Ringed by the iconic 4000 foot massif of Table Mountain on one side and the blue surf of the southern Atlantic on the other, it would be hard to imagine a more spectacular setting than that of Cape Town, South Africa.
If asked to name some great cities with stunning natural settings, the list would likely include San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, and perhaps Hong Kong. Far fewer would think of Cape Town and that’s a shame because it truly belongs in such esteemed company.
I suspect its distance might be part of the problem. After all, it’s situated on the southernmost tip of the African continent, not exactly a short flight for most. There may also be some legacy baggage from South Africa’s apartheid era shadowing it for folks of a certain age range, but that’s changing. People under thirty have only known South Africa as the ‘rainbow nation’ it has strived to become.
Here’s a little history. Many might be surprised to learn that Cape Town was established by European colonists, namely the Dutch, about the same time as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While the Puritans established a foothold in North America, in April of 1652 the Dutch East India Company assigned Jan van Riebeeck as administrator of a colony on the southern tip of Africa that would eventually become Cape Town.
Almost 400 years later, this one-time Dutch outpost on the south Atlantic has become one of the world’s most vibrant and delightful cities.
But Cape Town has not been without its troubles lately—troubles that might make it a kind of harbinger for a post-climate change future. Only a few months ago the city was in the news as it faced an imminent water crisis: the municipal taps were going to be shut off at the end of April. The greater Cape Town metro area, home to almost four million people, was running out of water.
As April 2018 came to a close, the water was still on. And yet, there was hardly a collective sigh of relief from those four million Capetonians.
Having dodged this most recent bullet, most Capetonians seem to understand that this was merely the opening act in what looks to be a much longer drama. Everywhere I went in the city I saw evidence of changing attitudes toward water. Apartment buildings posted signs in elevators about saving every drop of water; public restrooms had similar signs and restaurants would only provide water if you asked. Pools went unused and cars went unwashed. People were re-purposing used shower water and dishwater. It soon became clear that Cape Town’s residents saw this as more than a temporary blip.
As I left Cape Town, I was curious about how water issues were playing out in other parts of southern Africa. I wondered if and how water, who has it and who doesn’t, might be affecting the politics and development of various countries in the region. As I would discover once again, such things are never quite as they seem.