Cape Town’s severe drought experienced in 2017 and 2018 and the near miss of Day Zero should serve as a warning to other cities about what climate impacts might look like in future, a new study warns.
However, many other metropolitan municipalities, such as Gauteng, eThekwini and Nelson Mandela Bay, besides others, have been, and still are, facing water resource stress points.
Seven of South Africa’s eight metros implemented water restrictions during the 2016/17 summer period, owing to low dam levels.
With most cities, including Cape Town, lacking the adaptive capacity to respond flexibly and comprehensively enough, new ways of working are required to build capacity to deal with these challenges, says University of Cape Town (UCT) Environmental and Geographical Science Department associate professor Gina Ziervogel.
Cape Town is just one example of how many towns and cities in South Africa, and other semiarid regions, can be impacted by water stress, reveals the new study, ‘Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learnt’, by UCT’s African Centre for Cities.
The Cape Town drought experience needs to be examined to understand what happened and to extract the lessons not only for Cape Town but also for other South African municipalities and metropoles, she says.
The study suggests climate variability and climate change, a direct contributor to the nationwide drought, will continue to impact on water sources and failure to adapt will come at a cost.
While the role of climate variability was significant, it is clear that many other factors, including high levels of inequality and informality, also contributed to the crisis.
“Governance is complex, requiring activation of responses and resources across scales. Building a water-sensitive city requires a holistic understanding of the system and an ability to adapt at a variety of scales in a range of ways,” Ziervogel says in the paper, which
outlines the complexity of urban governance, with an illustration of how what appears to be just an environmental concern can actually impact on all aspects of city life, including economic opportunities, politics and social dynamics.
“Reflecting on the drought provides an opportunity to examine how cities might better manage an unfolding climate event in future.”
Citing the example of Cape Town’s Day Zero campaign, Ziervogel explains that the resultant halving of the city’s water consumption could only have been achieved by changing both citizens’ and businesses’ water-use behaviour and the introduction of numerous water-demand management measures.
“While the paper uses the Cape Town drought as a case study, it also speaks to the wider issues of how a city responded to a widespread climate shock, including highlighting areas that need strengthening in the bid to build more resilient, well-adapted cities,” she adds.
The author of the study urges a strengthening of collaboration among all stakeholders, drawing on robust data and expertise to inform decisions and reduce climate risk.
The study distilled the data into 12 lessons across four areas of action, namely the strengthening of governance; improving data, knowledge and communication; adopting a systemic approach; and building adaptive capacity.
Nine of the lessons identify what needs to be put in place before a crisis hits to strengthen preparedness, while the other three lessons focus on what needs to be done during the crisis to reduce the negative effects.
Some of the lessons outlined include a strengthening of transversal management between municipal departments and building systems and relationships of mutual accountability for effective water management between the three spheres of government, while increasing the capacity to enable flexible, adaptive decision-making.
Alongside this, there is a need to develop a water-sensitive city vision and plan for implementation to integrate climate change into water planning, obtain a full understanding of the local water system and actively seek external expertise and experience, besides others.