Water (Aug 2019)

Making Sense of “Day Zero”: Slow Catastrophes, Anthropocene Futures, and the Story of Cape Town’s Water Crisis

  • Nick Shepherd

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 11, no. 9
p. 1744


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What form do the current and future catastrophes of the Anthropocene take? Adapting a concept from Rod Nixon, this communication makes a case for the notion of slow catastrophes, whose unfolding in space and time is uneven and entangled. Taking the events of Cape Town’s Day Zero drought as a case study, this paper examines the politics and poetics of water in the Anthropocene, and the implications of Anthropogenic climate change for urban life. It argues that rather than being understood as an inert resource, fresh drinking water is a complex object constructed at the intersection between natural systems, cultural imaginaries, and social, political and economic interests. The extraordinary events of Day Zero raised the specter of Mad Max-style water wars. They also led to the development of new forms of solidarity, with water acting as a social leveler. The paper argues that the events in Cape Town open a window onto the future, to the extent that it describes something about what happens when the added stresses of climate change are mapped onto already-contested social and political situations.