Water and Fire explored people’s experiences of and responses to three different environmental hazards, with each hazard explored in a different location.

Water scarcity in Delft 

The city of Cape Town faces increasing water scarcity because of reduced and changed rainfall patterns (Enqvist and Ziervogel, 2019).

From 2015 to 2018, Cape Town experienced the worst drought in its recorded history, resulting in acute water shortages and city-imposed restrictions and controls (Millington and Scheba, 2021). Strategies to reduce water consumption included increasing water tariffs and the installation of water management devices in people’s homes. In 2018, the South African government declared a drought disaster zone in the region and these devices were used to limit daily water usage to 350 litres per day per household.

This exacerbated water challenges for households with many people, as is very common in township settlements.

Delft South is a formal settlement with a culturally diverse population including South African ethnicities and immigrant populations. It faces social challenges such as high levels of crime and violence. Although some households are middle-class, the majority are low-income or unemployed, with unemployment rates just above 40% (Scheba and Turok, 2020). 

Delft’s infrastructure is well-developed compared to other nearby settlements. In 2020, more than 90% of the population had access to basic services such as electricity, water and municipal rubbish collection (Scheba and Turok, 2020). With relatively robust housing and good road construction, Delft South is somewhat less vulnerable to fire and flood events than more informal communities. It is thus a good site within which to study the impacts of water scarcity alone, uncomplicated by other perhaps more immediately destructive hazards. ​

Recent population pressures have resulted in the creeping informalisation of Delft, as shacks and other informal structures are built in the spaces between Government housing. This trend has been accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. As is evident from our research, this is causing additional tensions between the inhabitants of the more and less formal parts of the neighbourhood. 

Recurrent fires in Overcome Heights

Informal settlements around Cape Town are at high risk of destructive, runaway fires (Pharoah, 2014; Kahanji, Walls and Cicione, 2019; Flores Quiroz, Walls and Cicione, 2021). Although fires have long been a problem in neighbourhoods with inadequate access to formal electrical connections, the world’s changing climate is making fire weather more likely and thus fires become both more frequent and potentially more destructive (Williams et al., 2019).

Overcome Heights is a predominately informal settlement, with some parts deeply informal, but others having access to some formal infrastructure (such as roads and street lighting). Recognised as an informal settlement in 2005, it is built on a sand dune behind the more formal and affluent Capricorn neighbourhood. The population consists of over 20,000 culturally and linguistically diverse South Africans and migrants from other African countries. Overcome Heights is an impoverished area with a high rate of unemployment.

Overcome Heights is one of many informal settlements on the Cape Flats affected by recurrent fire outbreaks. For example, in October 2018, more than 800 people were left homeless after a fire ravaged over 309 homes in the settlement (Chiguvare, 2018).  

Limited access to lighting and heating (especially in winter) forces residents to use candles and paraffin stoves that increase the likelihood of informal settlement fires (Strydom and Savage, 2016; Walls, Olivier and Eksteen, 2017).

In addition, the high density and haphazard pattern of homes restricts access to emergency services, preventing them from extinguishing household fires on time (Cicione et al., 2020). 

Recurrent floods in Sweet Home Farm

The Cape Flats overlay a shallow unconfined aquifer, and mean groundwater levels during the rainy winter season are often at the surface. This means flooding is a real problem in many informal settlements (Drivdal, 2016; Fox, Ziervogel and Scheba, 2021; Jordhus-Lier, 2019; Ziervogel et al., 2016).

Sweet Home Farm – an informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town, established in 1992 – is particularly vulnerable to flooding. Heavy rains fall during the winter season and, as the world’s climate changes, increasingly often at other times of the year too. The settlement is located near the coastline in a low-lying floodplain with a shallow water table. This means that flooding is driven by a rising water table in the winter months. Lack of drainage channels to direct the water away from the settlement makes the situation worse.  The area was originally agricultural land, then used as a dumping site for building rubble before being occupied by informal settlements residents (Pharoah, 2014).

The land it is built on has mixed ownership: some parts belong to the government whilst others are privately owned or are the property of Transnet (a national railway company) (Sacks, 2014).

While some stormwater channels and drains have been installed by the City of Cape Town, their effectiveness is undermined by poor connectivity to the piped stormwater network system outside the settlement (University of Cape Town, 2019).

In addition, waste collection services are extremely limited and frequently delayed. This leads to the accumulation of litter and piles of household waste (Drivdal, 2016). This waste mixes with run-off, household greywater and unmaintained sewers, creating stagnant pools between dwellings. 

The 2011 census estimated the population of Sweet Home farm to be approx. 17,000 (likely to have increased now). The resident population is culturally and linguistically diverse. Work opportunities in and close to the settlement are extremely limited and unemployment is high (38% in 2014). 


Chiguvare, B. (2018) Over 800 people homeless after Vrygrond Fire. Cape Town, South Africa: GroundUp News. Available at: https://www.groundup.org.za/article/capricorn-fire/ 

Cicione, A., Beshir, M., Walls, R. S. and Rush, D. (2020) ‘Full-Scale Informal Settlement Dwelling Fire Experiments and Development of Numerical Models’, Fire Technology, 56(2), pp. 639-672.

Drivdal, L. (2016) ‘Flooding in Cape Town’s informal settlements: conditions for community leaders to work towards adaptation’, South African Geographical Journal, 98(1), pp. 21-36.

Enqvist, J. P. and Ziervogel, G. (2019) ‘Water governance and justice in Cape Town: An overview’, WIREs Water, 6(4), pp. E1354.

Flores Quiroz, N., Walls, R. and Cicione, A. (2021) ‘Towards Understanding Fire Causes in Informal Settlements Based on Inhabitant Risk Perception’, Fire, 4(3), pp. 39.

Kahanji, C., Walls, R. S. and Cicione, A. (2019) ‘Fire spread analysis for the 2017 Imizamo Yethu informal settlement conflagration in South Africa’, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 39, pp. 101146.

Millington, N. and Scheba, S. (2021) ‘Day Zero and The Infrastructures of Climate Change: Water Governance, Inequality, and Infrastructural Politics in Cape Town’s Water Crisis’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 45(1), pp. 116-132.

Pharoah, R. (2014) ‘Built-in Risk: Linking Housing Concerns and Flood Risk in Subsidized Housing Settlements in Cape Town, South Africa’, International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 5(4), pp. 313-322.

Sacks, J. (2014) ‘Sweet Home: A Preliminary Investigation into the Socio-Political Character of Recent Road Blockades by Protesting Shack Dwellers in South Africa*’, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 49(1), pp. 115-125.

Scheba, A. and Turok, I. (2020) ‘Informal rental housing in the South: dynamic but neglected’, Environment and Urbanization, 32(1), pp. 109-132.

Strydom, S. and Savage, M. J. (2016) ‘A spatio-temporal analysis of fires in South Africa’, South African Journal of Science, 112, pp. 1-8.

University of Cape Town (2019) Community Risk Assessment Report Sweet Home Farm: Department of Environmental and Geographical Science. Available at: https://www.radar.org.za/assets/files/Sweet%20Home%20Farm%20Community%20Risk%20Assessment%20Report.pdf (Accessed: 23 January 2022).

Walls, R., Olivier, G. and Eksteen, R. (2017) ‘Informal settlement fires in South Africa: Fire engineering overview and full-scale tests on “shacks”’, Fire Safety Journal, 91, pp. 997-1006.

Williams, D. S., Máñez Costa, M., Sutherland, C., Celliers, L. and Scheffran, J. (2019) ‘Vulnerability of informal settlements in the context of rapid urbanization and climate change’, Environment and Urbanization, 31(1), pp. 157-176.