It’s Earth Day 2018 and taps in Cape Town, South Africa, are still running — a water crisis deferred, but not resolved.
The city’s “Day Zero” projections have pushed back to 2019, after officials implemented significant agricultural and personal water restrictions. Cape Town, a city of nearly 4 million, still faces the prospect of running out of water.
How did Cape Town reach this brink? Most analysts point to the technical challenges of keeping the water flowing, in an era of severe drought and a growing urban population. It’s a familiar story elsewhere in the world — contaminated water supplies in communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley; millions of people in rural areas outside of Mumbai facing drought and water rationing.
It’s really more of a political problem
We tend to tag the provision of basic public services such as water and electricity as technical challenges. This means we look primarily at engineering innovation, price reforms or privatization to resolve these problems.
Government officials push service providers to increase efficiency and lean on consumers to conserve scarce resources. Cape Town officials use clever campaigns to remind toilet users — “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” — and urge people to take two-minute showers, for instance. Leaders call for more accurate predictions about climate patterns and future rainfall to prevent the crisis.
But technical solutions alone don’t always solve problems, because politics — at the local level and nationally — also shapes service delivery.
Here’s how political rivalries play into Cape Town’s water crisis. The growing allegiance of the city’s voters to the opposition political party, the Democratic Alliance, challenges the longtime power of the African National Congress (ANC) at the national level.
In Cape Town, this meant the national ANC government is slow to respond to the crisis, and it provides low-budget allocations for addressing the city’s infrastructure problems, including water provision. The pressures of increasing competition at the ballot box also have translated to short-term planning by the ANC — at the national level, the government appears to focus on “quick win” distributions of small welfare-related benefits to individuals in exchange for votes, rather than address long-term, expensive infrastructure that is less likely to garner votes.
The intersection of race and politics has also produced the deep inequalities in water access by different neighborhoods and townships in Cape Town. And decades of lax global policies regulating industry and carbon emissions are a contributing factor to the region’s lack of rainfall in recent years.
Electricity supply also can be highly political
Water is not the only public service that is becoming scarce in this era of climate change, however. Many countries in Africa and around the world ration electricity at times. Many nations rely heavily on massive hydroelectric dams, built by newly independent African governments that borrowed heavily from Western donors to develop industries. For Africa’s leaders, electricity was a way to reward their newly enfranchised citizens.
Low water levels at these big dams, such as Ghana’s Akosombo Dam, built under the guidance of the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, cause frequent load shedding and blackouts. In November 2017, Tanzania experienced a nationwide blackout and has faced recurrent blackouts for a decade because of low water levels from drought.
Since the early 1990s, the World Bank has tended to view the lack of reliable electricity as a technical problem and recommended a standardized template of economic reforms. The bank pushed most developing countries, from Chile to Uganda, to make structural changes to boost the role of the private sector and make the power sector more competitive and efficient.
But not all developing countries adopted these reforms at the same time. And not all countries moved at the same pace or instituted the changes to the same extent. Even relatively weak African states that were heavily indebted to the World Bank and other donors sometimes dragged their feet or modified the prescriptions to suit their political needs.
Our article gives an example: While Uganda adopted electricity sector reforms relatively fast and furiously, Ghana tried to pick and choose or customize the reforms, and Tanzania resisted and made partial adjustments, very slowly.
Our recent research suggests that international and domestic political dynamics factor into these puzzling differences in power sector reforms. In particular, countries that have greater autonomy from international donors adopt reforms at a slower pace. Meanwhile, countries that have less domestic pressure from their own citizens tend to take on more sweeping reforms.
In democratic Ghana, our research found that attempts to privatize services were delayed or rejected after widespread protest from civil society, because Ghanaian citizens have high expectations that the state will provide reliable services. Contrast this with Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni has a de facto grip on the country’s highest office, and where World Bank-funded privatization unfolded quickly and with minimal public protest or citizen expectation.
What does this mean for Africa’s resource needs?
A widespread misconception is that African states don’t have clear choices when it comes to projects funded by the World Bank and other donors of foreign aid — and are therefore unable to exercise power and independence in decision-making. The reality on the ground is not so simple. African states may endorse and implement global reform principles or norms — or not.
These findings suggest that understanding the political situation may be as important as understanding a country’s resource needs. As developing countries in Africa and elsewhere attempt to combat water scarcity and energy shortages, politicians and policymakers will scrutinize the likely costs and benefits of proposed solutions for their own contexts and cases.
This scrutiny will only increase in the coming years as the World Bank and other Western donors begin to take a back seat to China, India, South Africa and other “nontraditional” investors, and to alternative global funding sources such as the New Development Bank. And this foreign aid often doesn’t come with the same strings and demands as money from traditional Western assistance programs.
As new resource emergencies emerge — such as Cape Town’s water shortages — understanding countries’ internal politics will only become more important.
Lauren M. MacLean, Arthur F. Bentley chair and professor of political science at Indiana University, is investigating climate change and energy poverty in new democracies such as Ghana as a Carnegie fellow (2017-19).
Jennifer N. Brass (@jennifer_brass), associate professor at Indiana University, studies the politics of service provision in sub-Saharan Africa, and wrote a recent book about nongovernmental organizations in Kenya.
Elizabeth Baldwin, assistant professor at the University of Arizona, studies energy and environmental policy.