in the contested context of water governance. The project is a transdisciplinary collaborative process between the Western Cape Water Caucus, EMG, the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town and the Centre for Complex Systems at the University of Stellenbosch. 

As activists for dignified water access, members of the WCWC were keen to conduct research within their respective communities. Discussions among the project partners led to the use of the SenseMaker tool to conduct research in the city’s townships. SenseMaker is a process where researchers collect respondents’ experiences in narrative form using a cell phone application, then compile data and insights from the large number of stories gathered. A total of 311 stories were collected across Mitchells Plain, Green Park, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Dunoon, Jo Slovo and several other areas. These areas include both formal housing and informal settlements.

The narratives gathered by the WCWC researchers highlight recurring challenges:

  • “I’m very, very angry. I have a WMD which was installed, without my consent. Now I’m facing a huge water bill and I have reported [my broken device].”
  • “[The WMD] kept leaking water and my water [allocation] would run out quickly. My husband asked a plumber in our area, who charged us R200 to fix it so we have water.”
  • “Living in an informal settlement, we once as a community asked municipality to put up a tap closer to our houses. The results were positive.”
  • “Nothing has changed for the better [with the WMD], it has gotten worse: there are days when there’s no water. The water bills are sky high and I don’t understand why. I have gone to the council to report but for two years no one has come to help.”

SenseMaker findings

The findings highlight a number of problems faced by marginalised communities in Cape Town. The most common water issues that respondents reported were in relation to billing (45%) and leakages (32%). Sixty-four per cent of respondents reported that their problems were ongoing and never resolved, while only 14 per cent reported that problems were satisfactorily resolved.

The results show a clear breakdown in getting a response to service delivery issues when reported, highlighting a major disconnect between citizens and government. For a comprehensive overview of the SenseMaker process and results, see here.

Use of the SenseMaker findings

Late in 2019 workshops were held in the communities where the research was undertaken to share the SenseMaker findings with research participants and City of Cape Town officials. One workshop included positive engagement with COCT officials regarding the findings. The citizen researchers appreciated that COCT officials were finally hearing and responding to the concerns they raised. 

There was an agreement that further engagements would take place between the COCT and WCWC members to explore ways of resolving some of the problems discussed, such as dysfunctional WMDs and high water bills. The pandemic delayed the engagements until December 2021. COCT officials have now committed to investigating specific billing issues raised by the WCWC from a sample of 10 houses to ascertain the cause of the problems reported and how they might relate to more systemic issues.


The research found that governance systems tend to focus on a city-wide scale. Clearly, this is important, as it seeks to maintain water supply throughout the city, with its four million customers. This also makes the COCT quite effective in responding to infrastructure failures that occur at a localised level, regardless of where they take place. However, there are significant shortcomings in governance systems, where systemic issues affecting thousands of households across multiple areas are poorly addressed.

The SenseMaker process is an example of how engagement can build governance that is responsive to issues on the ground. In this instance, citizens were enabled to conduct their own research, present it to city officials and look at how to practically make a difference.

In a water governance system that better served poor communities, city officials would listen to the lived experience of community members and engage in dialogue with them on these issues. People would have opportunities to describe issues affecting them, and officials would be able to describe the constraints they operate under. 

Successful engagement could resolve billing issues before they run into the tens of thousands of rands, WMDs could be replaced when they are faulty, citizens could better understand the billing system, households could identify and fix basic leaks quickly and they and officials could find compromises enabling plumbers to fix more complex leaks without households’ being charged. Similar dialogue could help solve other governance issues, such as access to electricity, waste management and housing.

When such issues are not addressed, the disconnect and distrust between people and government grows, which is exactly the opposite of what is needed for a just transition. If people cannot effectively work within the system, they are much more likely to work outside of it, with bypassed meters, illegal water connections and the like. As Maria Kaika argues, governance should look for breakdowns and channel energy into resolving these emerging issues, rather than relying on technocratic approaches, such as the use of indicators.

The just transition has to be understood as the movement to a far more equal society that doesn’t leave the majority of people behind.

The disconnect between government and citizens is graphically illustrated by the political violence that occurs in local politics. EMG has consistently seen how political patronage and power politics has created a culture where citizens are actively prevented from raising dissenting points and often face violence and intimidation when trying to address the concerns of local communities. For example, during the pandemic, this led to political killings, such as that of an Mfuleni community leader who sought to distribute food parcels. 

Covid-19 context

The Covid-19 pandemic can be studied as a prolonged period of extreme societal stress to better understand the implications of such a crisis for a just transition. Early in 2021 EMG began studying pandemic experiences in relation to the just transition, focusing on issues related to water and sanitation. 

The pandemic powerfully illustrated the predicament South Africa faces in ensuring equitable access to water and sanitation. The national government quickly noted access to water as vital for people’s ability to wash their hands and keep social distancing while queuing for water. It initiated a programme to deliver water tanks and tankers to underserviced areas, including schools, informal settlements and rural areas.

 The COCT then provided water and sanitation services in so-called unrecognised informal settlements. The City made clear, however, that “these temporary services were intended for the duration of the lockdown regulations related to the Covid-19 pandemic and [were] not intended to continue thereafter.”

Unfortunately, this illustrates that the government saw the need for improved access to water as only temporary, rather than as a systemic deficiency to be addressed.

So where to from here?

A just transition demands that systems be put in place to ensure genuine dialogue between all citizens and government. The SenseMaker findings show that when people cannot resolve issues with government, when they are marginalised and unheard, they resort to bypassing systems and alternative arrangements to access water and sanitation. Despite the frustrations and anger from activists regarding poor access to water and sanitation, WCWC members remain committed to engaging with government to resolve the issues faced in communities across Cape Town. Increased engagement between the COCT and the WCWC in 2022 could start to rebuild trust and identify ways to ensure sustainable and equitable access to water.

The just transition has to be understood as the movement to a far more equal society that doesn’t leave the majority of people behind.

Currently, the reassuring visions of government climate change response strategies tend to remain aspirational and give no clear direction on how governance must and will be changed as a fundamental part of the response. The city’s climate change action plan includes the principle of “innovation and transformational planning” but as yet offers no definition of “transformational planning” or how it will be achieved. 

Until the need for transformation is clearly articulated, it is difficult to see how the COCT or South Africa will achieve the laudable goal of ensuring “that all Capetonians are able to live in well-located, energy-efficient and climate-proof housing, are easily able to access safe and affordable transport, have affordable high-quality water, sanitation, refuse collection and clean energy, and enjoy a healthy local environment, with access to green spaces.”

Our experience with the SenseMaker process documents the disconnect between people’s lived experiences in poor communities and the narrative that the City of Cape Town is a well-functioning city. 

A just transition will require a fundamental overhaul of the way government engages with citizens so that choices are informed by genuine participatory engagement with them. This essay has focused on water issues, but the underlying concerns also apply to other areas, such as land access, electricity, waste management, housing and so on. The adage ‘Nothing about us without us’ has to be the core principle around which any change interventions take place. DM/OBP

*The nature and cause of the civil unrest in July 2021 is contested, with continuing debates over the extent to which the widespread property destruction was instigated or spontaneous.

Nicholas Hamer is Project manager for the Environmental Monitoring Group.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five.

This essay is part of a series that explores challenges and opportunities relating to a just transition in South Africa, with a specific focus on enhancing resilience in ways that improve lives and livelihoods. The series is being published in the lead-up to the Presidential Climate Commission’s multistakeholder just transition conference on 5 and 6 May. This essay series has been produced by the Presidential Climate Commission Secretariat and New Climate Economy, with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The interpretations and findings set forth in the essays are the authors’ alone.


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Absa OBP

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