In this talk I take the notion of the biocity and the entanglements of nature and culture to the global south, by examining a dramatic series of events that took place in Cape Town, South Africa. In the opening months of 2018, Cape Town, a city of some 3 million people, came close to running out of water. City managers went so far as to announce the date of “Day Zero”, the day when the taps would run-dry and residents would have to queue for a daily ration of water. Taking the events of Cape Town’s Day Zero drought as a case study, I think about the politics and poetics of water in the Anthropocene, and the implications of Anthropogenic climate change for urban life.
I argue 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. I argue that the events in Cape Town open a window onto the future, to the extent that they describe something about what happens when the added stresses of climate change are mapped onto already-contested social and political situations. Forms of urban survivalism come to the fore, based on improvised solutions and new understandings of the place and meaning of water in times of scarcity.
Writing about these events before the current global pandemic, I argued that many cities would face their “Anthropocene moment” – the unimaginable disruption of daily life occasioned by flood, fire or drought (I neglected to add: a virus, or a war of occupation).
Nick Shepherd is a researcher and writer based at Aarhus University in Denmark, and at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He has been a visiting professor at Brown University, Colgate University and the University of Basel, and a Mandela Fellow at Harvard University. In 2017-18 he was artist-in-residence at the Amsterdam University of the Arts. For many years he convened the graduate programme in Public Culture and Heritage in Africa, at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies. He is currently Lead Author of a White Paper on The Role of Cultural and Natural Heritage for Climate Action, commissioned by a working group of UNESCO, ICOMOS and the IPCC. He runs regular walking seminars involving scholars, activists, artists and curators, described as exercises in decolonial pedagogy.