Cape Town’s largest and most important dam, Theewaterskloof, is nearly empty in this April 2018 photo. The reservoir holds more than half of the area’s water when it’s at capacity. Photo: Pieter Hugo

By Eve Fairbanks
19 April 2018

(Highline) – When I moved to South Africa nine years ago, one of the first things some locals told me was to be careful using GPS. The country had rules of navigation, they told me, but ones more complicated and intuitive than a computer could manage. You could drive through this neighborhood, but not at night. You could drive through that one, but roll up your windows, especially if you are white. It was often white South Africans who talked about the GPS, but many black South Africans agreed. It was sad, everybody would say; sad that the once-segregated country seemed not to have fully gotten over its past. But that was the way it was. Those were the rules. Some had come to think of them, painfully, as a fact of nature, of the human race.

I thought of these rules when I flew into Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city, in March. Over the last three years, Cape Town has been suffering an extraordinary, once-in-300-years drought—helped along, most analysts surmise, by climate change. The shift in the city’s physical appearance is astonishing. The Cape is cordoned off from the rest of the country by a 5,000-foot-high wall of mountains. To the northeast, the landscape looks like the Africa of safari brochures: dry, hot and then jungly. But in the little bowl-shaped area couched between the mountain range and the southwestern tip of the African continent, the climate is exceptional. Its technical name is “Mediterranean.” To look out from the peaks toward Cape Town, a city of 4 million distinguished by genteel architecture and craggy slopes, has traditionally been like glimpsing Greece, if Greece were even dreamier: ivory houses, cobalt sea, olive hills, all threaded through by ribbons of gold and twinkles of topaz from wine farms. Fed by five times more rainfall than South Africa’s arid central region, the Cape area is one of the most diverse floral kingdoms on Earth, boasting giant blush-colored blooms. Cloud formations, from billowing white cumulonimbus to fogs that flow like rivers to mists that course like waterfalls off the top of Table Mountain, the crag that looms over the city, make heaven seem almost like a real place here, as playful and richly landscaped as the earth below.

Some of that is gone now. Cape Town’s drought palette is a dull lime and beige. Lawns and gardens are dead. The city’s vast townships—spots legally reserved for people of color under apartheid—used to be differentiated from the wealthy neighborhoods that tumble down the Atlantic-facing side of Table Mountain not only by their location, tucked conveniently behind the mountain where they couldn’t easily be seen, but also by their own, less desirable microclimate, marshy and wind-scoured, prone to floods in wet weather and, in the dry and breezy summers, consumed by a cloud of grit. Dust, piled in little drifts in the gutters, was one of those signs that you were heading into a “bad” place. Dust is everywhere now. [more]

Dry, the Beloved Country

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