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:
- 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.
- 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.
- You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Better data management is needed to ensure accurate and timely decision-making.
- 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.
- 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.
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.