New paper outlines transferable lessons from Cape Town drought

27th March 2019 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

A new study by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) African Centre for Cities has unpacked lessons that other South African municipalities can learn from to adapt to climate change and deal with ongoing drought and water insecurity.

The paper, ‘Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learnt’, 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.

With most cities, including Cape Town, lacking the adaptive capacity to respond flexibly and comprehensively enough, new ways of working are needed that build capacity to deal with these problems, said UCT Environmental and Geographical Science Department associate professor Gina Ziervogel.

The author of the study urged a strengthening of collaboration among all stakeholders, drawing on robust data and expertise to inform decisions and reduce climate risk.

“The severe drought experienced by Cape Town in 2017 and 2018 and the near-miss of Day Zero should serve as a warning for other cities as to what climate impacts might look like in future,” the report notes.

Citing the example of Cape Town’s Day Zero campaign, Ziervogel explained 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 said.

However, Cape Town is just one example of many towns and cities in South Africa and other semi-arid regions that can be impacted on by water stress.

The study distilled the data into 12 lessons across four areas of action, namely strengthening governance; improving data, knowledge and communication; taking 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 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, the integration of climate change into water planning, obtaining a full understanding of the local water system and actively seeking external expertise and experience, besides others.

The paper was commissioned by the National Treasury’s Cities Support Programme and reflects data collected from interviews with senior officials and experts who were intimately involved in the drought response.