The African Water Commons Collective on the causes and effects of four recent fatal fires on Cape Town’s peripheries

Faeza Meyeran

Written by Faeza Meyer, an activist from Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town, and a founding member of the African Water Commons Collective, and an active member of Women for Change, the Housing Assembly, and the Water Crisis Coalition.

In the aftermath of a drought and the shadow of so-called “day zero,” it is becoming clear that the Cape Town residents who cannot afford to pay for water will live on the edge this YEAR END’s “festive” season. While four communities are still recovering from fire disasters, the politicians see fit to use this opportunity to tap into people’s vulnerability to mobilise for the 2019 National elections.

On Friday 19 October, a fire broke out in the early hours of the morning in Hout Bay killing two people – one adult and a child – whose bodies were burnt beyond recognition. The very next day, between 2 and 3 am, another fire broke out in Khayelitsha Town Two informal settlement, killing one person and leaving 4000 others displaced. On Sunday 22 October, another fire destroyed approximately 120 shacks in Kosovo informal settlement leaving 1400 people displaced. On 25 October, it was the turn of Overcome Heights, an informal settlement in the southern suburbs, where 500 structures were destroyed leaving over 1000 families homeless.

We note with sadness and frustration that especially in Town Two, affected people report that more than half the structures could have been saved if they did not run out of water. Leading activists from the Housing Assembly (an organisation that seeks to unite all those living in bad housing conditions) who live in Khayelitsha themselves say that when they arrived at the scene, people were complaining that the fire trucks had run out of water. The firefighters then tried to get water at the nearest fire hydrant, but there was no water. So residents along with firefighters had to watch everything they owned be destroyed while waiting on reinforcements. In African Water Commons Collective’s (AWCC) own investigation we note that across the city, residents of informal settlements are complaining that they do not get the same amount of water as usual, that lately the pressure is low. It can take up to 20 minutes to fill up a 25L can and that at a certain time during the day the water gets slower and sometimes the taps run dry – especially on a Saturday.

Water is being selectively and silently restricted with no safety plan or explanation to local residents. BM section is the longest standing informal settlement in Khayelitsha – and the section with the least development. The city started installing Blue Top WMDs here without consultation or providing any information to the community. In a meeting with residents of the area we heard of children and adults getting sick with diarrhoea since the blue top devices were installed. Residents showed us how when flushing the toilet, the feces pops up right under the drinking water tap. This has been reported many times, the City’s contractors comes out to fix it and then it happens again and again.


City of Cape Town officials are in the process of issuing kits for people to start rebuilding their homes after this past week's fire in Khayelitsha, Western Cape

From 1 October, the City of Cape Town eased the current Level 6B water restrictions to Level 5, giving residents 20 additional liters of water per day. This comes after dam levels exceeded the two-thirds full mark late in August. Level 6B was first implemented in February 2018, back when the City remarked that #DayZero looked “very likely.”

“The Western Cape Water Supply System’s dams are now at 68% capacity, a very significant improvement on the situation at the end of the previous winter, when they were at 38% capacity,” the City wrote in a public statement in September. City of Cape Town Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson then said on Monday 29 October he believed the dam levels were sufficiently high now to reduce water restrictions. “We are ready to move on this, but obviously it has to be properly coordinated with national government, so I can’t say what level the restrictions will be until we know what national government decides. It could be level 4 or possibly level 3, but I can’t say at this stage.”

However we know the “easing up” is all about tourism and providing those who can afford to enjoy a summer with enough water. We anticipate that just like last year, we will be restricted again in 2019 after profits have been made. And we know that residents who have water management devices that restrict their homes to 350L/day will continue to live with far less than 50L per person. This is an ongoing crisis for the working class with devastating impacts especially on women, children and the disabled.

As the African Water Commons Collective we call on the City to account for the ongoing racist policies that subject residents of informal settlements – all of whom are black and without sufficient income or decent shelter – to yet another season without water needed for basic health and safety.