Less is More: How Cape Town Became a Model for Water Governance

Joshua Palfreman
August 28, 2018 | 3 Minute Read
Water, Energy, and Sustainable Cities | Water and Wastewater
In 2017, Cape Town, South Africa was facing "Day Zero," when the city's water resources would drop to dangerous levels. With progressive behavior and governance, Cape Town's government took decisive action to keep the city from going dry.

As winter took its bite over the southern hemisphere, residents of Cape Town, South Africa, looked anxiously towards their rainy season. Cape Town, which entered a severe drought in 2017, urgently required consistent and above-average rainfall to avoid the looming threat of “Day Zero” returning in 2019 — the day when city authorities could potentially be faced with the prospect of turning off the taps of millions of residents.

A little over a year following the introduction of severe water restrictions and in concert with World Water Week, I speak with Bernelle Verster of Future Water, a water think-tank at the University of Cape Town, to provide an update on Cape Town’s water crisis and shed some light on the progressive governance and behavior change that is helping the city avoid going dry.

What Happened?

Cape Town received significantly above-average rainfall in 2013 and 2014 followed by significantly below-average rainfall between 2015 – 2017, draining dam levels to 12.3 percent. In 2017, the city entered its most severe drought in over 100 years and set out to mitigate “Day Zero” via a host of political, technological and business measures.

Since the start of the winter, Cape Town has experienced some welcome precipitation that has recharged it’s six main dams to more than 50 percent of capacity. However, principle dams, such as Thewaterskloof, are still anticipated to suffer during the summer season, and the last 12 percent of a dam’s reservoir cannot practically be utilized.

Bernelle Verster highlights an important caveat of precipitation forecasting and the early winter update: “Even in the most optimistic of models, rainfall forecasting, water evaporation, and augmentation modeling are all notoriously hard to predict and are becoming even less so in a changing climate and worse, often, rainfall doesn’t even fall where it can be captured. For example, a lot of precipitation paradoxically falls offshore.”

Progressive Behavior, Progressive Governance

In 2017, the city of Cape Town introduced an array of measures to curb water usage, repeatedly raising water restrictions to levels 4B (87 liters per person per day), and, as the crisis deepened, to level 6B (50 liters per person per day) where they currently stand. Municipal authorities coupled these restrictions with heavy fines to punish noncompliance and prohibited the use of municipal water resources for cleaning paved surfaces, cars, and boats. Today, even washing aircraft at Cape Town’s international airport is illegal, as is irrigation for recreational purposes and using municipal water for swimming pools. Popular culture, the media, and a host of celebrities also helped to stigmatize irresponsible or above-ration water use, and Cape Town’s Mayor Patricia de Lille published a controversial report naming and shaming the 100 most water-intensive neighborhoods in Cape Town.

Such political efforts helped Cape Town — a city that is growing at an average rate of 2.7 percent — to collectively cut its water consumption in half, from 1.2 billion liters per day in 2015 to around 505 million liters today. But more can still be done. Cape Town still exceeds water use targets by 17 percent, and many relatively straightforward policy and fiscal measures can be put in place to further influence positive and progressive behavior change.

Bernelle Verster notes an important caveat of the water crisis related to the role of South Africa’s political history and makeup: “The onset of water rations and the severity of Cape Town’s drought carries important socioeconomic considerations. Take the population of the wider Western Cape Province in South Africa — which has doubled in the last 30 years — as one example, and the advent of democracy and increasing wealth in South Africa as a second. Both developments have increased water demand to typical of the highest rainfall years and placed immense pressure on public authorities for a whole array of other services that face their own urgent needs. From housing and transport to healthcare and education, public administration must fiercely compete among one another to obtain a limited budget that services a rapidly growing South Africa”.

The onset of water rations and the severity of Cape Town’s drought carries important socioeconomic considerations.

Speaking further with Bernelle, I am constantly impressed with the progressive nature that municipal government and Capetonians are adopting to save water. Later this year commercial properties will be expected to reduce their water consumption by 45 percent from 2015 levels. Failure to comply will result in a greatly increased water charge, more than 2.5 times the pre-drought fee. Businesses can also opt to receive or purchase recycled water or treated effluent for very low cost, at no limit, which can be safely used for irrigation and industrial applications. Such commercial and scalable options provide attractive incentives for the business community to embrace more resilient and sustainable practices long term.

Among residents, experts have pointed out that with very simple measures, such as the grey water flushing of toilets (using water collected in shower and sink basins), the fitting of faucet aerators and the use of waterless cleaning products, Cape Town residents could easily get by on 25 – 30 liters per day without a noticeably negative impact on quality of life, and without posing any risk to sanitation or hygiene.

Looking Ahead: The Silver Lining in Cape Town’s “Water Crisis”

Given that water troubles and droughts around the world are expected to worsen, Cape Town’s crisis offers a silver lining of sorts. Rather than focusing on a city suffering from a shortage of a vital resource, Capetonians can embrace their potential for becoming a role model for sustainable water consumption. Cities across the world find themselves in similar drought-stricken conditions to Cape Town; in fact, many use 3-8 times as much water as Cape Town. Those cities should now be able to more robustly analyze social instruments to influence sustainable water usage trends. There is clearly a lesson to be learned from Cape Town looking forward.

The resiliency and progressive behavior that Cape Town has demonstrated to the world should become the new norm in South Africa and inspire cities around the world to follow suit. The social and environmental resilience that Cape Town has adopted additionally demonstrates the potential for a sustainable and livable new standard for more responsible and efficient resource management.

Cape Town may be safe from Day Zero for the rest of 2018 and much of 2019 — but water stress will remain a highly relevant issue across South Africa for the foreseeable future. Cape Town’s new challenge is to now prove that less is more.

About Joshua Palfreman

Joshua Palfreman is a freelance private sector development consultant, specializing in urban water, sanitation, and hygiene and solid waste management. He works with Chemonics’ Water, Energy, and Sustainable Cities Practice.