In January 2018, Cape Town officials announced that the South African city was three months away from running out of municipal water, an event dubbed “Day Zero.” The prediction followed three consecutive years of low rainfall, which – coupled with over-extraction for agriculture and servicing the growing urban population – had almost run the city’s six large dams dry.
But Day Zero was avoided. How did Cape Town do it? And on a planet where more than one in four people live in countries affected by water scarcity – and more than 5 billion could suffer from water scarcity by 2050 – what might other water-scarce cities learn from this response?
On 1 February 2018, the Cape Town city government implemented a series of restrictions. Residents were each allocated 50 liters (just over 13 gallons) of water to use per day – for context, the average person in the U.S. has a daily use of about 373 liters. Water tariffs were hiked, and non-essential uses such as watering lawns, golf courses and public parks, washing cars, and filling swimming pools, were prohibited. Those in agriculture had to cut their usage by 60 percent, and water being stored for agricultural purposes was transferred to the city. Meanwhile, the municipality also implemented a new water pressure system, which saved around 10 percent of overall consumption.
Residents also played important roles, spurred by effective drought-awareness campaigns, which included weekly water reports, Day Zero countdown boards on highways, and a map that showed household-level water consumption and allowed people to compare their usage to that of their neighbors and others in the city. Businesses got in on the act, with some start-ups running ‘dirty shirt’ challenges to see which employee could go the longest in one work shirt without washing it.
By 20 February, the city had successfully cut its water consumption to less than half of what it was using before the drought began. Day Zero was pushed back into the rainy season – and then the drought broke, and the region received average rainfall for the first time in four years. The dams rose to sustainable levels, and Day Zero was canceled.
Victory, but not for all
“What’s interesting in Cape Town’s story is the learning from it,” says Darío Soto, the executive secretary of the Global Water Partnership, an international network that seeks to foster an integrated approach to water resource management and provide practical advice for doing so. “Since then, the government has taken really good steps in terms of improving infrastructure, as well as taking measures that have to do with adaptation: making sure that the whole system is prepared for similar occurrences in the future.”
Andries Jordaan, the executive director of development and risk management network Résilience Globale and an associate professor and research fellow at the University of the Free State’s Disaster Management Training and Education Centre for Africa (DiMTEC), agrees. “Cape Town definitely learned the lessons about curbing water use and implementing better, more water-efficient systems, too. The latest figures for water use there are much lower than in other cities in South Africa – and much lower than what they used to be before the 2015 drought began.”
However, while the Cape Town tale is often told as a resounding success story, it had lasting negative impacts for the 60 percent of Cape Town’s residents living in townships and informal settlements. Rather than celebrating ‘easy wins’ like letting a lawn dry out, an office shirt fill with sweat or a flush toilet linger unflushed, the city’s poor took some serious financial hits, with major job losses over the period, particularly in temporary and lower-paid positions.
“In situations like this, it’s always the poor that are affected the most,” says Jordaan. “Many thousands of people lost their jobs. Temporary workers in agriculture were the first to go, a number of businesses could not continue, and construction and development planning was delayed until the water issue was resolved.”
“South Africa is a water-scarce country whose cities are full of swimming pools and lush gardens,” said Mary Galvin, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change, in an opinion piece on the topic at the time. “Inequity and a lack of fairness and justice pervades water distribution. It is time to make some longer-term strategic choices about equity in urban water demand and about the allocation of water resources.”
Water to the city – or the city to water?
Jordaan says that while Cape Town learned from its experience, the takeaways were localized, and other urban areas around the country – one of the world’s driest – continue to overuse their limited water resources. The Nelson Mandela Bay municipality in the Western Cape, for instance, is currently facing water outages after the levels of one of its major dams dropped too low for extraction.
The country’s demand for water is growing, projected to outstrip supply by 2030, making national-level action required, says Jordaan. “We only have a certain amount of water availability in the country, and we already use about 95 percent of it,” he says. “With the expansion of agriculture and irrigation over the past 20 years, all of our sectors demand more water – but the supply of water remains constant.”
Climate change is likely to put further pressure on that supply, prompting the need to boost water availability by capturing rainwater more effectively, while also necessitating some difficult questions. “Currently, the only region with surplus water in the country is the Eastern Cape,” says Jordaan. “So from a national level, it makes sense to approach our water shortages from that perspective and focus our development efforts in the East, in the hopes of getting a large number of people to move there from the [wealthier, but water-scarce] Western Cape.”
But that’s a politically difficult – and, as such, unlikely – prospect at present, says Petrie. What’s certain for Cape Town going forward is that “there will be more Day Zeroes in the future,” she says. “The frequency will increase, and probably also the intensity. And that’s not just a climate-change issue. Even though the rain didn’t come, we shouldn’t have reached the levels we did. It’s a governance issue, too – and we have less and less room to get that part wrong.”