Building a Water Resilient City: Cape Town Through the Drought

In the face of a looming ‘Day Zero,’ the people of Cape Town reduced water consumption by more than 50 percent when compared to pre-drought levels. This impressive response was precipitated by a series of water demand management mechanisms instituted by the City administration, including advanced pressure management and water restrictions. Initial restrictions were instituted as early as January 2016 and were progressively increased as the severity of this multi-year drought hit home. The current Level 6B restrictions, enacted in February 2018, limit daily water consumption to just 50 liters per person per day. Dams had dipped to below 20% of capacity in April of this year; through a collective effort of water saving by Capetonians, and despite rainfall in 2018 again being below the long-term average, mid-September recorded dam levels are at more than 70%.

The drought shock is by no means over, and City authorities are cautious about reducing restrictions. However, the impressive recovery of the dams has allowed for a marginal reduction in restrictions, which will come into effect on 1 October 2018.

While the prospect of an imminent Day Zero in Cape Town made international headlines over the last year, water insecurity affects cities on every continent. The World Economic Forum in 2015 listed water insecurity as the largest global risk in terms of potential impact over the next decade, and its 2018 Global Risks Report reiterated the severity of the issue by linking four of the decade’s five greatest risks – in terms of likelihood and impact – to water. Exacerbating shocks like flooding and drought are the stresses on our global water supply, which are growing more severe year by year. Fast-growing populations are straining aging systems designed to supply far fewer residents; increasing water pollution in rivers across the Global South poses public health risks and environmental threats; climate change largely impacts water availability and serves as an exacerbating factor. Water insecurity thus remains one of the most pressing resilience challenges worldwide, making indispensable the need for conversation and collaboration between cities, partners, and stakeholders to find innovative and actionable solutions.

The physical assets of a city’s water system are critical, and resilience is well-defined in the context of infrastructure development. There is nevertheless a large “human” or social aspect that lies at the core of a resilient water system: urban residents worldwide expect clean, safe drinking water to be consistently available and wastewater to be properly handled. Society needs confidence that these services will be provided in both the present and the long-term, without compromising the natural environment, and that decisions taken today will not impoverish future generations – placing the service provider at the center of water resilience. As external stresses grow, there is ever greater need to promote long-term planning and investment in water resilience, including the implementation of measures for managing water resources in sustainable ways, increasing the efficiency of water use, and reducing demand for water.

The CoLab kicks off at GreenCape, a sector development organisation funded by the City of Cape Town.

Cape Town has become a leading example of a global city being forced to change its relationship with water. With rains returning this past winter and dam levels inching up toward pre-drought levels, this is a time to take stock and plan ahead for building resilience in the city’s water system. To leverage this opportunity toward building a more resilient Cape Town, this week 100 Resilient Cities is hosting a Collaboration Workshop (CoLab) in partnership with the city – bringing together Platform Partners, Subject Matter Advisors, local experts, and representatives of other 100RC member cities to drive innovation, identify solutions, and catalyze change toward building a water-resilient city. Over three days, the CoLab aims to gain a better understanding of the underlying causes of water shortage issues, while creating space to use the experience and knowledge of the participants to define and develop concrete initiatives.

Since joining the 100RC Network in 2016, the City of Cape Town has operated under the clear mandate of prioritizing the long-term resilience of not just its water system but of its entire urban ecosystem. Outcomes from the CoLab will therefore also inform the development of Cape Town’s Resilience Strategy. As a first step, the Cape Town team will close the week by launching its Preliminary Resilience Assessment (PRA), a robust analysis of the city’s resilience opportunities and challenges, compiled in consultation with more than 150 thematic specialists and over 11,000 residents. Water management remains a top concern, but this crucial component of Cape Town’s resilience-building process must be considered in the wider context of a rapidly growing population, increasingly characterized by informality and grappling with a history of division and inequality. Access to sufficient, clean water, for example, intersects prominently with chronic stresses such as high unemployment, poverty, food insecurity, and lack of availability of affordable housing.

In Cape Town, as in other cities, resilience challenges, while daunting, are also opportunities for transformative growth. The resilience program is by nature a collaborative process, and the city’s team has done an incredible job of engaging Capetonians in developing a holistic vision for the future. When considering that this work was undertaken in the midst of a citywide water crisis, we are presented with further evidence of the power that partnering with residents and stakeholders at all levels can have on a city’s governance and operations. We are excited to continue working with our partners in Cape Town as the city progresses along its unique resilience journey. In our ever-changing world, it is guaranteed that the climate of the future will be different than today’s, with immense impacts on our water systems, our economies, our societies – for Cape Town, this week’s CoLab and PRA launch are crucial steps toward building a more adaptive, inclusive, and ultimately resilient city.