Why a ‘Technical Fix’ can’t Solve Political Problems: The Case of Cape Town’s Water Crisis.

Image: Vox


In the 1960s, the tension between the planet’s finite resources and its growing population led Development actors to seek responses to a so-called ‘Malthusian crisis’. A simple piece of technology: the intra-uterine device (IUD) was quickly hailed as the be-all end-all solution to birth control in the Global South by providing a “cheap technological fix” which resolved the infinitely more complex problem of “motivating people to have fewer children.” This is one of the most famous examples of a “technical fix”: when a technological innovation is believed to resolve an inherently social or political problem. But while technology is certainly part of the solution to Development problems, any comprehensive approach should also ask the following questions: Who owns the resource? Who gets access to it? And on what basis?

Cape Town’s water crisis serves as a good case study to discuss how these fixes fail to address pre-existing inequalities and power relations, and do so by distracting attention away from political solutions. By empowering the private sector and individuals, technical fixes also cast aside the role of the State and inhibit sustainable, inclusive policy action. The only way out of Cape Town’s water crisis is to hold the government accountable for its unjust distribution of water and demand that it addresses the legacies of apartheid.

The Technical Fix

In 2017, Cape Town’s mayor declared the city a local disaster and restricted its citizens to just 100 liters of water a day: enough to take a five-minute shower, wash one’s face twice and flush the toilet five times. In a 2017 Ted Talk, Lana Mazahreh hoped to resolve the water crisis through “three lessons for water conservation”: 1. public campaigns to communicate water levels, 2. using economic incentives in the private sector and 3. supporting technological innovation. She particularly promoted the provision of low consumption showerheads to people’s homes and other technological gadgets that would help reduce the water-intensity of everyday habits. This approach implies that technology itself can conserve water in the interest of the city’s residents, but this discourse is painting over the cracks of Cape Town’s society.

Resource Ownership

Lest we forget, water is owned by the government, not individual citizens. In South Africa, 89% of water is distributed to non-domestic sectors, 61 % of which goes to irrigation. The State’s distribution of water is marred by the economic interests of the country. Agriculture and mining represent a disproportionately large part of water provision in South Africa and composes the majority of exports from the country (OEC, 2019). By supporting an export-based economic system, these water uses make South Africa reliant on global demand and reproduce systems of dependency dating back to colonialism. Hence, the root of the problem lies in the pressures of the neoliberal system, which generate an ever-growing demand for water intensive goods from the Global South.

Graph 1. Water use per sector in South Africa, Department of Water Affairs & Forestry (2003)

In light of this, Mahzareh is holding the wrong stakeholders accountable for change. Asking Capetonians to reduce their shower-time is distracting from the political question: Why is the government providing its people with only 11% of water resources, and even more importantly: how do we change that? Of course, one should not come away from this thinking they, as an individual, have no agency over water conservation. Nor should engineers stop believing in the power of innovation and technology. Low consumption showerheads are certainly a part of the solution, but we should not fall into the trap of believing that they are Cape Town’s saving grace.

Access and the Legacies of Apartheid

Just because the government has implemented regulations on water consumption does not mean that every individual in Cape Town is consuming 100 liters of water a day. The variations are actually quite staggering, and they occur along the divisions of race and income. South Africa’s inequality is inextricably linked to the history of Apartheid, when black communities were forcibly relocated into ‘townships’ where water infrastructure was far inferior to that of the city’s white communities. These geographical inequalities live on to this day, since little has been done to upgrade water access in the townships. In fact, the settlement of Gugulethu where the poor are sharing water taps at a 1 per 200 people ratio is also the settlement where racial violence was the most prominent during Apartheid.

While black communities have access to less than 100 liters of water a day, that amount is only a starting point for wealthier white communities, who can build on this number by resorting to private sector solutions. It is no surprise that the approx. 1 million impoverished citizens living in South Africa’s townships only account for 4.5% of the country’s water consumption. This inequality of access to technology is particularly striking when one looks at photographs of borehole drilling in Cape Town’s white suburb of Constantia. Black workers can be seen digging boreholes in the backyards of white homeowners, showing that while black communities lack access to water, they are the ones who provide this access for white communities.

Photographs of borehole drilling in Cape Town – Washington Post

Only the State has the ability to provide fully equitable and sustainable access to technological solutions through policy action. In a democracy, the government is accountable to all of its constituents regardless of race and income, unlike the private sector whose only contractual obligation is to those with the means to pay. For as long as the State remains a part of the problem, it cannot become a part of the solution. Therefore, it remains vital to hold the government accountable to its obligations by showing solidarity with local social movements that are demanding better water infrastructure in the townships and an Import Substitution Industrialization approach to development that puts the needs of local people ahead of global demand. 

A ‘technical fix’ removes the political discourse from the causes and solutions of Cape Town’s crisis while nearly eclipsing the State from the development narrative. By pointing fingers at the wrong stakeholders, we are blaming Cape Town’s residents for a water shortage that is actually caused by the productive sectors of its economy, whose water-use ought to be regulated. However, the last thing Cape Town needs is for this drought to justify further interventionism from the Developed world. Instead, Western states should adopt a stance of solidarity with Cape Town’s social movements, as only they can legitimately demand water rights from their government and resolve this ongoing crisis in an equitable way.


Lili is a final year student in a BSc. Environment and Development at the London School of Economics, writing for Sensus as an editor and web administrator.

In her articles, she usually approaches the monthly topic from an environmental, developmental or gendered perspective.


Bernstein, H. (2010). Class dynamics of agrarian change (Vol. 1). Kumarian Press.

Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (2003). Water Conservation and Water Demand Management Strategy for Industry, Mining and Commercial water use sector


Mazahreh, L. (2017). Three thoughtful ways to conserve water. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/lana_mazahreh_3_thoughtful_ways_to_conserve_water?language=en

Nayak, S., Wicks, M., Tschudi, E., Pandiloski, P., Hare, O., & Dong, M. (2018). Cape Town in Deep Water During Drought – Brown Political Review. Brown Political Review. Retrieved 29 January 2019, from http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/2018/03/cape-town-deep-water-drought/

OEC (2019). South Africa (ZAF) Exports, Imports, and Trade Partners. Atlas.media.mit.edu. Available at: https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/zaf.com

Sieff, K. (2018). Divided by Drought, The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2018/02/23/feature/as-cape-towns-water-runs-out-the-rich-drill-wells-the-poor-worry-about-eating/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.02e74d939546.