It wasn’t the restrictions or the tariffs that made us save water – it was panic

Review: Vivien Horler

Day Zero – one city’s response to a record-breaking drought, by Leonie Joubert & Gina Ziervogel (AXA/ Mapula Trust/ ACDI)

day zeroWe may not have heard of the small Canadian town of Gibsons, but they have heard of us.

The west coast town near Vancouver, where the long-running series Beachcombers was filmed, relies on snowmelt and the Gibsons Aquifer for its water. But with climate change increasing temperatures in the area, Gibsons is dealing with a multi-year drought.

So in May this year mayor Bill Beamish issued a challenge to its citizens, asking them to live like a Capetonian for a single Sunday, and see what it is like to manage on 50litres of water a person, instead of the average 250l a person Gibsons’ residents use.

Afterwards Beamish told Cape Talk Radio that the challenge had been a success in that many people had taken part and been made aware of the consequences of unbridled water use.

The possibility of a major city seeing its taps run dry made world headlines.

Cape Town’s record-breaking three-year drought, covering the winters of 2015, 2016 and 2017, led to the real prospect of our reaching Day Zero, the day in April last year when the City of Cape Town was going to shut off our taps.

But long before that date, researchers, meteorologist, planners, local authority experts, social scientists and academics had been monitoring the situation, and this little book is a look at what happened.

One of the researchers was Associate Professor Gina Ziervogel of UCT who works in the field of urban adaptation of climate change. She was on the of City of Cape Town’s Water Resilience Advisory Committee, set up to provide expert support to the city, and her attendance at the committee’s monthly meetings gave her an insight into how the city responded to the crisis.

Later she wrote a report called Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned. Based on this report, with the help of science writer Leonie Joubert, comes this more generally accessible book on the response to the drought.

There was a lot of criticism at the time relating to how the city, and various roleplayers including then mayor Patricia de Lille, handled the crisis, but the authors point out that no one saw the three-year drought coming. It is only with hindsight that weather researchers pinpointed the start date, which was June 2015. Between then and June 2018, when thankfully the heavens opened, the rainfall varied between 50% and 70% of the long-term average.

Anyone who knows anything of the history of the city will know that Cape Town has always been water challenged, and that various efforts have been made to ameliorate this, from 1877 when work started on the building of the Molteno Reservoir in Oranjezicht. But the recent drought saw many of the rainfall figures fall to their lowest since written records began in the 1880s.

The book is full of fascinating facts: our dams hold about 18 months supply of water for farming and urban needs – 900 million cubic metres. Of that Cape Town gets about 58%, smaller towns about 6%, agriculture 26% and 10% evaporates or is leaked from pipes and other infrastructure.

There was a narrative at the time among many formal suburb dwellers claiming that people in informal settlements didn’t care about saving water, left taps running and continued to run water-hungry businesses like informal car washes.

In fact, say the authors, a breakdown of just who of the city’s 4 million residents use the most water “shows starkly the inequality that still bedevils the service delivery here: those living in formal housing use 66% of the city’s water allocation, while those living in informal settlements only draw 4%”.

The authors point out the drought reminded everyone that many Capetonians already live in a 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 portaloos”.

So what were some of the lessons learned? There were a few surprises. We all know of the big expensive engineering plans that were being made to help resolve the problem, such as the building of permanent desalination plants and tapping into the aquifers. But there were cheaper, simpler but more long-term ideas, such as dealing with invasive alien trees in the province’s main water catchments.

At the height of the water restrictions, when the city’s water consumption target was under 500 million litres a day, these trees – both wild and farmed – were using the equivalent of almost two months of the city’s water. And this figure is predicted to double by 2045 if they are not cleared.

Researchers found this task, if spread over the next 30 years, would need a relatively small investment of R370million in today’s values, “a significantly better return on investment than the engineered solutions”.

As we all know, the rapid and wholehearted response of ordinary citizens to the drought meant that Day Zero was avoided – at least in 2018. But what was it that galvanised them?

It was not a matter of money. Wealthier people didn’t respond much to tariff increases – they could afford their water, while poor households used much less water anyway.

Restrictions helped, and so did easy-to-use tools provided by the city such as its Water Dashboard, the Cape Town Water Map which showed which households were using more or less water, and its ThinkWater Website.

The much maligned water management devices also helped, but what really made Capetonians serious about the water crisis was panic – when the city released the Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan in October 2017. This was the plan for Day Zero, turning off the taps, and us all standing in queues collecting a ration of 25l of water a day from standpipes.

Suddenly water was the only topic of conversation, everyone had buckets in their bathrooms, were flushing with grey water and installing water tanks and wellpoints. Or as the authors put it: the response to this report was the single biggest reduction across the two-and-a-half years of the drought.

“The take-home message: sharing clear, salient information with citizens during times of crisis is crucial in driving behavioural change, particularly if it also gives people a sense of what they can do to help fix the problem.”

The authors say this message is not confined to water – people are likely also to respond this way when faced by energy or other shortages.

Like many other cities, Cape Town was grappling with enormous development challenges and was then confronted with a climate shock. On the whole, with the exception of the national government, this book records that the local authorities and Capetonians of every stripe rose magnificently to the occasion. This time.



One thought on “It wasn’t the restrictions or the tariffs that made us save water – it was panic

  1. Beverley Roos-Muller

    This is a fascinating analysis of how humans behave, and why. Water happens to be the issue here – and an important one – but it could be a story of how we react to almost anything urgent. Perhaps that is why it is often suggested that ‘the best’ of us comes to the fore during a war or other crises and also perhaps, ‘the worst’. Remember how nasty we were about people who wasted water! And not without purpose.
    I’ve know Gina Ziervogel (through her parents) since she was a little Camps Bay schoolchild and she was always as bright as a button, and a leader among her peers. Kudos to her and the book. Or, as a friend (unnamed) wrote recently, Kudus.


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