Crisis Articulations:Urban Water Scarcity and Climatic Uncertainty in São Paulo and Cape Town

Authors: Nate Millington*, University of Cape Town
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Urban Geography, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: Water, Urban Political Ecology, Scarcity, Brazil, Crisis, Climate Change, Environment, Urban Geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Balcony M, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2014 and 2015, political intransigence combined with a severe drought to push São Paulo,
Brazil, to the edge of a profound water crisis. Three years later, in Cape Town, South Africa,
a continued lack of rainfall has resulted in strict rationing and the development of emergency
plans to prepare for the possibility of a citywide collapse in water stores. As with other cities
that have faced citywide water scarcity in recent years, Cape Town and São Paulo’s
experiences of what have been called water crises are indicative of the difficulties of adapting
existing hydrological regimes to new climatic realities. This paper considers the relationship
between water scarcity and scientific uncertainty around the effects of climate change
through an analysis of how water crises were defined and responded to in São Paulo and
Cape Town. Both cities reveal the difficulties in adapting existing infrastructural systems and
political configurations to new uncertain environmental dynamics, and both involve complex
negotiations with climate science and the nature of scientific expertise more broadly. I
consider how scientific understandings of climate change were operationalized in particular
ways by municipal and regional governments, and analyze how understandings of a shifting
climate were incorporated into crisis response. By focusing on the notion of crisis, I call
attention to the political ecologies of water management in the two cities, and contribute to
understandings of how the fixed infrastructures of the contemporary city intersect with
scientific uncertainty and increasing climatic irregularity.

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