The term ‘Day Zero’ was itself one of the more contentious characters in the unfolding drama of the Cape Town water crisis. In late 2017, as summer set in, electronic billboards along the city’s highways broadcast regular messages about how many days were left before the water levels in the city’s main dams dropped down to the last 13.5 percent. What little water was still salvageable from the muddy belly of the dams would be divvied up carefully, making sure that emergency services still had access to water.

It was provincial government’s disaster risk management boss Colin Deiner who first coined the term behind the closed doors of a disaster preparedness meeting. Once the Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan went public in October 2017, including emergency rationing measures, the Day Zero concept made it into the media and spread like a fever: Cape Town was about to become one of the first big cities globally to run out of water. Day Zero was a shifting line in the sand, a date that moved according to how much water people were using relative to when the dams might refill during winter. As dam levels dropped, the date edged closer and closer. By January 2018, the city had about three months’ supply of water left and Day Zero was likely to arrive on 21 April that year.

With hindsight, it turns out that the release of the disaster plan became the single biggest catalyst for change in water users’ behaviour. But with it came the use of the term ‘Day Zero’, which was controversial. There was a swell of alarmism, panic, and distrust, reflected in an ever-more shrill mediascape. Would these water cut-offs result in outbreaks of violence at water distribution points? What would happen if the sewage system shut down? What about outbreaks of diseases, and death? Had the City failed its residents through mismanagement, bad planning, and chasing down unviable new water delivery schemes?3

An angry outburst at a public meeting in Atlantis captures one community’s exasperation and expectation. A woman stood up and heatedly addressed City representatives: ‘It’s your job to bring us water!’ she shouted. She didn’t want to hear excuses about climate change or that the Western Cape is a naturally water-scarce region.

The release of the disaster plan became the biggest catalyst for change in water users’ behaviour. But the use of the term ‘Day Zero’ was contentious. With it came a swell of alarmism, panic, and distrust, reflected in an ever-more shrill mediascape.

‘You must make a plan!’

‘You can’t hoodwink us,’ another man said, as he left the community meeting.
The conversation between then mayor Patricia de Lille and the public got even more antagonistic. At first, De Lille tried a reassuring tone, driving home the message that the City had things under control and was bringing ‘new water’ online. But as the weeks progressed, her tone shifted, and the message from her office was that citizens weren’t pulling their weight. The subtext was that the blame for the fast-approaching cut-off day didn’t lie with City mismanagement, but rather with selfish consumers.

‘It is quite unbelievable,’ she said in a press conference in January 2018, ‘that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero. At this point we must assume that they will not change their behaviour and that the chance of reaching Day Zero on 21 April 2018 is now very likely.’

Looking back at how the public responded during this time, it becomes clear how important it is to have clear, transparent communication during a crisis like this.

Slamming on the brakes: getting users to turn off their taps

The City’s two-pronged strategy to keep disaster at bay (see The Water Manager) – boost supply, reduce demand – needed to be communicated to the wider world.

The first strategy, which involved the longer-term engineered solutions that needed to be put in place to get more water flowing into the city’s water supply, are technical and expensive engineering solutions. It normally takes years to get these kinds of projects through tendering processes. During the drought, the City showed unexpected agility in that it was able to speed up this process, and get new water online quickly through smaller temporary ‘desal’ plants.

All these engineering solutions were a way to help the City become more resilient in the longer term. But the public was nervous. It wasn’t hearing enough about these efforts, and there was doubt about the timelines involved. These schemes were a way to survive future droughts, though. They wouldn’t necessarily stop Day Zero happening during this drought, particularly if it stretched into a fourth year.

Ken Sinclair-Smith and Kevin Winter (2019) Water demand management in Cape Town:
Managing water security in a changing climate. In, Scott, D., Davies, H. and New, M. (Eds).
Mainstreaming Climate Change in Urban Development: Lessons from Cape Town. Cape Town: UCT Press, 100 – 133.

Something drastic needed to happen immediately to stretch what little water remained in the dams until the next rains came.

In November 2017, a visiting World Bank water expert clarified what many had already been saying, that the only way to slam on the brakes was an immediate reduction in daily water use. And that meant communicating the urgency of the situation to the public, and giving practical and realistic information on how citizens could do it. He also recommended prioritising groundwater over temporary desalination, which would bring new water online faster.

Through the course of the drought, the City used a few carrot-and-stick approaches to get people to be more water-wise: price hikes for the bigger water users, restrictions, installing water shut-off devices in the homes of bigger residential users who were ignoring restrictions, fines, the threat of naming-and-shaming greedy water users, and behavioural ‘nudging’ messages through the City’s utility billing system (see The Researcher).

Only once the emergency had passed, and analysts were able to look back at how people re-sponded to different efforts to educate the public and encourage behaviour change, were they able to see what methods were more effective than others, and what role communication with and between the different sectors played.

Through the course of the drought, behavioural economists at the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) in the School of Economics, tracked the behaviour of 400 000 families living in freestanding homes in different economic brackets across the city. What they found was an interesting trend that seemed to contradict the panic and finger-pointing that was coming through in the media about people being selfish or working against the common good. People were actually pulling their weight, in terms of cutting their water use.

Looking at water use patterns across nearly three years, from before the drought started, Professor Martine Visser and her EPRU colleagues, Johanna Bruhl and Megan McLaren, found that Capetonians cut their water use by half in this time.

This is unprecedented, compared with how some other cities have responded globally, according to Visser. When Melbourne brought in similar water reduction measures during Australia’s infamous Millennial Drought between 2000 and 2010, it took the city over a decade to cut their water use by 40 percent. California took 11 years to cut its water use by 63 percent through a mix of mandatory water-efficiency technologies, tariff increases, and restrictions.

How did Capetonians do this so quickly? Visser and her team’s analysis show that most of the residential cuts came from wealthier communities. These were households who were already using large amounts of water, more than they needed for basic survival, and could trim much more fat from their daily use. Poorer families were already surviving on a lean ration of water and couldn’t use much less than they already were.

Many middle and high-income households were also able to buy their way out of the crisis: they could afford to install bulk water containers and grey-water systems, or sink boreholes, which protected them from the uncertainty of the municipal grid collapsing. And while this may have been self-serving behaviour, it took some of the pressure off the common pool of water resources, which meant there would be more water available for everyone for longer.

This quick reduction in water use wasn’t just because people were buying their way out of trouble. Many residents of the city really did change their behaviour significantly, and quickly.

With hindsight, when researchers compared all the carrot-and-stick methods used, either by the City to encourage behaviour change, or by the researchers through a ‘green nudging’ experiment geared towards behaviour change (see The Researcher), it became clear what motivated voluntary water-wise behaviour, and what didn’t.

One of the key take-home messages is that if people know their efforts to save water are work-ing, and that their small efforts are contributing toward a greater good, they’ll be more likely to do that than to ‘free ride’ at other people’s expense and selfishly use up the resource.

The field of behavioural economics shows that people are more likely to rally around a ‘public good’, like conserving water, if they feel they’re working together towards a common goal, Visser explains. If the media keeps pushing the message that residents are selfish in their water habits, she warns, it’s more likely to trigger panic and selfish hoarding behaviour. If people feel that their small daily efforts are actually making a difference, and are helping to save water to the benefit of their fellow citizens, they’re more likely to keep working towards this shared common good.

Creating a ‘water literate’ city:

Getting technical, creating trust

‘We don’t want to hear the politicians,’ one CEO told the communications team during a meeting, ‘we want to hear directly from City officials. We don’t want spin. We want technical details.’

All Capetonians wanted reassurance that skilled people had their hands on the tiller as the crisis worsened. But from a communications perspective, this became tricky: the people with the kind of knowledge that citizens or businesses needed were stretched to breaking point, trying to do their jobs while fielding the urgent calls for information coming in constantly.

Many middle and high-income households were able to buy their way out of the crisis: they could afford to install bulk water containers and grey-water systems, or sink boreholes, which protected them from the uncertainty of the municipal grid collapsing.

The water demand management team did most of the heavy lifting at the height of the crisis, with many on the team often not taking weekends off for up to nine months. In the midst of trying to do their inspections, they had to field the inundation of requests for technical information, stakeholder engagements, and to be part of public education drives.

When there were vacuums in information, rumour and speculation quickly flooded into the space, spreading like a fever through conventional and social media platforms.

It soon became clear that Capetonians needed different kinds of technical details, as well as reassurance: what longer-term planning was underway to avoid this kind of disaster in future, such as the much-talked-about desalination plants? But they also needed information relating to the more immediate, day-to-day realities as people adopted alternative water harvesting measures: what health considerations or legal guidelines applied to using recycled grey water or capturing storm water or sinking boreholes. Who owns spring water or water in the Liesbeek River? What do the bylaws say about using well-water compared with borehole water? Can you retrofit buildings to have a parallel system of potable water for drinking and cooking, but non-potable water for flushing the toilet?

Spreading the word

Information vacuums often lead to plenty of rumour-mongering or helplessness. But one of the biggest difficulties the City faced throughout the drought was getting technically-complex and accurate information about dam levels and the condition of the water system to the public on a daily basis. It also needed to help citizens with information on how to be more water wise. How do you manage, for instance, if you only have 87L or 50L of water per day?

The Cape Town Water Map was an online tool that used social recognition as a way to nudge people towards being more water wise.
The Cape Town Water Map was an online tool that used social recognition as a way to nudge people towards being more water wise.

In the end, the communications team tried to cover as many bases as possible. It ran public-facing media campaigns using advertising agencies. It used direct mailing lists to target residents and businesses. It sent ‘green nudging’ suggestions out through the City’s utility billing system. City staff ran direct outreach programmes through community meetings.

Some of the most effective platforms for getting information out to the public were digital online tools. The City set up the Water Dashboard and the Think Water website, which quickly became the go-to places for information on dam levels, explanations about water restrictions, tips on how to save water, and information on a hotline where people could report leaks or people breaking restriction rules.

The City also worked with researchers from EPRU to design the Cape Town Water Map. This was another ‘green nudging’ tool that was designed to use social recognition as a way to get people to change their behaviour around water use. Freestanding homes whose water use stayed within the City’s target levels per household, per month, were flagged with a green dot: a light green dot for households using 6kL of water or less per month, and a dark green dot for those using 10.5kL per month. The map also showed how residents’ water use compared with their neighbours’, and how one suburb’s use compared with another’s.

Even though online platforms are more likely to be used by people who are resourced enough to have internet access, local radio stations and newspapers became a vital part of the stream of information, thus including places in the city with low online access.

3Booysen, MJ., Visser, M. & Burger, R. 2018. Temporal case study of household behavioural response to Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ using smart meter data. Water Research. Vol 149: 414-420.