The short film Field of Vision – Scenes from a Dry City splices together a few vignettes that capture something of the difficulty that a city like Cape Town faces as it grapples with spreading the shared pool of water fairly across one of the most unequal cities in the world15.

How does a city deliver something that’s a basic human right, where there’s potentially less of it to share around in future, where it costs money to deliver that water into everyone’s homes, and yet where not everyone has the means to pay for that service?

Early in the film, the camera catches the scene of a young man, an entrepreneur in his own right, being chased down by metro police on the streets between single-room state-built houses and tin shacks on the Cape Flats. The charge: breaking water restrictions by running an informal car wash. What other options does a man like this have without this livelihood, the officer reflects after the showdown? Later in the film, another scene captures the moment when a drilling team strikes water in the front yard of a suburban woman’s home, someone who can afford to sink a borehole so that she can keep her hobby garden alive.

Swimming pools and irrigated lawns on one side of town; people, without toilets in their homes, left to collect water in buckets from public standpipes in informal settlements, on the other side, just 25km away.

‘You cannot make a profit out of water,’ one community leader cajoles a crowd through a loudhailer during a protest march, captured on film. ‘Water is a necessity for life! It doesn’t mean that if you don’t have money you can’t have water. We must provide water for everybody, and it must be free!’

Cape Town caught the attention of the international media as the threat of Day Zero drew closer in 2018. In many ways, this event, in this city, was the local expression of what happens when a climate shock like this hits a city that already has the everyday development challenges of service delivery backlogs, high unemployment, contentious political rivalries, and generations of systemic inequality. It showed how politically and economically unstable a city can become, very quickly, if a ‘natural’ disaster of this scale hits.

But it also shows how quickly a city and its citizens can respond. Cape Town became a living laboratory for testing how to navigate a crisis like this, and other cities can draw from these lessons, too.

From the perspective of Capetonians – the residents living in this city – the take-home message from this drought is that we’re all part of the collective project of managing and using this shared resource in a way that’s fair and for the common good. As citizens, we need to adjust our attitude towards water, and use it wisely and sparingly so that there’s enough to go around. This means understanding that for some, keeping a private swimming pool topped up with water might come at the cost of another person’s access to basic water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. At the same time, the water bill for that swimming pool might help pay to get running water into the kitchens and bathrooms of those 180 000 households in informal settlements who still have to collect water from standpipes every day. When dams are full, this approach to managing a city’s water system makes sense; when dams are empty, it doesn’t.

Cape Town’s population is growing, along with its economy, and even without the spectre of extreme drought, rising temperatures, heatwaves, and less predictable rain, demand is expected to outstrip supply soon. Added to that, climate modellers at the University of Cape Town’s African Climate Development Initiative (ACDI) are starting to work out how much more likely these kinds of droughts are to occur in future, if global warming trends carry on as they are16.

This drought was the expression of what happens when a climate shock hits a city that has development challenges of service delivery backlogs, high unemployment, contentious political rivalries, and generations of systemic inequality.

The same ACDI analysis, however, also has a message of hope: it shows that the City has managed to stabilise the growth in water demand at two percent per year, because of its demand management practices. And as the post-drought analysis in the Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned report shows, when a City government and its residents mobilise around a climate shock like this, they can make steps towards being more water- and climate-resilient in the longer term.

The Day Zero story shows how complex it is to deliver water across such a wide geographical scale, in a region of the country that is naturally water scarce and will likely become more so as climate change heats the place up and makes rainfall less predictable, and droughts more likely.

Water users in any city have an important role to play in the management and governance of their water system.
Water users in any city have an important role to play in the management and governance of their water system.

Being part of this collective project of creating resilient cities means being an engaged citizen, holding our elected officials accountable as employees of the public in terms of how they manage the water system today, and build a more resilient one for the future. A critically-engaged citizenry needs to appreciate the technical, legal and institutional challenges of delivering water across such high levels of inequality, where many different government departments have different Constitutional responsibilities and have to work within rigid legal parameters. In many cases, these responsibilities may fall on the shoulders of departments that are under-staffed, under-skilled, and sometimes stretched to breaking point during a crisis like this.

Meeting the existing development challenges of the city, in a context where water will be more scarce in future, means keeping an eye on government, not just in terms of its day-to-day water delivery, but how it is planning for the future – planning that needs to encompass decades, not just the next five-year electoral cycle.

The post-mortem of the city-wide response to the drought, put together in the Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned report, fleshes out the most important lessons that any city can draw from Cape Town’s experience. It looks at the need for stronger governance between City departments and with national government, the need for better data, knowledge and communication, the need to understand how the wider water system works, and the need to skill people up to be adaptive and competent. This is a technical and meaty analysis. Some of these ideas come through in this Day Zero title, in order to help prime the residents of a city to understand their own role in this complex and challenging city-scale water system.

When the winter rains finally arrived in 2018, Day Zero was ‘called off’, at least until the end of 2019. This meant that it looked as though the dams were recovering well enough to guarantee enough water to keep the city going for the next 18 months. By the end of winter, dam levels were back to 75 percent.

But that doesn’t mean that the threat of such extreme rationing measures won’t be needed in the future, whether it’s called Day Zero or not. Hopefully next time – because there is likely to be a next time – the City and the people living in it will be better prepared.

16Otto, FEL., Wolski, P., Lehner, F., Tebaldi, C., Jan van Oldenborgh, G., Hogesteeger, S., Singh, R., Holden, P., Fučkar, NS. & Odoulami, RC. 2018. Anthropogenic influence on the drivers of the Western Cape drought 2015–2017. Environmental Research Letters, Vol 13 (12).