Independent facilitator Peter Willis and filmmaker Victor van Aswegen have collaborated to build a unique initiative to capture learnings from Cape Town’s 2017/18 water crisis, during which a prolonged drought resulted in the city almost running out of potable water resources.
The Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative is now available for use by decision-makers and urban resilience professionals around the world to reflect on critical infrastructure challenges in their own cities.
Over a two-year period, the pair assembled a comprehensive resource of first-hand reflections on the crisis and consolidated key insights and learnings from the material.
The resource offers nearly 100 films on various aspects of the Cape Town water crisis, including 39 in-depth filmed interviews and a 16-module Learning from Crisis series, with each model addressing one of the major themes that emerged during this period.
One of the standout characteristics of the crisis, says Van Aswegen, was its multifaceted nature, encompassing issues ranging from engineering to communications to public finances. These included aspects such as trust in government, to cooperation among citizenry, as well as restrictions and tariffs and economic fallout that resulted from the drought.
“Our aim with the initiative was to contribute to an improved understanding of a complex and often contested and misunderstood event that had far-reaching public-interest implications. We did so by first filming interviews with experts in the various fields, then identifying the central themes and finally producing films and text outputs systematically dealing with these themes one by one.”
Topics covered include the role of data and information in maintaining and building public trust, the measures that were effective in bringing about household behavioural change in water use, the role of business and the impact of the Day Zero communication strategy. They also included the limits to large-scale emergency water supply augmentation projects, inequality and social cohesion in a crisis, underlying systemic issues, the costs to agriculture and agribusiness and the role of politics and leadership.
Willis adds that the initiative has succeeded in providing a “very rich and previously unavailable perspective” on the water crisis, made possible by the generous support and cooperation of a large number of individuals and organisations.
“All our outputs draw on the reflections of 39 leaders from government, business, academia, consultancy and civil society, who gave generously of their time for the filmed interviews.”
The Resilience Shift project leader Siddharth Nadkarny says the learning outputs are helping to make resilience issues tangible, practical and relevant to city decision-makers the world over. “This project aims to promote systems thinking within cities, water companies and other stakeholders through informed reflection on the Cape Town case study.”
Increasingly, how cities respond to and manage crises – both natural and human-made – will be crucial for their survival and that of their citizens, says Willis.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is a vivid reminder of what Capetonians have seared into their memory, namely that even well-run cities are vulnerable to crises.”
Going forward, Willis says the best cities will be those that prepare and adapt well enough to protect their citizens when those crises arrive.
“We like to think our learning resource can substantially help leaders at all levels within cities understand what it takes to handle a major crisis well.”
The sponsors of the initiative are The Resilience Shift as lead partner, and donors Nedbank, Old Mutual, Woolworths, GreenCape, Aurecon / Zutari, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Arup and 100 Resilient Cities.