The difficulty in establishing this with accuracy is two-fold. There is, without doubt, a major crisis surrounding water resources and their use, and any questioning of the basis of restrictions imposed should not be viewed as underestimating this. Reduction of water consumption is clearly a priority as the dams supplying Cape Town drop to lower and lower levels.
The second problem relates to the way the City of Cape Town has communicated information and messages which appear to be based on data which is neither coherent nor transparent.
This may be a consequence of reliance on speechwriters, spokespeople, media and communication officials and ‘spin doctors’. Their mandate may be to convince the people of Cape Town to save more water, but if this is done on the basis of shaky data, and contradictory information and messaging, any trust relationship between those in government and citizens is eroded and compromised.
At a time when ‘alternative facts’, ‘post-truth’ and repetition of inaccuracy and falsehood have become the ‘new normal’ in politics, it is essential to question the factual basis of bold claims and assertions. The City of Cape Town’s communications on the consumption of water seem to fall into the murky terrains of ‘alternative fact’ and ‘post-truth’, as representatives and officials – perhaps with the best of intentions – attempt to manage and reduce water consumption.
On 19 January 2017, a statement issued by the City asserted that ‘’We must remember that formal residential consumers are by far the biggest users of potable water in the municipality, consuming approximately 70% of total water supplied".
If this is the case, then it is clear that the bulk of savings (reduction in use) need to be effected in residential households, predominantly in the suburbs.
However, as I wrote (without response) to my local councillor, and the member of the mayoral committee for water, waste services and energy, with a copy to the City’s ‘media.account’, “the 70% estimation of water use as private suburban residential is surprising: shopping malls, airports, hospitals, building and construction, parks, sports fields, gyms, schools, businesses, factories, shops and office, public swimming pools, leakage, fire fighting and related services, informal settlements, indigent water allocation, breweries – can they really account for only 30% of water used?”
It was on that basis that I requested some detail about the data used to compile this figure of 70%. My concerns about its accuracy seemed to be reinforced when the mayoral committee member for water and waste services and energy stated in a subsequent statement that residential properties used 65%, rather than the previously stated 70%, of the city's water supply (James de Villiers, ‘Dam levels effectively at 29.2% - City of Cape Town’, News 24, 30 January 2017).
Confusingly, Mayor Patricia de Lille had provided different information on ‘water wasters’ and water use a few days before. “The City has identified 20 000 water wasters mostly from informal settlements … As it stands”, said the mayor, “dams are 40% full. Thirty percent is for irrigation on agricultural farms” (Cape Times, ‘Informal settlements are the main culprits’. Water restrictions tightened, Cape Times, 27 January 2017, my emphasis).
If 30% of water is used for irrigation, then it cannot be right that the remaining 70% (or 65% on the City’s other version) is used by private formal households. That would mean that no water is used by commerce and industry, state institutions, the local authority, schools, hospitals …
The City then seemed to backtrack on its claim that the majority of ‘water wasters’ were to be found in informal settlements. In a statement released on 30 January, water and waste services and energy MMC Xanthea Limberg said high water usage areas included Athlone, Newlands, Newfields, Manenberg, Constantia, Lansdowne, Somerset West and Kraaifontein. But this too seems unlikely if it relates exclusively to residential users. Many of the areas identified have houses on small plots, with limited or non-existent gardens. However, without an indication of the data the City is using, how it is gathered and the methodologies involved in collation and analysis, it is difficult to assess the claim.
Reduction of water usage across Cape Town as a whole is clearly a priority. However, if the City wants to motivate all users – including residents, and those running businesses, factories, retail outlets, institutions, hotels and guest houses, sports facilities, schools and universities – it needs to build trust and transparency in its messaging. It also needs to make available and explain the data it compiles to analyse consumption patterns by area type, use and activity.
In the absence of this, statements will lack credibility and their messages consigned to the dustbin of ‘alternative fact’ and ‘post-truth’. Good governance, after all, is based on more than delivery and efficiency. It also requires policy and decision-making based on verifiable data, collected and analysed according to acceptable and transparent statistical standards.
3 February 2017