There are clear parallels between Cape Town’s Drought crisis and the Climate Change crisis. YES! We can is the biggest positive message from the drought for Climate Action. But we need to act now!! 

Calls for behavioural, regulatory and technology changes to reduce GHG emissions are ramping up as we experience the highest global temperatures and worst storm events.  Similar calls were made by city authorities, academics and community leaders for changes to reduce our water consumption. The evidence was clear but change was almost too late. The drought response process from denial to effective action has clear lessons for strategies to reduce Climate Change impacts.

If you don’t believe that Climate Change or global scale habitat destruction is `man-made’ and threatening our wellbeing, at least acknowledge that the energy-rich fossil fuels that power our commodity based economic model are a finite resource and declining. Global oil and coal production rates are lagging the global population growth. Currently gas production is just keeping up. (Fossil Fuels by Hannah Ritchie & Max Roser in

Transitioning to renewable energy alternatives will require strategies that parallel the water crisis including: co-operation not conflict, efficient behaviour and alternative technologies, re-skilling of service providers and consumers and regulations to ensure equitable access to services and resources.

Cape Town reduces water consumption by 50%

Cape Town won international recognition for being the only large city in the world to reduce its water consumption by more than 50% without implementing water rationing.  Capetonians can be justifiably proud of getting real to save water. Many of the efficiency measures were neither painless nor convenient.

The turning point was the announcement in January 2018 of the high probability of a “Day Zero”.  The day when the dam levels would be too low to support a reticulated supply.  The City was criticised for its fear-inducing approach, but water consumption dropped dramatically and “Day Zero” was averted.  

Citizens exhibited the best and the worst behaviour.  We shared water saving tips. Some drafted community support plans to encourage co-operation, not conflict should we need to fetch water from central collection points.  On the other hand, accusations about who was using too much water or stealing water started a tense undercurrent of us-and-them. 

Now months after adequate rainfall, the worst of the water restrictions have been lifted. The good news is that efficient water consumption is still the new normal.  YES! We can is the biggest positive message from the drought for Climate Action. But we need to act now!! 

10 Key Lessons for Climate Change:

1 Denial and distraction. It is well known that the longer term forecast for Cape Town and its catchments is significantly reduced rainfall. Yet denial of an inevitable water crisis by politicians, the authorities and most citizens resulted in a delayed drought response. This took the form of non-water service priorities distracting attention and funds from timeous forward planning for future water needs.  Even households that could afford rain tanks delayed installing these.

There is no doubt that South African cities face huge financial and management challenges as a result of the need to provide essential services for a growing urban population. Increasingly the new comers to town are likely to include climate – refugees from drought stressed rural areas. We deny Climate Change predictions and the urgent need to change to eco-friendly and low carbon lifestyles at our peril. Planning for droughts needs to be a service delivery priority. This requires a strategic approach which includes improved education and partnerships with households and community through all levels to government.

2 Citizens trusted that the authorities were competent to meet the responsibility of providing water. The drought demonstrated a lack of capacity at central government level and the need for a better working relationship between the spheres of government.  It also showed that community and local authority partnerships are essential. The authorities can’t manage water consumption nor the impacts of Climate Change on their own.

Reflecting on Water

3 As the drought deepened, so an increasing number of citizens woke up to accepting they needed to be pro-active to ensure access to water.  People did reduce their water consumption. They can also reduce their ecological footprint. In many cases households and businesses can  provide some of their own services – such as the use of on-site grey and rain water.  Government and local authorities need to look at how to support initiatives that reduce pressure on the city services, and which build community resilience. Looking at Climate Change, citizens need to be pro-active in challenging the systems and businesses that are responsible for Climate Change and habitat destruction.

4 Building co-operative communities. The announcement of Day Zero triggered a fight / flight type of response in people. Many scrambled to stockpile water drums, water filters and drinking water. After the initial shock, realization dawned that to cope as households we need to work as a community. This took several forms. People shared water they collected at springs. Some housing estates offered to share borehole water with neighbours. Communities drafted strategic plans to share information and identify local water sources such as pools, springs and boreholes. Vulnerable neighbours in need of support should Day Zero arrive were also identified. The success of local level Climate Resilience needs a strong sense of community. Start with your neighbours, your street, your school, church or social club.  Start now!

5 Unequal access to and exploitation of communal resourcesHouseholds with means were able to pay for boreholes to access groundwater, a `commons’ resource. Over – extraction in dry climates depletes the water table which impacts all including the ecology. In coastal areas this also results in contamination with sea water. A value system that acknowledges fair access and use of communally owned resources must be promoted, and supported by regulation where necessary. This is fundamental for building resilience through community co-operation and care for the ecology that supports us.     

Collecting water at site of a pipe burst

6 Appreciation for the value of water.  Water, like so many ecological resources was taken for granted. The drought woke citizens to just how precious water is and how unsustainably we use it. We flush toilets with drinking water! Being water wise and sharing water advice became a new social value. People are talking about how to `plant the rain’ – that is how to catch it so that it soaks in and recharges the ground water.  How do we extend our new appreciation for water to appreciation for other ecological services such as trees with their multi-eco tasks, land not polluted by waste dumps, fish free of manmade chemicals, honey bees and insect pollinators, etc? 

7 Awareness and Action.  While people took to social media to share advice and criticism, the City lagged in providing information in formats and languages that all could access and understand. For many, the high drought tariffs, proposed drought levy and new water management meters added a layer mistrust. The flood of criticism is a strong wake-up that communication and public participation needs to be significantly improved. A `Green Team’ of service officials should be established to work with and help citizens understand waste management, how electricity and water meters work, find water leaks and make the tariff calculations and billing understandable, etc.

January 2019 Headline

Service provision is no longer a one direction city to customer relationship.  It needs to be a partnership based on transparency and a degree of shared responsibility.

8 New habits and recognising the CON in convenience.  The environmental costs of crazy consumption habits and out dated ideas of aesthetics are no longer hidden.  Relook at large lawns.  They are essentially an old fashioned status symbol and an attempt to neaten nature. Wild gardens use less water, support biodiversity and reinforce nature’s resilience and therefor our own.  Relook at all the other CONveniences that threaten the ecology we depend on!!!  

9 Are some businesses more ecologically and socially valuable than others? The drought damaged some businesses while promoting others. We need economic opportunities that pro-actively encourage ecological resilience. During the drought, jobs in agriculture and tourism were lost. This begs the question: Should businesses be ranked in terms of the eco- footprint and the value of their service to community?  Would you support a car washer vs a vegetable grower? Both have families to support, but in the drought, home vegetable gardens suffered, and small commercial vegetable gardeners lost their incomes?  How to address this critical question?  We need to grow awareness about an essential transition to ecologically sound businesses as much as ecologically sound lifestyles. 

10 Need to pro-actively integrate new technologies.  The drought fast tracked the uptake of private water efficiency and water harvesting technologies. The resulting low water demand proved the value of such technologies to build resilience.  However, the city lost water revenue through reduced sales and introduced new tariffs to make up the shortfall. This created tension between the City and citizens. The City also fast tracked the roll out of smart water meters to help households manage their consumption. So many were rolled out in a short period of time that city staff could not keep up with the questions and criticisms of defective meters. These factors led to a backlash of mistrust. New technologies for home waste management, water efficiency and harvesting and renewable energy are becoming increasingly affordable. These technologies should be encouraged to develop a network of public and private service provision. It needs to be done in a way that is not an intrusion into privacy or a threat to city revenue. A pilot project in some suburbs could start the process. Green technologies will promote a green economy and a pro-active interest in where our water and energy come from and how to reduce waste. They are essential to mainstreaming efficient and resilient consumption.

2 Oceans Aquarium graphic


A key observation is the leading role that the Cape Town Municipality played. While criticism is justified and the outcome was not assured, the City pulled through to give effect to its slogan: “A well managed city does not run out of water”!  Having read the above, it will be clear that the citizens worked hard to save water once they understood the evidence. It is also global citizen networks, rather than politicians and decision-makers who are the force pushing for system change to save us from Climate Change.  Cities across the world are acknowledging that they have a key role in building resilient communities. Citizens need to keep the pressure on so that City management adopts new models of co-operation, co-facilitates the uptake of new technologies and acknowledges residents as partners in this process. 

We can make it happen for building climate resilience, if we start now.

Kim Kruyshaar 2019 09 15 

See below a thoughtful and thought provoking article by Alison Lockhart on the mindset of calm instead of panic and care instead of chaos.