The interruption of essential water services in Cape Town, foreshadowed as ‘Day Zero,’ is one of several recent examples of urban water scarcity connected to the language of urgent climate change. Johannesburg, with its larger and growing population and deeply enmeshed water and power infrastructures, is currently regarded as one drought away from disaster. As a result, the lessons to be learned from Cape Town are under active debate in South Africa. We used Q method to examine the structure of perspectives on urban water scarcity among South African water management practitioners. Our results illustrate distinct viewpoints differentiated by focus on corruption and politics, supply and demand systems, and social justice concerns as well as a distinct cohort of pragmatic optimists. Our analysis underscores the significance of public trust and institutional effectiveness, regardless of otherwise sound policy or infrastructure tools. As practitioners explicitly connect domains of competency to solvable and critical problems, integrated systems approaches will require deliberate interventions. Furthermore, urban water crises exacerbate and are exacerbated by existing experiences of racial and economic inequality, but this effect is masked by focus on demand management of average per capita water consumption and characterization of water scarcity as ‘the new normal.’

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