WATER MANAGEMENT

Fair access to water is a subjective issue in post-drought Cape Town

A man fills up a red basin with water from a tap in a concrete water point in a courtyard in Cape Town.

Cape Town residents have differing understandings of fair water access. Both subjective experiences and socioeconomic circumstances are likely to shape what people view as fair, study finds. Photo: André Maslennikov via Azote

Who should pay for and benefit from water services? It depends on who you ask, finds a study that revisited Cape Town after its 2015-2018 water crisis

Story highlights

  • The 2015-2018 water crisis revealed the cracks in Cape Town’s water tariff system
  • The authors interviewed respondents from three socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Perceptions of fairness are influenced by subjective experiences

TROUBLED WATERS: What can be considered fair access to water? This is the central question asked in a paper recently published in Sustainability Science by centre researcher Johan Enqvist together with a colleague from the University of Amsterdam, with support from the African Climate and Development Initiative at University of Cape Town.

According to the study, people interviewed in the wake of Cape Town’s multi-year water crisis responded along five different lines of thought.

The Insurer believes that everyone should have stable and secure access to water, and values predictable rates. Meanwhile, ensuring justice for Cape Town’s poorest residents through free access to water services is the main concern of the Humanitarian.

The Bureaucrat has a lot of faith in public works, and believes in transparency more than rebates on disadvantaged groups to promote fairness. The Prepper is more concerned with future shortages and sustainability than the social dimensions of water access.

To the outlying Individualist, fairness means holding everyone accountable for their own water use: you pay for what you get, and you get what you can pay for.

An illustration taken from the study shows the five different profiles identified during the study, and the relationships between them.

The authors of the study spoke to 27 respondents from three different neighbourhoods in Cape Town, and sorted the responses into 5 profiles.

Cracks in the system

In Cape Town, water tariffs are in place to cover the costs of access to water services. Wealthier households who use water for things like swimming pools or gardens are placed in a more expensive tariff block. In theory, this should subsidise water use for poorer households.

But the water crisis made clear that the city’s redistribution mechanism doesn’t work as well in practice. Under emergency measures, wealthier households with gardens and swimming pools could slash their water usage. But poorer households that mostly use water for essential cooking and cleaning had less room to reduce consumption and ended up with higher bills as tariffs rose.

Exploring contrasting profiles helped the authors to distinguish between understandings of what fairness implies, and what is required to promote it. They conclude that perceptions of fairness are influenced by poverty, inequality, mistrust, privilege and discrimination.

Resident’s subjective experiences are critical for avoiding that deepened inequalities are excused as unfortunate but unavoidable consequences of natural dynamics of the system

Johan Enqvist, centre researcher

Justice and water stress

Climate change and urbanisation threaten to make water scarcity a reality for hundreds of millions more people by 2050 – particularly for residents in informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa.
The authors conclude that exploring the concepts of fairness and justice through a subjective lens can help to reveal the tensions between inequality, cost recovery and resource management.

“Resident’s subjective experiences are critical for avoiding that deepened inequalities are excused as unfortunate but unavoidable consequences of natural dynamics of the system”, explains Enqvist.

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

Methodology

Subjectivity can be hard to approach for researchers driven by norms of an objective truth. However, subjective experiences shape people’s beliefs and world views and measuring them helps us understand what underpins human behaviour. Q method is a tool for studying subjectivity in a scientific, systematic way using sorting and factor analysis. In essence, it uses a carefully selected set of statements about a certain issue, and lets respondents express their viewpoint by agreeing or disagreeing with each statement. By analysing patterns in the responses statistically, respondents that share a similar perspective are grouped together. Differences and similarities between the groups can be described using both quantitative measures as well as qualitative information from the statements and interviews conducted during or after the sorting process. Q method can be used with smaller groups of research participants, but therefore also has limitations in terms of representation, i.e. what conclusions can be drawn beyond the studied population.

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

Published: 2022-11-22