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What lessons can be drawn one year after the threat of “Day Zero” in the Cape?

Initially scheduled for 12 April 2018, “Day Zero” signalled the day when the city of Cape Town was to run out of water. How did Cape Town succeed in escaping the disaster announced? What can we learn from the mode of water management implemented during this critical period?

Avoiding disaster

Confronted by the urgency of the situation, all the local bodies sprang into action. The first step was taken by the government in February 2018, by reducing the allocation of water reserved for the farmers, in order to provide a larger share for urban residents. The farmers also accepted to divert more of the water stored for agricultural purposes to the city.

Cape Town city authorities implemented an array of measures to reduce water consumption: it increased water prices, forbade the use of municipal water for swimming pools, lawns and other secondary uses, and drew up a map that made the consumption of each household visible, so that everybody could compare their water consumption with that of others.

In parallel, associations also undertook to make the population aware of the urgency by using techniques and tips to save water. Companies did their bit by participating in this collective campaign, by making their employees and purchasers aware of the need to save the resource.

At the end of March 2018, the efforts deployed on a large scale led to the creation of a small additional reserve in the city’s water reserves, making it possible to postpone Day Zero until after the next rainy season. By June 2018, the region was subjected to a heavier rainfall than in recent years, so that the level of water in the dams rose, finally leading to the cancellation of Day Zero.

Today, water restrictions in urban areas are still in force, although they are less strict. The threat of shortage is still present, along with demographic and climatic pressure.

Adaptability and cooperation for better resource management

Efficient water resource management is essential to avoid a new shortage. By using the example of Cape Town, the researcher Gina Ziervogel proposed recommendations intended for other cities and identified four major orientations (full study ) :

  • Strengthen governance, by setting up a system of mutual responsibility between municipal, provincial and national leaders. Cooperation between different administrative levels is essential, and collaboration within municipal departments must also be improved.
  • Collect and communicate information, to improve the availability, sharing and analysis of data on water.
  • Adopt a systematic approach – this is necessary to strengthen the resilience of water management – by taking into account environmental, social, economic and political aspects.
  • Improve the capacity of cities to adapt, since they must prepare to cope with the intensification of extreme events and climatic emergencies. To achieve this, data on climate change must be integrated in water management models. Likewise, a vision of a water “sensitive” city should be developed, that’s to say a city concerned about the expenses incurred by water, that protects wetlands, participates in planting spaces, etc.


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