Analysis

How Cape Town Survived The Drought


At the height of summer in 2018, Cape Town was reeling from an environmental shock the scale of which no one here had seen before. A three-year drought, which even seasoned climatologists hadn’t seen coming, broke records going back more than a century. Newspaper headlines around the world warned that Cape Town might become one of the first cities globally to have its municipal dams run empty.

“Day Zero” made it into everyday language, the term which signalled the day when emergency water rationing might kick in, when utility managers would shut off water to homes in the suburbs and to businesses outside of the priority city centre. Families would have to collect a ration of 25 litres of water per person, per day, from 200 collection points around the city. The police and military were told that they would need to be on standby to deal with possible civil unrest.

In the end, Day Zero never arrived. But the imminent threat of such drastic measures showed how politically and economically unstable a city can become if political tensions, bureaucratic management challenges, infrastructure failures and delays, and day-to-day development pressures collide with a climate shock as bad as this drought.

Cape Town may have narrowly avoided Day Zero this time around, but its spectre nevertheless remains. Human-caused climate change will increase the likelihood of extreme droughts happening in future, in tandem with a city’s growing economy and population putting more pressure on its dwindling water resources.

‘Day Zero: One City’s Response to a Record-Breaking Drought’ looks back over the three-year drought, and captures some of the lessons learned by the city and its residents as they grappled to deal with this extreme drought. These experiences have something to teach developing world cities everywhere.

Telling the Cape Town water story

It is only with hindsight that weather watchers can pin a start-date to the event: June 2015. Between then and June 2018, the rainfall dropped to between 50 and 70% of the long-term average, with many rainfall figures falling to the lowest since written records began in the 1880s.

Cape Town is a city of just over 4-million people, and a breakdown of residential water use across the municipality shows starkly the inequality that still bedevils service delivery here: those living in formal housing use two-thirds of the city’s water; people in informal settlements only draw 4% of this shared resource.

With 14% of Capetonians living in informal homes and ever-growing numbers of people setting up homes in backyard makeshift wooden Wendy houses and iron sheet shacks, there is a backlog in terms of the urgent need for water and sanitation services.

On top of that, about a third of the city’s residents, 1.5-million people, can’t afford to pay for water, and many of them lean heavily on the state’s subsidised water services. If a person registers as “indigent” – crudely put, this means labelling families as poor – they get a free monthly quota, but this is fraught with its own problems. At least 180,000 households in informal settlements who don’t have running water in their home, collecting free water from public standpipes.

The unfolding emergency

In 2014, the city’s dams were full. But as the drought tightened its grip year on year, the water levels dropped until, by January 2018, there was only three months’ supply of water left. That’s when the countdown to Day Zero began.

This announcement sent shock waves throughout the city. Drawing on the experiences of people working within the city who were intimately involved in managing the crisis, Day Zero captures how different municipal actors tried to manage the crisis, and how Capetonians responded. But this crisis wasn’t just an issue of city-level water management by utility departments and technicians.

The book shows that many of the responses to the water shortages fell beyond the scope or jurisdiction of the city’s water utility management structures. If a city administration and an active citizenry are going to share the load of managing water resources during a time of drought, it’s worth understanding how complex city-level water management and delivery are. This isn’t just in terms of managing the infrastructure and how a country’s law books allocate different tasks and roles to different spheres of government. It also links with how healthy the water catchments are, how business and citizens use the water, how a city bills for water, and how clearly it informs the public during a crisis like this.

The great divide

By pulling into focus the divide between the city’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, the drought reminded everyone that many Capetonians live in a perpetual state of Day Zero. Thousands of people need to collect water from standpipes outside of their homes every day and share often run-down communal toilets and porta-loos.

This divide doesn’t only refer to those who are plugged into the water grid and can afford to buy more water than they need, and those who aren’t and cannot. It also relates to whose voices are heard, be it in the local media, or through political platforms.

Many wealthier residents panicked at the idea of having to queue at a water point for their daily allocation, should the emergency rationing measures kick in. But many of these families were also able to insulate themselves from the uncertainty of a collapsing municipal grid by putting in water storage tanks, grey-water systems, or sinking boreholes.

Meanwhile, just 25km from the plush water-irrigated lawns of suburbia, families in informal settlements still wait for the “luxury” of clean running water in their homes, with no clear end in sight to this state of affairs. Some families in these communities started to worry that they’d now have to compete with middle-class Capetonians who might drive into their neighbourhoods to fill up their water containers.

Would tensions across the city really run so high that people might turn on one another? Would the military and police need to intervene? Or would people pull together, and help each other through it?

The ‘new normal’

Everyone talks about the “new normal” these days, where environmental shocks like this drought are expected to become more commonplace. Cape Town’s water planning is based on historic rainfall and water use records, and projections of the likely increase in demand for water as the population and economy swell. But how does a city adapt its planning when rainfall trends change as the region’s climate becomes warmer and possibly drier, and the rainfall less predictable, because of human-caused global warming?

In the calm that has returned following the arrival of good rains in the winter of 2018, climate scientists at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University and the Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) from the University of Cape Town calculated that human-caused climate change tripled the likelihood of this drought happening.

The message from their analysis is clear: this kind of climate change risk is real and all future city planning needs to be done with this uncertainty in mind. The residents of a city need to adjust their water use permanently, too, so that it becomes a way of life. DM