Other than my rural childhood, I have lived in cities most of my life. Cities across the world, in Europe and Africa alike. Not in my wildest dreams have I ever imagined a tap running dry in any of these.

I have worked on climate change adaptation issues for over 15 years, and it has mostly focused on rural settings rather than urban ones. However, more recently, I have worked on urban resilience, and the ignorance with which many urbanites live their lives in a fast-changing world is surprising. Climate change almost always feels like a distant threat that affects others, not them. Dinner table conversations with friends in Nairobi, Kenya, where I have lived for the past 12 years, always seem to head in the direction of ‘have you heard how community such-and-such has been affected by the drought or floods?’ Until we were hit by this changing climate. In a city that boasts Africa’s largest inner city forest – the Karura Forest – recent heatwaves have shown the relevance and importance of this resource, especially for cooling the city.

Having watched in shock in 2017 as Cape Town and its citizens responded to the news of ‘no water’, I was struck by how equalising climate change can truly be. This one precious liquid that we all depend on became a scarce resource due to recurring droughts. Living in East Africa where climate variability and droughts are the order of the day, I understood this intellectually. Witnessing it, on the other hand, was a totally different story.

In June 2018 I travelled to Cape Town to speak at the Adaptation Futures Conference, shortly after Day Zero was called off. Landing on the eve of the conference, I was struck by the vivid messaging all over the airport about the water crisis. Before jumping into my taxi I dashed to use the bathroom. My usual instinct was to open the tap to wash my hands, when I realised water wasn’t coming out. I pressed several taps with no luck until I read the writing on the wall – literally, no pun intended – informing me that I had to use the hand sanitiser. I wasn’t ready for this at all.

The poignancy of this conference was that it brought together many participants from other parts of the world – predominantly city dwellers – as if to witness the kind of imminent crisis that could befall us all, if it hasn’t already. I was glad that the conference wasn’t cancelled or moved to another location. For herein lies a lesson and certainly an experience for everyone: climate change will remain a real challenge and threat for all humanity regardless of where they live, rich or poor. Considering that projections have shown that over 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030, how we respond to climate change and adapt is indeed a matter of life or death. No two ways about it.

What we learned from how Cape Town dealt with this crisis, which comes through in the pages of Day Zero, is that this is the kind of common future all of us face. We need to learn from one another as we gear ourselves up to deal with the twin challenges of existing development stresses, and a more extreme climate.

Dr Musonda Mumba
Chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit, with the UN Environment, Nairobi, Kenya

About the book

What happened in Cape Town is significant globally. This drought was the local expression of the unfolding global climate change emergency. It affected everyone here. The City of Cape Town was one of the most important players in responding to the drought, but running any city is complex, because its administration is made up of many different departments and people. Understanding what happens on a day-to-day operational level within a city administration, or how it does longer-term planning, and the political nature of some of a city’s roles, can be opaque to those on the outside of the administration.

During the emergency, the City and its residents responded in different ways. Some of these stories have been told publicly. Some of these were picked up by the media. A few were amplified in the process, and others were distorted. Many stories remained behind the closed doors of City administration processes.

Day Zero is an opportunity to capture some of the perspectives and experiences of the various sectors as the water crisis played out. It explains the different roles, responsibilities, and responses in a way that helps citizens better understand how complex the process of urban water management and climate change adaptation is.

These stories draw together the lessons that Cape Town’s managers and citizens learned through the drama of this drought. The book documents these stories, not only so that Cape Town can better prepare itself for future droughts, but that other cities can learn from this experience.

The lessons learned from Cape Town’s response to the drought are relevant globally, as other developing world municipalities may face similar water constraints within their fast-growing cities in the future.

Each chapter gives a glimpse into the different areas of the City’s water management, the challenges the decision makers faced in the course of the water crisis, and how different people responded. This is from the various perspectives of the water manager, the politician, and the communications team, and sheds light on the role of external experts, and where researchers fit into the picture.

Day Zero is based on research by social scientists at the University of Cape Town. Associate Professor Gina Ziervogel, one of the authors, was on the Water Resilience Advisory Committee (WRAC), a Section 80 committee set up by the municipality to provide expert support during the drought. Ziervogel works in the field of urban adaptation to climate change, and she was particularly interested in the response to the drought. Being part of the Section 80 committee monthly meetings, she was able to get an intimate insight into how the City was responding to the drought crisis.

The residents of any city need to be responsible water users, but also need to be part of an active citizenry that holds their municipality to account.
The residents of any city need to be responsible water users, but also need to be part of an active citizenry that holds their municipality to account.

The South African National Treasury’s Cities Support Programme identified the need to document the Cape Town experience and commissioned Ziervogel to do some broader thinking around what lessons other cities could learn from the way the city navigated this environmental shock. Once the drought abated, Ziervogel met with senior decision makers who had, in some way, been involved in helping the City deal with the drought. She conducted 21 interviews with people from across different spheres of government – from national, to provincial, to city government – but with a specific focus on the City of Cape Town municipality officials. She also sat in conversation with some non-profit organisations and private expert consulting firms who supported the City through this crisis.

These interviews fed into a report called Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned1 written by Ziervogel for the Cities Support Programme and published by the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities. The report is detailed and technical, and geared more towards government officials and administrations. It recommends four key areas of action that could help municipalities in future as they work towards becoming more drought-resilient. Unpacking the Cape Town Drought calls for stronger and more ‘transversal’ governance across City departments, the need for improved data, knowledge and communication, and a better understanding of how the wider water system works, as well as the need to upskill people to be adaptive and competent. This document draws from Ziervogel’s work, and builds on it, based on new information and wider research findings.

If a city hopes to be agile and responsive, in spite of climate uncertainty and the growing developmental pressures on an ever-shrinking shared urban water reserve, it needs a big-picture understanding of the system, and the complex factors that shape how a city governs the resource. And its citizens are an important part of this picture.

A city’s citizens are some of its main water users, so their behaviour relating to water is a key factor in how it shares this common pool resource. The residents of any city also need to understand the complexity of managing resources such as water.

All water users, including residents, need to understand how a city governs and manages water in order to be a part of an engaged citizenry that actively contributes to running this resource.

Day Zero draws on the above report, and lifts out some of the key messages for people living in Cape Town. Ziervogel teamed up with Cape Town-based science writer Leonie Joubert to pull these lessons together. The book hopes to provoke a sense of civic responsibility amongst water users in cities across South Africa.

1Ziervogel, G. 2019. Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned. African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town.