August 11, 2021KR OnlineNonfiction

Level Seven: Notes on a Thirst

Level Zero: 20012015, with only minor interruptions, and effectively for the 350 years before that. No water restrictions. So drink and wash away, dear citizens, enjoy. The most abundant molecular compound in the universe is H2O.

For most of its history, Cape Town, like Earth itself, has been a place defined in the human imagination by water’s abundance. Ancient recorded prayers to the sky-god by the region’s original Khoisan inhabitants reference soaking winter rains. The diaries of Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch administrator who identified Table Bay as the prime African spot for European settlement, are filled with references to the place’s sogginess.

“Still the same wet and dirty weather” is his note on August 30, 1652, his weariness palpable. Nevertheless, van Riebeeck and, eventually, my own French Huguenot ancestors, took ownership of the area. Supported by imperial power, a slow genocide of the indigenous people, and the labor of Indonesian slaves, in the Cape Colony my forebears built stately, gabled wine estates with names like Welvanpas, well-matched, or Vrede en Lust, peace and delight. Their vineyards drew water from streams like the Riviersonderend, river without end.

Water law in the Dutch colonial period derived from Holland, land of infinite canals. Water was presumed so plentiful that no ownership of it was needed, and that must have seemed an intuitive proposition for the first century and a half of the Cape Colony’s existence, with the sheer clockwork reliability of those Antarctic fronts, pushing up sea air until it puffed into gray, sodden clouds. Only when Britain retook the Cape Colony from the Netherlands in 1806 did South Africa see its collectivist Dutch water traditions replaced by the riparian system, derived from English common law: the idea that if your land adjoins a river, stream, or lake, you have the private and inalienable right to use it.

When I arrived in Cape Town in 1988, as a new undergraduate student, my first reaction was much like van Riebeeck’s. I had grown up on the dry, acacia-studded savannahs of the northeast, where rain arrived in the form of summer thunderstorms: booming crashes, split-tongue lightning, and a wet-earth smell reminiscent of moss and pepper that lasted thirty minutes. In Cape Town, by contrast, it sometimes seemed as if the rain parked itself above the city for four months, an off-and-on sprinkler. In my clammy, ground-floor room, I listened to the gutters dripping onto the ground moss. My jeans and sneakers were soaked.

I made friends, mostly lefty-artist, literary-activist types, and discovered the city’s urbane pleasures—bookstores, pubs, and traditional markets. I joined the antiapartheid struggle. I wrote for underground newspapers, hiding them under my car mats; tore up my whites-only draft papers; joined the constitutional committee of the Organization for Lesbian and Gay Action, where I helped successfully lobby the liberation movements to include LGBT equality in the postapartheid Bill of Rights. Just  after my twenty-first birthday I attended a mass rally where I watched a newly released Nelson Mandela join returned exiles like Joe Slovo and Joe Modise in calling for a new nation.

Not once, during this exhilarating time of sudden hope and freedom, do I recall noticing the staggering dependence of everything that I loved, from musical performances to human rights conferences, on running taps. To the extent that ownership was on my radar screen, I subscribed to the inspiring but ultimately vague principles of the Freedom Charter, emblazoned on the T-shirts I wore several times a week: “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!” “The Land Shall Belong to Those Who Work It!” If I thought about water justice, it was chiefly in relation to flooding. In shantytowns, storm drains often stopped up, causing metal shacks to fill with inches of muddy, foul-smelling water. But a future democratic government, we insisted, would build decent public housing: “There Shall Be Houses, Security, and Comfort!”

Neither did the possibility occur to me that the earth’s climate might be changing and that that might affect a future democracy. James Hansen had already testified in Congress about steadily rising levels of carbon dioxide. Margaret Thatcher was two short years from telling the United Nations that the discoveries of climate science would likely require greater changes in human affairs than the splitting of the atom. Yet I don’t recall even the biology geeks who spent their Sunday afternoons holed up in the environmental and geographical sciences ever using the words “global warming,” let alone “new rainfall patterns” or “intensified droughts.” To be fair, in the movement itself we had other things to worry about, like mysterious “third force” paramilitaries trying to derail democracy by massacring people at bus stops.

What does it mean—existentially, morally—to possess the future? “The People Shall Govern!” we shouted at our demonstrations. We did not doubt it, and in our self-confidence, were we just a little like the greedy capitalists we denounced? Hungry to shape the world in our image.

Yet the people did not govern; politicians looted as they pleased. Afraid of scaring investors, the South African government undertook only anemic land reforms. On thousands of farms across the nation, people today still work the land without owning it. While the government did build millions of houses, corrugated iron shacks still line the highways.

Beyond this, the story of democratic South Africa, like that of the global twenty-first century, has been a narrative of rising levels of emergency. As is well known, in 2018, after an extraordinary three years’ drought, Cape Town’s literal faucets came within two months of being completely turned off. In South African bureaucratese, this scenario—the suspension of piped water to all residences and businesses—represents something called Level Seven water restrictions, the final after six prior rising levels. (Leaders also talked about “Day Zero” in a coinage designed to mobilize the populace.) Residents would have lined up at collection points for an allowance of seven gallons of water per day, half the UN-recommended minimum for basic human needs. Fears for this scenario writ large over a sprawling global metropolis ranged from monster traffic jams, to disease from clogged sewage pipes, to gang wars over black market water.

Cape Town ended up facing down its Level Seven catastrophe with some of the most dramatic urban water conservation ever seen in the modern era. It also got notably lucky, with winter rains returning just weeks before its dams ran dry.

Yet as a global civilization, we seem to continue to hover around a metaphorical Level 6. The Arctic cooks in July. The Bay Area sun rises wildfire-smoke red. More recently scientists tell us the global pandemic that changed life as we know it was connected both to deforestation, which brings humans into contact with new species and their microbes, as well as to international travel and commerce.

How much I want, here, to attribute this degradation to rapacious capitalism. How much I wish to channel my younger self and deplore the surrender of Mandela’s African National Congress’s socialist ideals: the corrupt kickbacks for water-guzzling golf courses, instead of taxpayer-funded literacy campaigns. The whole postapartheid mentality of having and more having, reflected in a whole lexicon of tongue-in-cheek South Africanisms: tenderpreneur, a business owner with political connections to help them win government tenders. Amabenzi, the nouveau riche black middle class whose chief mission is to drive a Mercedes-Benz.

But my straightforward denunciations of consumer capitalism’s role in the environmental crisis, in Cape Town and beyond, would be disingenuous. Rather, the story of how my former home city almost ran out of water involves an excruciating dance between capitalism and socialism, idealism, pragmatism, and simple malfeasance. I am implicated in potentially contradictory ways, both as an activist and a middle-class consumer. In short, the story of Cape Town’s Level Seven raises basic questions about ownership in the Anthropocene, the forms and arrangements of property best positioned to serve humanity’s future and in doing so offers some important, broader lessons.


Level Four: Imposed on May 16, 2017. Residents may use only twenty-six gallons of municipal water per person, per day. All watering and irrigation are strictly forbidden.

Of all the many global human rights innovations traceable to the South African post-apartheid constitution, one of the most extraordinary was the explicit right to water. This provision went way beyond restoring the collective water ownership of the eighteenth-century Dutch, which had imagined the state as controlling all water resources but had not imagined all people—for example, slaves, prisoners, indigenous Khoisan—as having automatic access. South Africa remains the only national constitution to explicitly enshrine this principle, in Article 27 of its Bill of Rights:

(1) Everyone has the right to . . . sufficient food and water;

(2) The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures . . . to achieve [its] progressive realization.

I have some modest personal recollections of the reasoning that led to this clause. A human rights conference I attended in Port Elizabeth, sometime in 1992: if memory serves me, Dennis Davis, who would eventually become a High Court judge, was a keynote speaker. Davis talked that day about negative and positive rights, the prerogative to be free from censorship and repression and then what he argued was the much deeper and more important liberty to remain alive. What use was freedom of speech if you were dying of hepatitis? Davis was teasing us out on what were then experimental constitutional notions—indeed, many Western democracies at the time viewed such socioeconomic rights as Trojan horses for communism. However, that afternoon we all applauded; several of us spoke publicly in the Q and A about the absolutely essential nature of such liberties.

Yet what Mandela’s African National Congress inherited in 1994 was also, perhaps, the world’s most bizarre and paradoxical water network. In white cities and suburbs, the liquid coming out of the taps was as clean as Helsinki’s. An hour away, tribal women walked miles to algae-clogged rivers and carried back gigantic plastic jars on their heads.

In response Mandela did something extraordinary. He appointed Kader Asmal, one of the Bill of Rights authors, as his first minister of Forestry and Water Affairs, which had been considered, under apartheid, a pedestrian portfolio.

Under Asmal’s leadership, the government passed the landmark Water Act of 1998, which implemented the constitution by making all surface water a state asset and then tasking the government with providing clean water to every South African, rectifying past injustice, conserving rivers and aquifers, and facilitating economic growth, in that order.

It is difficult to overstate the ambition of this law. During the first decade or so of the Water Act’s existence, South Africa became a poster child for modern, progressive water management. Asmal won the Stockholm Water Prize. The number of South Africans without clean water taps fell from sixteen million to less than two million. Today, instead of traipsing to a river, almost all rural South Africans fill their plastic water bottles at a modern, shared outdoor faucet.

Soon, though, the policy ran into problems. In a water-scarce nation, unlimited water cannot be given away. However, during the apartheid era, the liberation movements encouraged boycotts of utility payments—habits that proved hard to shake when a democratic government came knocking. Then, too, in South Africa as around the world, vast numbers of poor people have completely empty pockets. Asmal’s successor, Ronnie Kasrils, told a story about seeing a woman digging in a riverbed right next to one of the new government taps. She did not have one dollar to buy a monthly supply.

So around 2000 the government instituted a free basic water policy of around fifty gallons per day, per household, with mandatory meters measuring usage, and much steeper rates going into effect immediately after that. Yet the poorest South Africans often live in crowded households, making fifty gallons insufficient. Apartheid planning also meant that pipes were much likelier to leak in some poorer areas, again running up meters. In 2007, the last remnants of the past-apartheid halo fell off when the Constitutional Court found, in Mazibuko vs. Johannesburg, that shutting off the water to an apartment complex where the residents were in arrears did not abrogate their constitutional rights.

Near Cape Town, Asmal had once created twenty thousand jobs cutting down invader trees that were throttling the streams that fed reservoirs. From 2009 to 2018, though, the African National Congress under President Jacob Zuma became known for corruption and incompetence. Under a failing government, the very scope and ambition of the 1990s-era supply network became an albatross. During the Cape Town water crisis, the World Wildlife Fund estimated that almost half of South Africa’s water was spewing from punctured lines and rusty pipe joints. Whole swathes of the country are now vulnerable to water crises. A similar dynamic pertains in the electricity sector, where the once-strong economic growth, paired with the expansion of electricity to millions of poor people, outran the ability of the government to build or maintain power stations.

All things considered, would the country have been better off without universal water and electricity? I recoil at the idea. Legal scholars, including no less than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, regard the South African constitution as one of the most influential global legal documents of the past quarter century. Must good be avoided for fear of unplanned consequences?

Yet even as I defend this document that, in a very small way, I helped engender, I am haunted by a counter-chorus reminding me about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Didion, Kundera, Orwell—there they all stand, in my imagination, reminding me that other constitutions, too, have sugarcoated mass suffering with utopian rhetoric.

If it hadn’t been for the chaos of the Zuma years, would South Africa’s pipes still be ferrying the land’s water? Would the dams’ feeder canals be open? In the end it may simply be impossible to know: like asking what today’s world would have been like if, sixty-five million years ago, a certain dinosaur-eradicating asteroid ten miles across had simply slung past the earth, a near miss, before vanishing into the interstellar void.


Level 6B. Implemented February 1, 2018. The city’s running out of water is imminent. All residents are required to use no more than thirteen gallons of municipal drinking water per person per day in total, irrespective of whether they are at home, work, or elsewhere. For repeat guzzlers, the city may forcibly install locked devices to shut off water supply.

I visited Cape Town in May 2018, connecting with old friends and family. I wanted to be close, to help—to rent a pickup truck, fill it with barrels of water in nearby towns which still had enough; install rain tanks. Or, at a minimum, brainstorm and commiserate—learn something more about the future, given that the long list of cities at risk of running out of water in the coming decade include Moscow, London, Los Angeles, and Miami. Of course, I ended up being a burden. Even a single visitor requires water to drink, clean, and use the bathroom. Overall, what seems most surprising in hindsight was how fast the future I expected arrived, via a pandemic connected to the same climate change that caused Cape Town’s drought: deforestation both cooks the planet and exposes human beings to new pathogens.

I remember the same sense of daily life being turned upside-down, the closed businesses—swimming pools, water parks, car washes. Hand sanitizer was ubiquitous, everywhere from restrooms to gas pumps. This is perhaps the most random common denominator between a pandemic and a water shortage: the importance of sterilizing alcohol and bleach. Above all, there seemed the identical spectacles of political leaders flagrantly denying the seriousness of the situation: in Cape Town’s case, Mayor Patricia DeLille proclaiming, Trump-like, that “a well-run city simply does not run out of water.”

I was struck by my friends’ wide range of lifestyle adaptations, just as, eighteen months later, I watched with astonishment as much of the world shifted online in a matter of days. Many acquaintances showed me houses full of trays, buckets, and drums for collecting wastewater. Filters for laundry discharge were standard issue, with pipes running out in the direction of gardens. So were roof gutters running into rubber drum garbage cans. Once, during my time in the city, I swam in a gym pool filled entirely with rooftop runoff, followed by a shower in a ritzy locker room, with a beeper to tell me when I’d exceeded my legal maximum of ninety seconds. I also learned, there and elsewhere, to collect white water, the clean, cold stuff that you had to run, for example, to get heat from the tap; soapy, gray water that can be used for flushes or gardening; but never black water, which has dissolved human or animal blood or feces. (These international plumbing terms would seem to confirm Toni Morrison’s theories about racist symbolism infusing even the most mundane corners of everyday language, but they are the available vocabulary.)

Street committees, common under apartheid as a way to support families whose members had disappeared into detention, made a reappearance. Friends created rosters to pick up water for disabled residents in the event of Level Seven restrictions. Neighbors shared laundry loads. People with roofs large enough to fill swimming pools made them available to neighborhood children, an arrangement that eventually evolved into pandemic childcare pods.

Not that civic cooperation meant consensus about causes or remedies. Disagreements followed familiar grooves, with more traditional or middle-class environmentalist thinkers blaming the urban population explosion or lack of government planning, and my more lefty acquaintances focusing on overconsumption, like the Canal Walk shopping mall, with its artificial rivers and its acres of sparkling floors.

On the water hawk-to-dove spectrum, perhaps the toughest advocate of cutbacks was my old friend, Helen. Now in her sixties, cheerful and curly-haired, Helen is the bubbly, nurturing, socialist-feminist auntie you likely never had. She carries hand sanitizer in her bag and asks restaurants to fill a reusable water bottle rather than bring a glass that will have to be cleaned. During the crisis, she drew water from a well and from tanks; as a result, she claimed to use a mere one gallon of municipal drinking water a day.

Unsurprisingly, Helen did not put much stock in my theory about the postapartheid government having built more water pipes than it could handle. “Globally, there are plenty of countries that never tried in the slightest to bring clean water to the poor, and they are all still on the verge of having their taps run dry,” she pointed out, over gins and tonics, in a bar that also declined my request for a glass of water. “The real common denominator is the middle class. Now if you’re saying water pricing should discourage that overconsumption—there, I’ll join you.”

Fair enough, I thought. Water for basic needs should take priority over swimming pools and flower gardens. But is it realistic or even desirable to build a more sustainable civilization based on the denial of pleasure and convenience? Showers once a week and splashes from a bucket in groin and armpits the other six days. Soybeans to make tofu, instead of environmentally destructive lamb—in many ways this line of thinking reminds me of abstinence-based programs to reduce sexually-transmitted diseases, which have, let us say, a weak track record. For all her gardens and rain tanks, Helen M. is just about as removed from a carbon-frugal, ascetic existence as I am: she jets to international writers’ conferences, feeds methane-belching beef to her army of adopted cats.

If Helen viewed Level Seven as a clarion call to self-restraint, Jay, an old high school pal, regarded it almost entirely as preventable failure of government. I stayed at Jay’s house, partly because, as a lone home-dweller, the already-mentioned default presumption of a four-person household left him with gallons to spare. At the beginning of my stay, Jay, too, flushed with shower runoff. But when the early winter rains looked likely to break the drought, Jay pre-emptively eased up on himself. The catchment tubs disappeared from the bathrooms. The outside water bin overflowed onto the porch.

Another old friend, Hein, came to visit. A new social protocol arose in Cape Town during the crisis, which again foreshadowed pandemic-era dinner party negotiations about outdoor seating. “Flush or no flush?” Hein asked.

“Flush,” replied Jay, and it seemed, at that moment, like a statement of an extravagant and glorious liberty.

“The middle class pays heavy taxes here so we can get clean tap water,” Jay explained later. “Honestly, it feels enabling to talk about conservation before government cleans up its act.” Even factoring flushes into the equation, Jay’s overall ecological footprint has always been far less than either mine or Helen’s, simply because he doesn’t board planes several times a year. Still, I struggle with Jay’s idea that if government fails, the rest of us are somehow entitled to slack off on tackling our shared challenges.

To get a fresh perspective, one sunny Monday I drove out to an informal settlement called Langrug, on the slopes above the idyllic wine region tourist town of Franschhoek. Langrug is a typically vibrant shantytown of minibus taxis blowing their horns, shacks advertising barber or beauty services, fruit sellers and candy stands, and uniformed schoolchildren playing hopscotch. There, I met up with a man called Solomon Sonxi, the founder of Genius of Space, a project to creatively repurpose effluent water.

Sonxi has the easy charm of an extrovert. “Welcome to our home,” he said, smiling and pointing to the prefabricated office GS headquarters. Before starting Genius, Sonxi successfully managed a leather goods tourist store in Franschhoek, after which he ran his own shop until he got tired of the business.

Why then, in his midforties and at a loose end, did Sonxi join the local civic committee and look around for community problems to solve?

“I had five children!” Sonxi replied, laughing some more. “I was worried they were going to ask me, “ ‘Daddy, what did you do to make the world better?’ ”

There it was, again: common ownership. For Sonxi, the business he owned as a sole proprietor was all and well, but in the end, he saw his legacy in engaging with Langrug, an informal settlement without legal title but with a strong culture of communal problem solving.

Genius of Space was not, of course, created to provide a model for developing-world water usage. But dogs and children got sick from drinking the soapy water that ran in the streets. In the night people would wake with their walls and floor smelling of detergent.

So, with provincial foundation, and Dutch embassy funds, Sonxi and his fellow leaders asked an environmental design firm called Isidima to develop a simple but effective gray water filtration and disposal system. As we walked around the shantytown, checking out the water disposal points: the new brick road, the micro-wetlands, large, earth-filled concrete blocks with straggling bushes, as many as two dozen people stopped us to chat. “Hello, Solomon. By the way, brother, have you heard anything from the municipality about moving the rubbish collection point closer to the houses?” Or: “Do you know of any farm jobs, bhuti?”

Something about all this suddenly reminded me so intensely of my past life. Then, I owned little compared to even most middle-class twenty-two-year-olds: a duvet and sheets, a few books and art posters. Yet the antiapartheid struggle also enmeshed me in what I remember, despite the oppression and fear, as something of a golden age of meaning and community, grounded in shared moral purpose.

Three decades later, like most of my old comrades, I’ve joined the home- and stock-owning bourgeoisie, in my case as a college professor. I’m still politically and socially active. Yet like my own students, I spend too much of my time in front of screens, and compared to Spnxi, I certainly suffer from what Mother Theresa called the “greater poverty” of the West, the lack of human interconnection, the absence of a commitment to a larger reality than one’s own family.

What is it worth—in life, in the Anthropocene—knowing one’s neighbors have one’s back? As we part ways, I ask Solomon if he would ever want to exchange his own metal shack, with a satellite dish and neat lawn, for a government-built brick house.

“Never!” he beams at me, both genuinely bemused and emphatic. “With bricks, mortar, and ceilings you only get maintenance problems. I have friends, family, my role—and check out my view, hey!” Sonxi indeed has a world-class one, of the valley, the vineyards, and the silver-blue, shining Franschhoek River.


Level Seven: a possible future scenario. Both Cape Town, and the world, have run out of water. In many cities, only hospitals have running taps. Back in early twenty-first century, it sometimes seemed as though late-stage civilization was beyond redemption. Yet now, with empty supermarket shelves, troops teargassing climate refugees, and flooded cities—now, at last, what we have lost has become visible.

When I was a child, CO2 stood at 320 CO2 parts per million, barely a spadesful over pre-industrial levels of 270, compared to today’s 410.

How well I remember the games we played, in that savannah village, with its tin roofs that shone in the sun and its lumpy, gigantic weaver nests. We curled our bare feet on the dusty ground. We fried midafternoon eggs on asphalt: those dull, plopping sounds they made; the way the tar turned the whites to dappled gray.

If Level Seven materializes, what games will children play in places like that, on days when it is too hot for the human body to cool itself?

What good will ownership be? The nearby timber farms already burn twice as often as a decade or so ago. The vineyards planted by my forebears in 1680 are projected to be dry and shriveled by 2050.

All the great religions teach us versions of the same idea: possession is ultimately rental. The job is to care for our loved ones, homes, and environment while we have them.

The year I became a legal adult was also, roughly, the last year any terrestrial mammal breathed air with 350 parts of CO2 per million, the widely accepted maximum for sustaining Holocene-era life. What exactly did I do, that year, to celebrate my eighteenth birthday, which happened to also mark this planetary graduation?

I don’t remember, but I imagine I likely took a trip out to my aunt and uncle, who owned a Cape Dutch–style house on the outskirts of the city, below the sharply etched Hottentots Holland Mountains. This was perhaps thirty minutes’ drive from where my ancestors founded their wine estate in 1682. Did we pour local wine that day, my first legal glass? Did we splash in the Atlantic Ocean, before the shoreline began to recede? Did we fill our lungs with climactically benign air?

By then I was old enough to recognize that my aunt was, for all her pouring of my initiatory glass, an advanced-stage alcoholic. Within a few short years she’d die of liver cirrhosis. But of course, I never truly believed she would leave us, at any rate not so soon, and not, surely, from just a couple too many glasses of wine, or from a vodka and tonic poured too early in the day. She was always so kind, so smiling and generous, seemed so alive. She had brunette hair and blue eyes and liked to wear flip-flops, blouses, and cargo shorts. I’d loved her all my life like a second mom: she, who had sheltered me in her office every weekday afternoon for a year when I was twelve and dealing with a sadistic bully at a nearby boarding school. Three months before I turned eighteen, she’d given me a T-shirt for Christmas that proclaimed “Cape Town beach bum,” which I wore whenever I wasn’t sporting the Freedom Charter.

Why do people, the world, always seem invincible to us? As if I would always own that moment sitting around the carved, wooden table out on my aunt’s patio, under the vine-covered overhead lattice, laughing—would be able to step into that tableau at will. As if that beauty would always be there for me, those flowering protea bushes on the slopes, that cold, fresh sea, the magnificence of the world somehow my birthright, written in some cosmic constitution that could never be amended.