Capetonians rejoiced at the news that the city’s dam levels have finally reached the 80% mark. For now, the Mother City is safe from Day Zero. As of August 13, 2019, Cape Town’s overall water storage reached 80.7% thanks to the bountiful rains that graced the province last week.
Associate Professor Gina Ziervogel, a geographer and climate change adaptation expert at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has spent the past 18 months examining what cities around the world can learn from Cape Town’s response to a once-in-a-century drought.
In 2017, after three years of drought, Cape Town – the oldest city in South Africa – faced the possibility that it might run out of water. Ziervogel, research chair at the UCT African Climate & Development Research Initiative whose research focuses on urban climate adaptation, was appointed to a water advisory committee for the municipality governing the city.
“Cape Town’s mayor at the time, Patricia de Lille, helped to create the Water Resilience Task Team: a group of water technicians, environmental experts and public officials appointed by the City Council to try and manage the water crisis,” she explains.
The following year, Day Zero – the day the city’s taps were predicted to run dry – was narrowly averted and the drought ended. During this time, Ziervogel began researching how the city’s government had responded to the crisis.
“I felt that the citizens of Cape Town deserved to have more insight into what happened behind the scenes and that it was essential to examine how Cape Town’s municipal government responded to the crisis so as to share the lessons we have learned with other cities,” she said. “The drought taught us that in a time of crisis, we need specialists and experts who have a deep technical understanding. But that these experts have to work collaboratively and quickly to be effective and that often the mechanisms for them to do so aren’t in place.”
According to Ziervogel, the water crisis has prompted changes in the way the City works and responds to crises. Although, it’s not clear whether these changes will be permanent or whether some of them rely on personal relationships formed during the 2015–2018 water crisis.
“During the crisis, officials within the City of Cape Town worked together in ways that they hadn’t before.”
“It is clear that going forward, the City would benefit from more reflexive learning and a better learning environment. At present, they are rolling out simulations and developing the City’s resilience strategy, which I think has been influenced positively by the experience of the water crisis to make it more holistic and wide-ranging.”
Other issues starkly highlighted by the crisis remain urgent questions, such as, what does the relationship between national and local government look like? How can cities finance water and electricity better? And how can cities listen to marginalised groups to address inequality?
In a city such as Cape Town, many of its citizens live in a permanent Day Zero. Could the drought lead to empathy and urgency in addressing inequality among those for whom the prospect of not having a formal water supply was a new experience?
“The drought underscored the fact that different groups of people are affected in vastly different ways during a crisis,” says Ziervogel. “If we want to build resilience, we have to make space for multiple perspectives.”
“Cape Town’s resilience to future climate change and other crises relies on relationships outside of the city’s government: how do we better listen to multiple voices?” she asks.
If there is one lesson to take away from Cape Town’s response to the crisis, Ziervogel believes, it is the understanding that we need to adapt to climate change now to better deal with climate extremes in the future.