Sustainable water tariffs and inequality in post-drought Cape Town: exploring perceptions of fairness


Fair allocation of diminishing natural resources is increasingly central to sustainability. This includes the allocation of costs related to providing access, such as dams, pipes and pumps delivering clean water. Water tariffs are often designed to both recover these costs, meet social needs of water services to the poor, and incentivise conservation in dry times. However, strained public finances, prolonged droughts and economic inequality can undermine these goals and force prioritisations that many see as unfair. This happened in Cape Town, South Africa, during its 2015–2018 water crisis.

This study investigates what residents in three different socioeconomic contexts view as fair water tariffs 1 year after the crisis. Using Q method, we describe five distinct perspectives on fairness: ‘the Insurer’, ‘the Individualist’, ’the Bureaucrat’, ‘the Humanitarian’, and ‘the Prepper’. These, we argue, can help distinguish between different ideas of what fairness implies, and what is required to promote it. We exemplify this by examining how viewpoints might have been shaped by specific communities’ experiences during and after the apartheid state’s discriminatory segregation policies. Using distributive, procedural and interactional interpretations of fairness, we discuss how the complex layers of poverty, inequality, mistrust, privilege and discrimination might produce different experiences and ideas of who should pay for and benefit from water services. Using these insights, we also reflect on the merits of tariffs that emphasise cost recovery and resource conservation over social needs, and the risks this poses for growing informal settlements in climate-stressed cities of the global South.


Link to centre authors: Enqvist, Johan
Publication info: Enqvist, J. and van Oyen, W. Sustainable water tariffs and inequality in post‑drought Cape Town: exploring perceptions of fairness. Sustainability Science.


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