EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Don't blame the rain: Explaining sociohydrological (in)security in Cape Town, South Africa

Elisa Savelli1,2, Maria Rusca1,2, Giuliano Di Baldassarre1,2,3, and Hannah Cloke1,2,4
Elisa Savelli et al.
  • 1Uppsala, Earth Sciences, Air, Water and Landscape Science, Uppsala, Sweden (
  • 2Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science, CNDS, Sweden
  • 3Department of Integrated Water Systems and Governance, IHE Delft, The Netherlands
  • 4Department of Meteorology, Reading University, United Kingdom

While depicted as a major global threat, water insecurity usually affects the most disadvantaged and marginalized people. Current definitions of water insecurity still fail to address this injustice as they either over-simplify and disconnect human-water dynamics or disregard the politics thereof. In light of this critique, this paper aims to contribute to reconceptualise water insecurity by integrating examinations of socio-political processes in analyses of chronic water insecurity and extreme drought events. To this end, we draw on sociohydrology and critical political ecology as a way to retrace the mutual shaping of hydrological flows and power dynamics that over time produce uneven geographies of water insecurity. We do so in the face of extreme droughts to understand to what extent these events intersect with the production and distribution of water insecurity. This paper draws on empirical work on the severe drought which affected Cape Town in 2015-17 and escalated into a water crisis also known as Day Zero. Despite being portrayed as a middle-class crisis, our study found that the marginalized people were the most affected while the wealthier elite were able to water secure themselves. This unequal picture sharply reflects the same water insecurities which existed long before Day Zero. We, thus, argue that they are a legacy of the spatial and economic segregation which has shaped Cape Town since colonial times. More than producing it, the drought has accelerated a pre-existing water crisis and exacerbated the level of water insecurity of every Capetonian. Proving that water insecurity is a sociohydrological phenomenon, we believe that such politically aware conceptualization is key to address its root causes and prevent the resulting injustices. Our analysis contributes to advance understanding of water insecurity by incorporating questions of uneven distribution and sociohydrological justice.

How to cite: Savelli, E., Rusca, M., Di Baldassarre, G., and Cloke, H.: Don't blame the rain: Explaining sociohydrological (in)security in Cape Town, South Africa, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-697,, 2019.


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  • CC1: Questions, Julien Malard-Adam, 01 May 2020

    Very interesting presentation; I very much enjoyed it! I had a few questions:

    1. Do you happen to know how each sector of society in Cape Town fared after 2017?
    2. How would you recommend that these recommendations be enacted? Which stakeholders would need to champion change?

    Thank you!

    -Julien Malard

    • AC1: Reply to CC1, Elisa Savelli, 03 May 2020

      Dear Julien, 

      Thank you very much for your comment and interesting questions.

      Regarding question n. 1, if you consider societal secors agriculture, industry, and services, I think that the main factors that shaped their reaction to the 2015-17 droughts are the following: socio-economic level, geographical location, relevance for the political economy of the City, and the water dependency and water intensity of the activity. I would relates these factors to the different drought experience and the resiliency trajectory of any activity amongst those sectors.

      Regarding question n. 2, a first recommendation would be to avoid the implementation of blank policies which impose the same solutions for different urban areas and societal groups. 
      However, the change that we are suggesting through our work is a systemic change. To have a more just distribution and sustainable consumption of water, the issue that need to be tackled is the political economic system which privileges the development and the consumption of the wealthier elite to the detriment of the more disadvantaged groups.
      The reason why some societal groups are more water insecure than others mostly lies in the politics, and in the interests that some societal groups have in distributing water unevenly. By understanding the interests that triggers certain societal behaviours we are much more able to address them.

      Finally, I think that everyone should be concerned about this issue, and as a result, be the agent of change. However, I also believe that power and prioviledge should also imply more responsibilities also in this concern.

      I hope that I have addressed your doubts. Please feel free to drop here other questions if you like.

      Meanwhile I am looking forward to having our discussion on Tuesday.

      Thank you.



      • CC2: Reply to AC1, Julien Malard-Adam, 04 May 2020

        Dear Elena,

        Thank you for the detailed reply. I particularly enjoyed your direct assessment of political interests and power imbalances. It is very nice to see these "social science" issues and their relationships to hydrology be explicitly addressed in this field!


        Julien Malard

  • CC3: Comment on EGU2020-697, Micha Werner, 05 May 2020

    Thanks for the interesting presentation. While I do not want to dispute that the rain is not to blame for the issues of severe water insecurity in Cape Town, I would like to explore the statements on slide 14 and 15. I agree that the water suppply system has allowed the city to grow, but one could also pose that the growth of city has allowed the water supply system to grow. So this seems a somewhat simplistic view. As stated later the unequal access to water is largely influenced by the political history of the city, and indeed in the conclusion it is said that the issue is actually not one to do with water but rather with the political and economic legacy and the choices (apparently currently still) made.

    One could also pose the reverse question. What would the impact be of improved access to water? Would the storage increase accordingly, and what are the limits?  What are the options available once the quite obvious limits start to be reached? In other words, what are the available hydrological, infrastuctural, economic and political options to make access and use of water more equitable? 

    • AC2: Reply to CC3, Elisa Savelli, 05 May 2020

      Dear Micha, I really like your questions as I think they are very important for me to better comunicate our objectives/intentions. Here, in this work, we do not want to state the obvious i.e. politics matter in water insecurity. Yet our objective is to remind hydrologists or sociohydrologists that these societal differences and power dynamics are the factors that provoke human feedbacks on the water systems. This is why it is essential to unravel them if our aim is to understand water-human interactions....

      To explain this, I can use the example you mentioned which is the construction of water-supply infrastructure (dams or reservoirs) originally meant to reduce water shortages. I believe that this technical and blank solution might on the long terms only improve access to the upper-classes while widening the divide between the “water have” and “water have not”. Thus, to tackle water shortages in a more efficient and equitable manner, we might think for instance about a water redistribution strategy, or a diversified response, before implementing new supply projects that will continue provide water only to areas that have access, can pay for water and overuse it… As you might have noticed, the change that I am proposing is also a systemic change that goes beyond the field of hydrology…