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Ling Zhang Discusses Cape Town Water Shortage and Global Implications

Cape Town, South Africa is currently approaching a “Day Zero”—currently estimated to occur in April—when all plumbing will be shut off and residents, rich and poor alike, will have to line up at pumps around the city to receive their daily ration of drinking water. The case is alarming, and eye-opening, but it is nothing new according to Associate Professor Ling Zhang of the Boston College History Department. 

Associate Professor Ling Zhang
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Zhang, who has taught at BC since 2012, is currently teaching a class called Environmental History of Water. She has developed a historical and social perspective of the Cape Town water shortage crisis, as well as the more general changing environmental and political landscape of our world. During a recent conversation with The Gavel, Zhang offered her insights into the everyday activism being showcased in Cape Town, as well as the wider global discussion regarding water consumption and resource shortage. 

“[Cape Town is] exceptional simply because it’s an urban space, drawing more attention to it, but it’s not special, sadly,” said Zhang.   

Communities in California, Brazil, Bolivia, Iraq, China, and other nations and cities are among the many that have experienced recent droughts and shortages.  

The crisis in Cape Town is considered a shocking wake-up call by water conservationists, as the city is known as a trailblazer in water conservation and sensible use. Historically, this region has experienced periodic droughts, and therefore has slowly built water preservation infrastructure with the knowledge that that climate is becoming more unpredictable and droughts will likely be more frequent.

In response to the crisis, the federal and local governments are desperately building desalination plants to remove salt from the ocean water. However, they will probably be completed too late to prevent water cut-offs and angry citizens.

Zhang explained that Cape Town is facing more than just an environmental crisis, but also social upheaval, as the water shortage exacerbates the socioeconomic gaps between its citizens.  

The wealthier residents feel less urgency in the crisis, as they can afford to install their own water pumps or import foreign water, allowing them to exceed their daily 50 liter ration. In comparison, the average American uses 100 liters a day.

“There are already these structural inequalities in place, and then we are talking about this heightening of environmental issues laid on top of the existing fundamental injustice, socioecological, political systems,” said Zhang.

She went on to describe how this situation leads to an individualistic, zero-sum view of resources and consumption.  The rich have historically won these battles, despite the superior numbers of the lower social classes.  This inequity is clearly visible in the presence of still-filled pools in tourist areas, even as buckets and bottles of hand sanitizer are sold out of stores.  

In order to respond effectively to the challenges of water shortages in South Africa and around the world, Zhang has developed a hypothesis that is cross-dimensional, drawing from historical, social, and political solutions. She believes that grassroots movements have the potential to initiate great change from the ground-floor.  The more people involved in and demanding change, the harder it will be to ignore.

In South Africa, she described the grassroots efforts of local artists, who have created songs only two minutes long, designed to help limit showers and postpone Day Zero. Other initiatives Zhang cited included the use of biodegradable plates and utensils, and the invention of new resources and goods that reduce use of plastic.

“We used to think resources for human use were infinite, but we now know that’s not true,” said Zhang.  “We used to think we were entitled to whatever we want, but now it’s more an issue of how to redistribute the limited resources.”  

The Cape Town government has attempted to enforce this with legislation and police presence, but only time will tell how effective this will be.  

Zhang expressed her belief in the ability of everyone to enact change, each doing what they can, dependent on communication and a unity of purpose.  

“We should not be overly pessimistic,” said Zhang. "[There are] smart methods like changing the language and culture of water use,” such as making short showers “cool.”

According to Zhang, the real power in our capitalist system lies in business. Therefore, consumers in this system have the power to choose responsible consumption patterns and sources that, with enough support from local communities, will enact higher level change. She believes that there is a way to put environmental activism into business terms that will speak to our political leaders. Clean energy production can be as big an industry as coal mining, without the damaging health and environmental risks.  

Real, significant change will involve a lot of self-criticism, according to Zhang, and sacrifice of the luxuries we have grown accustomed to, something few do voluntarily. This will require that activists are able to reach people and impress upon them the urgent need for change.  

“[We need] to make it relate to the future, help people build up those causal relations [to see that] what is happening in Cape Town is related through multiple steps to how we live here,” said Zhang.

Zhang also emphasized the need for empathy.

“We ourselves as community builders, movement organizers, or participants need to share more empathy with those we hope to persuade,” Zhang explained. “Let’s have a conversation, then, hear their story. By being empathetic with them we can share our observations [and] hopefully different parties get to see that there is common ground.”

Once more people start speaking out on these important issues, it will be harder for those in power to ignore. Well-educated, creative-minded young people will play a key role in searching for alternative energy approaches and eco-friendly consumer products. They also need to maintain a constant pressure to change their own ways and encourage those in power to speak for their interests.

“Change is not going to be achieve by one righteous government, not by government  alone,” said Zhang. “It has to be a holistic approach, and the youth are the ones to do it.”