Lessons from a record-breaking drought

24 Jul 2019 - 10:00

Cape Town's once-in-a-century drought has given its residents a new appreciation of the importance of water. Photo Warren Walker, PEXELS.

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. What she uncovered is the subject of her new book, Day Zero, launched on 23 July 2019.

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 citizens of Cape Town have had a visceral experience that has created a permanent change in people’s relationship to water.”

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.”

Day Zero: One city’s response to a record-breaking drought, written with environmental journalist Leonie Joubert, is the result. The book examines the water crisis from five key perspectives – those of the water manager, politician, researcher, spokesperson and knowledge broker – to answer the question: what can we learn from the way Cape Town responded to the water crisis?

 

This video describes the circumstances that took Capetonians on the road to Day Zero, as well as the kinds of unprecedented responses and novel collaborations that were needed to avoid it.

Lessons learned: complexity and collaboration are key

“The book is less a chronology than an exploration of the challenges that each of these players faced,” explains Ziervogel. “Certain common themes emerged around the complexity of the crisis and the need for collaboration.”

According to Ziervogel, one of the patterns she observed over the course of the water crisis was a shift from a technocratic approach to a more collaborative one. But that transition was not easy to achieve.  

 

“The book is less a chronology than an exploration of the challenges that each of these players faced.”

“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.”

While conducting interviews for the chapter on how politicians responded, for example, Ziervogel observed that at the beginning of the crisis, they were still motivated by a political agenda, but that as the crisis deepened, there was a collective realisation that they needed to gain a more technical understanding.

“Engagement between politicians and technocrats is challenging, but their collaboration is essential in the face of such a crisis.”

In the case of the water manager, the book examines the complexity of managing a water system and its infrastructure in the face of rapidly declining water stores.

“When there is enough water, the role of the water manager is almost invisible, and the water system can be managed using a technical approach with water infrastructure alone.

“However, when there is a drought and the system is under stress, you have to pull in other mechanisms like reductions in water usage, partnerships and collaborations, which require different and often quite unfamiliar skills,” she explains.

The new normal

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.”

 

“During the crisis, officials within the City of Cape Town worked together in ways that they hadn’t before.”

“The City’s water department also now has a clear understanding of the need to engage more with its customers – water-users – and it is setting up a customer relations unit.”

Building resilience

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?

“During the crisis, the City took ownership of issues that prior to that had been the domain of national government,” explains Ziervogel. “This is a trend you see all over the world: how the role of cities is changing. But there are questions about whether this is a sustainable approach, which have yet to be answered.”

Ziervogel also points out the structural irony inherent in the way cities finance water provision. “When there is no crisis, you have people using and paying for more water, which cross-subsidises water for the poor. But when you have a crisis, you want people to reduce their use which also means less revenue, and yet, infrastructure still needs to be financed.

 

“The drought underscored the fact that different groups of people are affected in vastly different ways during a crisis.”

“How do you finance things when you want people to use less?”

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.

Capitalising on crisis

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.

“A lot of energy went into dealing with the water crisis, and this has naturally faded somewhat. But consciousness has changed.

“The citizens of Cape Town have had a visceral experience that has created a permanent change in people’s relationship to water. As a city, how can we think about being more flexible not just in response to water crises but other kinds of climate change extremes too?”

Story:  Ambre Nicolson

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