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Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ threat concentrated minds: an activist group used the moment to secure environmental victories

A man driving a tractor in a field
A tractor ploughs a field in the Philippi Horticultural Area in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images via Getty Images

Major cities across the world are being increasingly plagued by severe water shortages. From Bangalore, India to São Paulo, Brazil and even Beijing, China, cities are at risk of drought in the near future.

This has been true in South Africa too. Between 2016 and 2018 Cape Town experienced the real possibility of “Day Zero”, the day when the taps would run dry.

For some, this was the first time they’d had to think about not having water. Importantly, it also provided insight into water access inequality, which remains shockingly stark two-and-a-half decades after apartheid. Wealthy residents sank private boreholes and neglected to curb water use – despite high water tariffs. These actions were emblematic of the practices which led to the drought in the first place.

The Day Zero crisis changed things for Cape Town. Its impact, and the connections between money and access to water, is illustrated by the Philippi Horticultural Area, just on the outskirts of Cape Town.

In particular, the activities of the PHA Campaign, an activist group operating in the area, show how it’s possible to bolster environmental justice work.

My PhD research focused on the activist group’s work around unequal water use in Cape Town. The research found that Day Zero was a turning point for how water issues were seen and used by groups such as the PHA Campaign.

Water scarcity is likely to affect cities and towns across the world in the coming years. The role of justice-oriented activist groups will become increasingly important in managing these crises.

Philippi and horticulture

The Philippi Horticultural Area has been farmed commercially since the 1850s. This area, just 20km outside central Cape Town on the Cape Flats, has been whittled down from over 3,000 hectares in the mid-1960s to under 2,000 hectares today.

Most of the land is still owned by the descendants of the German immigrants brought into the Cape to make the area an agricultural hub. Like their forebears, they use agricultural methods which focus on production, rather than protecting natural resources for future generations. Pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, which destroy entire ecosystems, are relied upon to increase yield.

There are groups, however, that are focused on farming “with nature”. This agroecological approach involves protecting the soil, water resources and broader ecosystem. An example is companion planting to manage unwanted pests.

The PHA Campaign is one such group. It was formed in 2011 to oppose a large, mixed-use development proposed for the Philippi Horticultural Area. The chairperson, Nazeer Sonday, has been farming in the area since the Groups Areas Act was repealed in 1991. The act barred people of colour from living and working in particular areas. Once that law was repealed he was able to farm in Philippi.

A range of organisations and individuals make up the broader PHA Campaign. Their aim is to protect the Philippi Horticultural Area and its natural resources.

I spent three years conducting ethnographic research in the area. I interviewed a range of people and tracked the daily work of the PHA Campaign. This gave me insight into the dynamics of various communities, as well as the differences between the agricultural models being used.

My research showed that groups like the PHA Campaign have known for a long time about the lack of satisfactory protection of Cape Town’s water resources. They have also been acutely aware of how agriculture in the Philippi Horticultural Area has contributed to the (over)use and contamination of water resources.

My research illustrated how Day Zero was important in focusing attention and action on how water – and natural resources more generally – are used in Cape Town, especially in the context of climate change. During this time, the PHA Campaign was able to pair its criticism of industrial agriculture with the need to save water. By hosting public education events on water systems, the campaign aimed to educate the broader public and highlight the importance of agroecological agriculture.

One of the PHA Campaign’s most significant victories was a court case it won against developers in February 2020. Following an application by the PHA Campaign, the Western Cape High Court stopped a development in the PHA because of unanswered questions about its impact on water provision and recharge of the Cape Flats Aquifer. This 420km2 underground water source has played an essential role in the PHA being an agricultural hub, and since Day Zero, to augment the City’s water supply.

The case hinged on the factor of climate change. It shows how the courts might manage cases such as these in future as the tension between development and natural resource protection becomes more pronounced.

Learning from Day Zero

The 2016-2018 drought in Cape Town led to significant limitations on water use. Individuals were only allowed up to 50 litres a day. Around late 2018, restrictions on water use and favourable rainfall pulled Cape Town away from the brink of Day Zero.

By the end of 2018 the city began easing water restrictions. The issue of unequal water access and use has since largely receded from media and public attention. Some Cape Town residents – and the city’s authorities – characterised the crisis as a temporary problem which had been overcome.

Yet research shows that Day Zero was a possibility due to insufficient rainfall combined with ineffective water governance.

Attempting to isolate something like a drought to a short time period is not a helpful way to understand and deal with what the climate crisis brings.

Cape Town’s residents can breathe a sigh of relief that the drought has abated (for now). But the hard-won critical engagements around unequal water access must not move out of view.

The work done by the PHA Campaign, before, during and after the drought remains important for the food security of Cape Town, and for its water resources. The recognition and support of such groups should not be limited to times of crisis; concerns of socio-ecological justice cannot wait for the next drought or ecological crisis.

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