What lessons did Cape Town learn from Day Zero?

Lessons from Cape Town’s Day Zero

Cape Town made international headlines in 2018 when the mayor announced it could soon run out of enough water. That day, “Day Zero” never arrived, but South Africa’s water crisis still paints a bleak future. Gareth Morgan, the City of Cape Town’s Director for Resilience, shared the lessons Cape Town learned from Day Zero, and how they are building a city stronger than ever before.

Gareth Morgan, Cape Town’s Director for Resilience

In the words of Gareth Morgan

“Over the last 100 years, Capetonians have had to overcome many shock events that threatened the survival of the city. This included the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1901, the reclamation of the foreshore in 1935, the struggle against apartheid from the 1950s to the 1990s and most recently the defeat of Day Zero in 2018.

To defeat Day Zero – the doomsday when taps would run dry and residents would have to queue for water – the City of Cape Town had to rely on collaboration with its residents. City and government interventions included drilling boreholes to tap groundwater, small-scale salt-water desalination plants, and a pilot plant to treat sewage and convert it to drinking-quality water. But success was only truly achieved by the incredible water-saving efforts of Capetonians.

The city became the first in the world to reduce its water consumption by 50% in just three years.

To build a resilient city, municipalities must accept that they cannot do everything themselves. They simply do not have all the resources or the capacity. To do this, untapped resources like neighbourhood watches, community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations and businesses are needed. Allies must be empowered to understand risk and how to reduce it. There must be good relationships between government departments. The government of a city simply does not control all the functions in the urban environment.

For example, energy, policing, rail and bulk water supply are all the responsibilities of national government. A strong city needs all of these functions to work as best as possible. This means that national government too must do its job, or it will place more stress on the urban area where people live.”

Yet, says Gareth, Cape Town has been working to become a safer place for people to live for many years.

A journey that started long ago

“I could say that Cape Town’s journey towards a resilient city started in the 1890s when the first water, drainage and sewage infrastructure was installed. This is also when the municipality’s electricity supply for lighting started.

Since then the city has taken various actions against potential disaster, although it might not have been called ‘resilience’. Since 2017, more focus has been placed on mainstreaming resilience in Cape Town. In the Integrated Development Plan for the City of Cape Town (2017 – 2022), ‘resilience’ features as a guiding principle.

Reaction to climate change gathering momentum in the early 2000s (and is contained in various official reports and strategies).

Regarding water, some of the most important work has been the city’s award-winning water conservation and demand management programme, that started around 2007. As a result, Cape Town was using about the same amount of water in 2015 as it was in 2000. This is despite more than a million new people moving in during the same time. This helped the city to reduce its water consumption by 50% within three years (2015 to 2018). No city has ever achieved something like that.”

Except for using less water, the city is also looking for sources of more water.

“We are looking to take more water from the Cape Flats aquifer; up to 45 Ml per day by 2020. A number of new water re-use projects are also being developed, projected to total up to 70 Ml per day by 2023. Alien invasive vegetation is being cleared around Steenbras and Wemmershoek dams too, while partners are helping to clear other parts of the broader catchment. These are only a few examples.”

And, what can other municipalities learn from Cape Town?

Lessons for other municipalities

Municipalities must start with good data. Understand the whole of the city and where the most serious challenges are. Once you have done an analysis you will know where focus your efforts.

In South Africa, for example, all municipalities are ultimately very vulnerable due to informal settlements. The impacts of climate change (flooding, fire and heat) will be more harsh due to the stresses that already exist in informal settlements. These include poverty, unemployment and food insecurity.”

What about the future of Cape Town?

Hopes for the future in Cape Town

“In future, I would like change to have taken places across the three levels of community, the system and the government.

I would like to see Capetonians working to have healthy people, households and communities which are better able to respond to shocks and stresses. I would like to see a city, including the whole of Cape Town, which is prepared on all levels to function in the face of uncertainty and future shocks, underpinned by individual, household and community resilience building efforts. Then, I would like to see a city government that reflects after shock events, that works with data providers, technology platform partners, modelers and researchers to constantly improve resilience considerations in planning and decision-making.”

Gareth has ten lessons to share from Cape Town’s close call with Day Zero.

Ten lessons from Cape Town’s Day Zero

  1. Management between municipal departments must be strong
  2. Invest in partnerships across the entire environment that the city is part of
  3. Fully understand how the whole system works and who makes decisions in order to understand risks and who is to be held accountable for what
  4. Share information early and often to build public trust
  5. Get input and reviews of your plans from outside the municipality, to test if your models and assumptions are correct
  6. Build extra capacity into your water system to cope with disruptions like drought (in other words, identify alternative sources of water)
  7. Be aware that it is difficult to fund the necessary actions and responses to shocks such as drought from municipal budgets. We need to talk to national government about how to respond to shocks like droughts quicker from a financial point of view
  8. Build adaptable and flexible management capacity among staff and decision makers to cope with stressful situations that can change quickly
  9. Integrate powerful climate scenarios into all planning decisions, especially spatial development plans and plans for built infrastructure
  10. Take time to reflect and learn often so that new knowledge can be used to make changes.


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