The positive effects of systemic collapse — lessons for Cape Town by Lize Swartz

16177487_1348685531818526_4418355730312549822_oAbout the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD Researcher at the ISS and blog manager of the ISS Blog. Her research focuses on the link between civic action and change in social-ecological systems, and she has conducted fieldwork in three South African towns to closely study citizen responses to the collapse of local water supply systems.


Across the world, newsreaders recently started catching on to arguably one of the most pressing challenges in South Africa: The looming collapse of Cape Town’s water supply system. The Cape Town government and residents over the past few years have taken numerous steps to slow the gradual emptying of dams supplying this city, but ‘Day Zero’ is now a real possibility1. While news media show the uncertainty and fear surrounding Day Zero, ongoing research about similar ‘water crises’ in South Africa shows that systemic collapse can also beget positive outcomes.


The dreaded ‘Day Zero’

Long before the issue of water scarcity is now reaching its peak, water restrictions were imposed in Cape Town, South Africa in an attempt to save water in dry summer periods until the next rains would come. The Western Cape, one of South Africa’s nine provinces situated in the south west of the country, had experienced below-normal rainfall for years, to an extent that residents could witness the difference in the matter of a decade. Moreover, Cape Town’s population increased by 1 million people in just a decade, increasing the demand for water2.

It hence should not have come as a surprise that this African city that houses over 4 million people would eventually face water scarcity. Over recent years, however, the dry period started stretching into the winter and beyond, and predictions for dry future decades became a present reality. The inability to balance decreasing water supply with an ever-increasing demand has resulted therein that dams supplying the city have now reached such a low level that policy-makers have become cognisant of the very real possibility of municipal water supplies running out. The city has taken extensive measures to halt the sysem’s collapse, but current efforts seem to have been in vain3. Much uncertainty surrounds ‘Day Zero’, and what happens after this moment cannot be predicted. However, ongoing research of similar systemic collapse in three other South African towns can potentially provide some lessons – and hope.

Crises: An opportunity for change

Over the last two years, I have been studying civic action in three South African towns following the collapse of their municipal water supply systems. The processes of collapse and restoration were studied from a systems perspective. Systems theory sees the world as comprising countless social-ecological systems that are closely linked to their environments in which change occurs. Hence, I talk about Cape Town’s water in terms of a local water supply system.

From a systems perspective, static water management paradigms may lead to systemic collapse and eventual reorganization. The good news is that this collapse can force necessary change need for the system to function better in the future. The theory describes moments in the adaptive cycles of ecological systems where opportunity for novelty and innovation can emerge. This usually follows after systemic collapse. Hence, while one of the possible outcomes of systemic collapse is the failure of a system to return to ‘normal’, through this it can change to something new altogether, possibly becoming an enhanced version of its former self. A new normal may be created, and both the state and citizens can play a part in achieving this.

Systemic collapse: Not all bad news

My research shows that in each of the towns the municipal water supply had run out after dams and rivers were drained. None of the municipalities had a plan in place for after ‘Day Zero’. But each town found their own way of dealing with the crisis. One town set up functional water collection points. Others resorted to ‘water shedding’4. Throughout, citizens led the process of restoring the water system, also adapting their water use practices or securing their own water supply in whichever means available to them. All three towns somehow managed the collapse and carried on until water could be restored to the taps.

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Drained to the dregs: In one of the studied towns, the last available water was drained manually from a reserve dam (see pumps on left of photo) before the taps spluttered and ran dry in June 2016. The town then survived without water in taps for around six weeks. Photo: Lize Swartz

While the data analysis phase is in its early stages, my study tentatively shows that some citizens through civic action have played a crucial role in managing the collapse by adapting their own water use practices and by becoming water distributors themselves in the period following collapse. As in Cape Town, in the three towns the government’s lagging response and trial-by-error approach to dealing with the problem also characterised the periods before and after these water supply systems collapsed. The bad news is that governance practices in the three towns do not seem to have been adapted on the long run.

While this is bad news, particularly because drought and climate change discourses allow the state to absolve itself from blame, herein lies the hope: Citizens learned and could apply the lessons to their interactions with the water systems. Much novelty emerged not only in the way people made sense of their relationship with water and in their adaptive practices, but also in social relationships and in their conceptualisation of their identity as citizens and their own power. 

While, evidently, governance practices founded on certain beliefs regarding water availability need to change, this new realisation of the role of citizens as water users in contributing to change, and the value of civic action in shaping new futures, is an essential starting point. It can help to address the problematic issue of technocratic ‘fixes’ and the empty discourses on ‘participation’ that I argue led to the increased vulnerability of systems that ultimately resulted in their collapse.

While the extent and type of change brought about may not be enough to protect the water systems from future shocks, particularly due to partial instead of system-wide adaptation, small changes are an essential starting point for better aligning water demand with water supply, to change how systems work without changing their core function, in this case supplying water. Hence, the study shows the importance of citizens in leading change to a new, adaptive water governance paradigm characterised by flexibility.

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While some residents of one South African town had to survive from whatever the water they could carry, cooperation instead of conflict seemed to characterise interactions in the town. Photo: Lize Swartz.

Lessons for Cape Town

What exactly can the city learn from smaller towns? Some preliminary insights point to the inevitability of change following systemic collapse, and the ability to shape the type of change that would ensue. The trend in (near-)collapses of water systems across South Africa clearly indicates that something must change. And the space for civic leadership presents itself in this moment of crisis. Such moments of crisis invite reflexivity and create opportunities for novelty of thought and practice – and therefore for change, be it political or systemic. Learn from the collapse and apply the lessons to the water system to improve its resilience and sustainability. Learn to collaborate and to work together – this will be crucial in the period going forward. It is up to Capetonian policy-makers, residents and industries to collectively harness this opportunity to tailor the system to better function in the context of a changing landscape and deteriorating governance. It is also up to Captonian residents to then hold the state accountable across all levels, and to demand its adherence to its self-assigned mandate of ensuring sound water governance and sustainable water use.


1Day Zero, the day when municipal taps are turned off, is currently expected on 21 April 2018.
2http://www.statssa.gov.za/?page_id=1021&id=city-of-cape-town-municipality
3From 1 February 2018, potable water use will be limited to 50 litres per person per day. However, despite increasingly severe water restrictions, only 39% of residents are using less than the specified limit. While the city is in the process of augementing its water resources – something residents feel it should have done years ago – water demand is clearly not being managed well.
4 While this term, referring to the intermittent provision of water at certain times of the day, may be known in South Africa, it is likely less known outside of the country. The phrase has its origins in the term ‘load shedding’, referring to the intermittent provision of electricity in the country due to an ongoing energy crisis that is comparable to the national water crisis in many aspects. 
MAIN PHOTO: In one of the towns, citizens become water suppliers by providing water to the public on a daily basis.
DISCLAIMER: None of the findings in this study are final or binding.

One comment

  1. I find this very helpful in understanding where we are in terms of managing the crisis in South Africa. While in the midst of the situation, people are only reacting to the problem in the short term in the beginning. The realization that it will not pass quickly, forces us Capetonians to think and plan in the longer term. And reflect on ways on how to ensure that Cape Town with Table Mountain being one of the seven modern wonders of the world, can sustain its tourism industry.

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