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Cape Town Is Surveilling Residents to Shame Them Into Using Less Water

Officials are posting data from individual houses to try and convince people to conserve water—at the cost of their privacy.

by Jay Fleming
May 31 2018, 4:25pm

A dried up dam near Cape Town. Image: Jay Fleming

Cape Town remains in the middle of an unprecedented water crisis. Despite recent rainfalls, ‘Day Zero’—the day the taps will run dry—is still due to arrive sometime in 2019. To mitigate the threat, the local and national government have put a 50 litre per person per day limit on water consumption and bans on washing cars and filling swimming pools.

In January, the local government started publishing water usage data in an attempt to get Capetonians to use even less water and to increase awareness of water waste. The Water Map shows current water usage data of most homes in Cape Town, down to specific address. Homes complying with water restrictions receive a dark green dot, and homes that exceed their limit appear as light green on the map.

If this feels a bit Big Brother, that’s because it is. City officials claim that the map is designed to encourage and celebrate “good savers,” and not to shame bad behaviour. But some residents feel that it’s one and the same.

Screenshot from the city WaterMap website.

Local dentist Kaveer Ratan told me that the site has complicated things.

“For my home and my business, knowing that anyone can see how much water I’m using is a strange position to be in,” he said. “A dental office uses more water than the average business, does the system account for that?” Ratan’s office is on the cutting edge of water conservation, even using a waterless suction system to try to cut back on usage, but it may not be enough to earn “good saver” status.

This is a clear attempt to harness the power of social pressure to encourage dramatic behavior change. In fact, the city has encouraged taking photo and video evidence of water wasters, and last year published the 100 streets in Cape Town that are guilty of wasting the most water.

These measures have created a culture that is obsessed with water usage, and now, residents have a tool to see exactly how much everyone is using. In January, when the site launched, a spokesperson for Mayor Patricia De Lille told a local blog that “the potential water-saving benefit for all of Cape Town of making water consumption indicators publicly available outweighs any privacy issues at this stage of the crisis.”

Since the site has come online, Cape Town’s residents have cut consumption, perhaps in part due to the water map, but experts argue that privacy and safety need not be a zero-sum game.

Canadian privacy expert and Ryerson University professor Ann Cavoukian told me that while this may be an effective short-term tool for tracking water consumption and encouraging reduced usage, allowing all residents to see the data could be a slippery slope as the situation worsens.

“Oversight should not be in the hands of neighbors. It belongs in the hands of the city,” she said, adding that behaviour change can be achieved through governmental control—shutting off the taps of heavy users, for example—instead of creating a system where citizens could begin self-policing.

Water usage isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface, argues Cavoukian.

“You have no idea why someone might be using more water,” she said.“One may have a sick mother, who knows?”

Read More: Cape Town Residents Tell Us What It's Like Living In the Shadow of 'Day Zero'

Creating a single tracking and measuring system for all residents is a risk that she believes could potentially lead to negative, even potentially violent outcomes.

As Cape Town residents and lawmakers alike continue to (literally) pray for rain to fill their dams and reservoirs over the winter, one thing is certain: compromising its residents’ privacy will have a lasting impact on Cape Town’s view of their government, and of their neighbors.