Letter from Cape Town

Birds eye view of Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background (Shutterstock).
Birds eye view of Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background (Shutterstock).

Cape Town made headlines in 2018 as one of the first metropolitan areas that risked running out of water. I spent a part of my sabbatical to learn how Capetonians cut their water demand by over 50% and how the authorities responded to the drought that nearly took Cape Town to the brink and how they are planning to prevent a replay.

Cape Town made headlines in 2018 as the city that almost ran out of water. I started my sabbatical in March 2020* to learn about Cape Town’s water crisis and what the city is doing to prevent a repeat of that experience. Two years after the 2018 crisis, dams are now filled to around 60% capacity, compared to just 24% in February 2018. Restrictions are now at Level 1, which includes the least strict water saving measures (e.g. irrigation for gardening only before 9am and after 6pm). Due to climate change, water-related shocks are likely to become more frequent and intense in the near future (see Fig 1).


Due to proactive water management, residential water use dropped considerably, and Cape Town’s overall water demand declined by 55% from pre-drought levels – the greatest water saving ever achieved by a metropolitan-sized city without resorting to intermittent water supply. In May 2018, the International Water Association awarded a Certificate of Excellence to Cape Town for reducing water demand by more than half in two years, despite a 30% increase in population in the past decade.  These water saving achievements greatly contributed to the city not running out of water and “avoiding Day Zero“.

Without a doubt, Cape Town is the city with the most creative messaging around water saving. Dozens of posters and signs remind citizens that saving water is the ‘new normal’ and that saving water must become part of daily routines.

Fig. 2: Water saving messages from around the city


There have been a number of lessons learned from the 2018 water crisis:

  1. Cities need to accelerate their climate change adaptation strategies. For instance, to date, 95% of Cape Town’s water supply still rely on surface waters’ dams. A diversity of water sources is needed to climate-proof Cape Town’s water supply.
  2. Local governments need to take the lead. They are more agile and closer to their citizens than regional or national governments, which are slow to move.
  3. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Better data management is needed to ensure accurate and timely decision-making.
  4. Strong and consistent messaging and sensitisation campaigns. Cape Town provided weekly dashboard updates on remaining water reserves, coupled with progressive water restrictions that were put into place.
  5. Building and maintaining trust by citizens and communities. This is crucial to implement water-saving behaviour at household and business levels.

(Source: K. Winter, Future Water Institute)

The 2018 water crisis has created a sustained drop in water demand, which has risen only slightly in post-drought 2019. This is explained by consistent water saving measures at household (e.g. installation of water efficient sanitary fittings) and institutional levels and the increased use of non-potable water for irrigation and gardening. This has also led to a rethink, a number of institutional reforms and a more holistic approach to water management, fostering resilience to climate change, and supplementing surface-water supply through risk-based deployment of water supply augmentation technologies.

Further reading:
Ziervogel, G., 2019 “Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned” – a 26 page report produced by the African Centre for Cities highlighting the main lessons learned from the water crisis.

City of Cape Town, 2020. “The Cape Town Water Strategy – our shared water future”. New strategy document that provides a roadmap for Cape Town to become a water resilient and inclusive city. https://resource.capetown.gov.za


*  I was stuck in Cape Town during the South African lockdown, which began on 27 March 2020. South Africa’s lockdown was much stricter than Switzerland’s and enforced with army presence. Mid-April I was repatriated with one of EDA’s chartered flights.



Christoph Lüthi
Dr. Eng. Infrastructure Planning
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  • Hank

    at 04.06.2020
    Dr Lüthi

    Thank you for putting together such a fantastic article with such realism on where we were as a city of Cape Town in terms of our water levels and how we managed to progress to where place we are now, honestly being a from cape town currently in the time being able to adapt to the seriousness of saving water was not easy but 90% of the city pulled together to help get out of the water crises ,it was was the for the most intelligent and adaptable to change which falls under the 90% of the beautiful city I live in Cape that made this possible thank you for sharing.

    Kind Regards
  • Khanyiso

    at 06.06.2020
    Dr Luthi

    I appreciate your views and response to the crisis , allow me to be honest and I’ll try to be more proactive about it but ever since this has happened capetown water do not taste the same. I mean most of us can’t really drink the tap water anymore because some people are getting sick from the tap water. So people have to buy water to drink which also affected our health in way and not everyone in capetown is fortunate to buy drinking water everyday. This has not only been a water matter but also a added expense to every household. Up till today there are still people stealing water why ? Because our population in this region is increasing yearly there has to be some strict rules in the intake of people coming outside of western cape so that we can manage the water even better.
  • Tony

    at 06.06.2020
    The response of the residents of Cape Town was, for me, proof that draconian measures such as those currently being experienced in response to the Covid crisis could have been tempered if citizens were recognized as possessing common sense. Our response to the water crisis showed that people will cooperate if they are :
    Well informed
    Kept in the loop of changes
    Subjected to widespread reminders and suggestions about what is required
    Not being treated as children unable to think for themselves
    I was proud of how even the humblest households did what was required without the overt threats we are now experiencing.
    The response of the city was worthy of the highest praise and the continued sensitivity of its people even more so.
  • Pavan

    at 04.11.2020
    Dear Christoph,

    Thanks for this very comprehensive and insightful view on the issue, very interesting to see how the town tried to tackle the situation multidimensionally- saving the water, citizen behavior, water source management, making it an excellent case study for others to pick up and implement. I only wish and hope this information will reach the right people.

    Best Wishes