Many have noted a shift in the behaviour of Capetonians following the threat of Day Zero, as locals have expressed concern at any inclination that dam levels may drop. This coupled with the reactions of residents to the City of Cape Town lowering water restrictions once again begs the question of whether fear has played a role in the successful diversion of Day Zero.
A joint study conducted by the University of Stellenbosch, along with the University of Cape Town, has reflected that this may be the reason why Cape Town was able to successfully avoid the day when taps would run dry.
“Our findings suggest that Capetonians responded more strongly to the threat of waterless taps than to the implemented levels of water restrictions,” said Professor Thinus Booysen, a researcher from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Stellenbosch (US). “Our smart water meter data combined with billing data from the city points to a remarkable success on the side of citizens to drastically change their consumption patterns over a relatively short period of time.”
Booysen conducted the study along with Martine Visser, who is from the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and Ronelle Burger, who is also from the Department of Economics at US.
“Our study seems to indicate that while inciting some level of fear-mongering may have been a risky strategy for the City of Cape Town to undertake, it may have been the single most successful intervention in changing Capetonians’ behaviour as far as water usage is concerned,” Booysen said.
The researchers considered what series of events would have ushered in Day Zero, and drew parallels between the shift in behaviours of locals who made use of smart water metres that tracked water usage.
Hot and cold water metres (referred to as ‘Geasies’ and ‘Dropulas’ respectively in the study) were installed in provinces such as the Western Cape, Gauteng and Mpumalanga between October 2016 and August 2017, to measure water consumption.
The study reflected that Capetonians increased their water usage after the first week of September in 2017, just after level 5 water restrictions were implemented. Another spike was noted just after level 6B water restrictions were implemnted in January 2018.
“At this point, the smart meter users were at 250L per day, which equates to 7,5 kilolitres per month (the Cape Town average was at 300L per day per over the month). The perverse effect of the contradiction in the Level 5 restrictions may explain the increase in usage to over 350L per day (or 10,5 kilolitres per month) at the end of the September school break,” Booysen said.
Just after Cape Town announced its water resilience plan, locals began to reduce their water consumption.
The study also analysed mainstream media and social media reaction to government announcements about the drought crisis by searching terms related to water restriction levels.
The most commonly searched terms includes: “Level 5 or Level 5 restrictions or Level 5 water restrictions or water restrictions”, “collection points”, “disaster”, “crisis”, “South African National Defence Force”, “bottled water”, and “borehole”.
“We wanted to identify points of heightened public engagement with the threat of empty taps, to understand how Capetonians digested, assessed and navigated the barrage of notices and news during the crisis,” Booysen said. “Our analysis of the terms used during this period shows that the biggest response was observed not when the restrictions or tariff increases were imposed, but in response to a three-phased disaster plan that warned of disastrous outcomes. During the week preceding the drop in usage, there was an increase in terms related to drought panic and a decrease in terms relating to the Level 5 restrictions. Spikes in the frequency of terms related to drought panic, however, do not overlap with the announcement of Level 5 on 3 September.”
According to Booysen, these spikes gave the impression that the announcement of water restrictions may have affected locals less than the subsequent media frenzy and scaremongering after the release of the Critical Water Shortage Disaster Plan.