1. Water security in Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa is generally considered a water-scarce country due to its varying climatic conditions and increased demand for water resources (Box 1.1). Water scarcity is driven by recurrent droughts intensified by climatic variation. In addition, localised population growth and demographic changes coupled with high water consumption exert pressure on available resources and water balance between demand and supply. Although the country has a low level of renewable water resources of 900 m3/capita/year (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017[1]), it is estimated that South Africans consume about 237 litres of water per person per day. This is well above the world average of 173 litres per day (Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, 2019[2]). South Africa’s urban land expansion is the 11th largest urban expansion in the world and second greatest in Africa in absolute terms (Marron Institute of Urban Management, 2019[3]). With nearly a third of that expansion happening onto built-up rural areas and another 14% directly onto cultivated land, this rapid urbanisation is exacerbating flood risks. Many informal settlements in peripheral areas are on marginal land that is considered unsafe – around Cape Town, for instance, they are regularly exposed to flooding. Urban sprawl also has ecological consequences: 54% of South Africa’s urban expansion in 2000-14 was onto habitats that sustain biodiversity and sequester carbon, such as forests, shrublands and especially grasslands. Water pollution is also a major issue in South Africa with 56% of the more than 1 150 wastewater treatment plants that are in poor and critical condition and need urgent rehabilitation and proper operation. Infrastructure is ageing with 57% of the asset being depreciated and needing renewal (DWS, 2019[4]). This situation generates water quality issues in areas where effluents are discharged.

In the province of the Western Cape, situated on the southwestern coast of the country, a high population density, which is steadily increasing through migration, converges in an area with low available water resources, resulting in an accentuation of water scarcity issues that are experienced across the country which reached its peak during the Cape Town water crisis between 2015 and 2019. Water demand is predicted to outstrip current supply in the Greater Cape Town Region by 2021. Current forecasts suggest that an additional 300-350 million litres (0.3-0.35 million m3) of water a day will be needed by 2028 to ensure supply meets demand (The Nature Conservancy, 2018[12]).

Cape Town relies heavily on surface water. The Western Cape is supplied by two water management areas (WMAs): Berg-Olifants and Breede-Gouritz (Figure 1.1). The Breede-Gouritz catchment supplies 59% of the Cape Town supply while the Berg-Olifants WMA supplies 41%. These catchments are also used extensively for irrigation (Western Cape Government, 2018[13]) in the surrounding areas. Indeed, the city of Cape Town receives 95% of its water from a system of 6 rain-fed dams that also supply agriculture and other urban areas (Berg, Lower Steenbras, Theewaterskloof, Upper Steenbras, Voëlvlei, Wemmershoek). On average, during a non-drought year, the city of Cape Town uses around 64% of the Western Cape Water Supply System’s (WCWSS) available drinking water, agriculture uses 29% and smaller towns use around 7% (City of Cape Town, 2018[14]). In the absence of a bulk water utility, three of the WCWSS dams (Upper and Lower Steenbras, Wemmershoek) have been built and are owned by the city of Cape Town. However, it is the national DWS which fulfils regulatory control and allocates all water from the “big six” dams that Cape Town relies on.

The city of Cape Town provides water and sanitation services to more than 4.2 million people via water and sewer connections that supply nearly 600 000 domestic properties (City of Cape Town, 2018[14]) and basic services comprising public water points and shared toilet facilities to about 230 000 households living in informal settlements (City of Cape Town, 2020[16]). However, the city is growing rapidly and this figure increases every year due to population growth and migration. Each year, on average, the Water and Sanitation Department of Cape Town provides connections to 8 500 new customers (City of Cape Town, 2018[14]). In terms of access to water and sanitation, in 2016, 88% of Cape Town’s population reported access to water inside the dwelling or yard, and 11.8% reported access outside their yard. A total of 91% of the population reported access to a flush toilet connected to the sewerage system or septic tank and 1.5% reported access to chemical toilets (City of Cape Town, 2017[17]).

The city of Cape Town started experiencing drought in 2015 and water reservoirs further reached critically low levels in 2017/18. The drought was driven by physical factors such as a lack of winter rainfall and increasing temperatures attributable to the effects of climate change. It was exacerbated by anthropic factors such as rising urban population and and competition among local water users, all placing enormous stress on limited resources (Climate Institute, 2018[18]). The 16 April 2018 was supposed to be the day that Cape Town switched off its taps, known as Day Zero, defined as the point at which the dam levels fell to 13.5%, therefore requiring taps in the city of Cape Town to be shut off and severe water rationing to be implemented, requiring citizens to fetch a daily 25 litres per person allocation at public points of distribution (PODs). Although Day Zero did not happen, the Cape Town water crisis exposed a serious vulnerability to water scarcity issues for the city, the surrounding urban agglomerations and the country at large.

The Western Cape Province is abundantly rich in biodiversity, which is crucial to conserve in order to protect the water cycle. Although the Cape Floristic Region is the smallest of six recognised floral kingdoms in the world, it is a biodiversity hotspot. It is an area of high endemism and diversity, meaning that it has the highest concentration of plant species in the world (CapeNature, 2020[19]) and was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2004. The vegetation of this floral kingdom is pyrophytic and requires fire in its lifecycle. Droughts dry the vegetation and make it prone to burning and this poses a risk to the wildland-urban interface especially since the Table Mountain National Park is completely within the city’s urban boundaries. The Western Cape is also prone to extremely strong winds which not only enhance the evaporation rates but also dry out vegetation and quickly fan any fires into uncontrollable blazes. Nevertheless, the maintenance of these complex and varied natural systems is crucial to ensure sufficient clean water in the province. One of the most salient of these opportunities to augment water supply in the city of Cape Town is through investment in the clearing of alien species in catchment areas. These plants can have a severe effect on water resources, reducing water runoff by as much as 30% in heavily infested areas (CapeNature, 2020[20]) as invasive trees and shrubs use a significantly larger amount of water than indigenous plants. According to The Nature Conservancy, an investment of ZAR 372 million (USD 25.5 million) to clean invasive plants would increase streamflow by over 55 million m3 a year within 6 years compared to a business-as-usual scenario – equivalent to one-sixth of the city of Cape Town’s current supply needs – increasing to 100 million m3 a year in avoided water losses within 30 years (The Nature Conservancy, 2018[12]).

The natural environment has been negatively affected by urban development, particularly by population growth in Cape Town, and impacted by various threats associated with urbanisation. Those threats have adversely affected water and air quality through pollution and the disruption of ecological functions, disturbing the delicate balance in biological diversity in the Western Cape Province. Human development has also increased the demand for water and sanitation services. Ongoing organic and inorganic pollution and littering of Cape Town’s stormwater and freshwater systems pose a threat to both biodiversity and human health. In 2016, 10 out of 14 river systems and 9 out of 13 wetlands exhibited eutrophic or hypertrophic1 characteristics. Furthermore, according to 2016 water quality data, only 2 of the 14 water bodies achieved 100% targeted guideline adherence to the intermediate contact guideline and less than half of all rivers achieved 80% adherence to the national freshwater quality targets (City of Cape Town, 2018[21]). Contamination of the city of Cape Town’s freshwater systems is primarily due to contaminated urban stormwater and raw sewage from informal settlements, leaking sewers and pump stations. The continuously increasing rate of urbanisation, the rapid expansion of informal areas and an increase in backyard dwellings further strain Cape Town’s capacity to service and build new infrastructure.

Several strategies have been launched by the city and the Western Cape Government to address these serious environmental issues in an effort to contribute to the water scarcity problem. Cape Town promotes the concept of water-sensitive urban design (WSUD) to move towards a “water-sensitive city” (Box 1.2). This approach includes the management of stormwater using established urban watershed and sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS) management tools. Cape Town’s new Water Strategy issued in 2019 aims specifically to turn Cape Town into a water-sensitive city through the exploitation of diverse water resources, diversified infrastructure, making optimal use of stormwater and urban waterways for the purposes of flood control, aquifer recharge, water reuse and recreation, all based on sound ecological principles. One of the aims of the city of Cape Town’s 2017 Environmental Strategy is to work towards significant improvements in water quality of the city of Cape Town’s watercourses, including rivers and wetlands, with the aim to use these assets as recreational and community spaces that support Cape Town’s biodiversity and social well-being, and allow for sustainable urban stormwater management. Other projects are ongoing to improve water quality. These include, for instance, an increase in maintenance for clearing litter and dumped material from stormwater systems, improving aquatic weed and algae management measures, improving informal settlement servicing and managing databases to include downstream water quality criteria, and eliminating sewer-to-storm-water cross-connections. Furthermore, the city of Cape Town has partnered with a number of public, private and/or civil society entities to promote the improvement of freshwater quality and to manage water pollution. Cape Town has also implemented the national Adopt-a-River Programme to encourage communities to adopt and clean dirty rivers. Furthermore, the Western Cape Government launched the Western Cape Ecological Infrastructure Investment Framework (EIIF) in 2019 to create strategies to tackle invasive species in the province and improve water security.

The city of Cape Town is the economic hub of the Western Cape Province and a key economic hub of the national economy. It is home to 70% of the Western Cape GDP and 63% of the provincial population. Cape Town contributes to 9.7% of the national GDP (City of Cape Town, 2019[26]). The key industries include the financial and business services industry, manufacturing and wholesale and trade. Important exports include oils petroleum and citrus fruit, grapes and apples. The agricultural products are mostly sourced from outside the metropolitan area of the city of Cape Town. However, these can be processed within the city before being exported.

Though agriculture represents a smaller part of national GDP, the Western Cape region, due to its climate, provides a very productive environment for crop growth. In fact, the region produces between 55% and 60% of South Africa’s agricultural exports. It also contributes approximately 20% towards South Africa’s total agricultural production (Water Research Commission, 2014[27]). In the Western Cape, 43% of available water is used for irrigation and it sustains a ZAR 530 billion (USD 36.3 billion) economy in the province alone. This sector employs around 180 000 workers, while the agri-processing sector adds another 126 000 jobs to the economy. Together, these sectors employ 15% of the provincial labour force (WWF, 2018[28]).

Increased domestic demand due essentially to the inflow of migration causes tensions between different water users (domestic, industrial, agricultural ones). However, there is an interdependent relationship between the city of Cape Town and the surrounding agricultural area. For example, on the one hand, the surrounding rural areas depend on visitors to the city of Cape Town for their own touristic sector. On the other hand, increased pollution from industrial use and deteriorating sewerage systems in the city are resulting in lower-quality water that represents a cost to all users.

Water scarcity issues put greater pressure on the rural-urban interdependent relationship. The 2015-18 drought had a significant impact on agriculture, livelihoods and communities, with an estimated economic loss of ZAR 5.9 billion (USD 0.4 billion) for agriculture in the Western Cape alone, 30 000 job losses and 13%-20% exports drop (WWF, 2018[28]). Tourism accounts for 10% of South Africa’s economic output and provides 1.5 million jobs – around 10% of total employment in the country (Parks et al., 2019[29]). Negative press on the crisis resulted in a clear decrease in the number of visitors in 2017 compared to previous years due to the Day Zero campaign (Box 1.3). Similarly, a preliminary impact assessment of the COVID-19 crisis on the South African tourism industry has shown that during the first 6 weeks of the pandemic, 99% of tourism firms claim to be negatively affected and only 23% feel neutral or optimistic about the future (Department of Tourism, South Africa, 2020[30]).

Ensuring more sustainable and water-wise agriculture and efficient municipal use is a key priority of the Western Cape region to maintain economic growth and regional development. During the drought, both the city of Cape Town and agricultural users made important efforts to decrease their water use significantly. For example, between 2017 and 2018, the agriculture sector in the Western Cape cut its water use by 60% on average. Water restrictions varied from 50% in the Breede Valley to 60% in the Berg River and Riviersonderend region and 87% in the Lower Olifants River Valley, with consequences on output value (WWF, 2018[28]). Cape Town residents also experienced severe water restrictions and lowered their water consumption by 55%.

Though South Africa is recognised for its progressive 1998 water legislation to formally erase racial and class discrimination in the access to water, the country still struggles with inequality with regards to water justice. Dynamics of spatial and economic segregation of people of colour before 1994 resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of “coloured” and “black” Capetonians to inferior housing in low‐lying areas prone to flooding and with limited access to water, sanitation and other services (Enqvist and Ziervogel, 2019[35]). Though the national and local policy has strived to promote water justice for all citizens, municipalities have struggled with implementation, especially in rapidly growing informal settlements, where a significant part of immigrants are located.

The province is currently experiencing a significant inflow of migration from other areas of the country. The Western Cape has the second-highest rate of positive net migration after the province of Gauteng. Between 2001 and 2016, domestic net migration added an estimated 450 546 people to the province’s population, with migrants from other provinces accounting for 27% of population growth over that period (Western Cape Government, 2017[36]). This inflow of migration has led to serious housing issues in the city of Cape Town with subsequent implications on the quality of water and sanitation provision to residents.

To promote more equal service delivery, the South African government passed the Free Basic Water Policy in 2001, mandating that municipalities provide a daily 25 litres per person, or a monthly 6 m3 for a household of 8, at no cost to end-users and accessible no more than 200 m from their homes (Beck et al., 2016[37]). Following subsequent revisions, this policy now only applies to indigent households.2 The city of Cape Town currently supplies free water to approximately half a million people living in informal settlements. On average, actual net water use by households in informal settlements is less than the basic-need amount: water is heavy to carry and a household of 4 would need to carry 28 buckets of water every day to use 50 litres per person. Total gross usage in informal settlements, including all types of use and losses, is about 50 litres per person per day (7 buckets), constituting only 5% of total usage in Cape Town (City of Cape Town, 2019[38]).

The gap in social inclusion when it comes to access to water and sanitation services may be exacerbated with the COVID-19 crisis. It is still early to tell how Cape Town will recover from the economic and social strife caused by the pandemic and its consequences on longer-term social and economic equality among all members of its population. However, some signs indicate that the pandemic is making it even harder for vulnerable citizens to have access to water and sanitation (UN-Habitat, 2020[39]).

The onset and consequences of the Cape Town water crisis were exacerbated by megatrends such as climate change, the implications of economic growth on water demand and the continuation of demographic and urbanisation patterns. The figure on drought categories from the draft National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (DWS, forthcoming[40]) illustrates these multifaceted causes and exacerbating factors, including climate change impacts, increasing water demand or insufficient water infrastructure (Figure 1.2). Though Day Zero was avoided by the joined efforts of all stakeholders, extreme events will continue jeopardising water scarcity in the country and Cape Town. In fact, it is estimated that, at the current rate, South Africa will experience a 17% water deficit by 2030 if no action is taken to respond to existing trends (DWS, 2013[10]).

The Western Cape was projected as one of the South African provinces most at risk of climate-induced warming and rainfall change. Evidence suggests that a significant cause of the drought could be attributed to climate change and that more events of this type can be expected in the future (Schiermeier, 2018[41]). This makes the city of Cape Town’s resource management more challenging, especially since it has been estimated that human-induced climate change tripled the likelihood of the 2015-17 drought based on historical rainfall and dam inflow data (Otto et al., 2018[42]). These results point out important water-related climate risks that the city needs to be prepared for. For instance, since 2007, South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs (currently the Department for Water and Sanitation, DWS) has underscored the need for diversification of water supply sources. Indeed, almost all of the city’s water still comes from 6 dams (95%) dependent on rainfall, a risky situation in a semi-arid region with climate change forecasts predicting that Cape Town will get hotter and drier over the next 50 years (Schiermeier, 2018[41]). Climate change and globalisation have also triggered and exacerbated the spread of water-thirsty alien plant species in crucial catchment areas for Cape Town. This resulted in a decrease in water supply estimated to 30 million m3 per year.

In the context of increasing competition for water in the region and the potential surface water dam yields reduction due to climate change, Cape Town plans to become a water-sensitive city, where natural resources and engineered water services are planned and managed in an integrated and holistic way. Part of this approach to ensure resilience against climate change include water augmentation schemes (i.e. several options to increase water supply). For example, the DWS is currently implementing the Berg River to Voëlvlei Dam Augmentation Scheme as the next water resource scheme to increase the WCWSS capacity. A number of additional schemes are being implemented or investigated by the city including groundwater use, water reclamation for potable use, IUWM or seawater desalination. Furthermore, greater recognition for the value-added of investing in green infrastructure has taken form since the remission of the drought. The Nature Conservancy launched the Greater Cape Town Water Fund to increase collective support by a range of stakeholders to clear alien invasive vegetation from the catchments for the purpose of augmenting water yield in the bulk water system.

The Cape Town Resilience Strategy developed in 2019 is a direct response to the water crisis after the recognition that the implementation of severe water restrictions may not be enough to ensure supply the next time a drought of the same or greater magnitude arises (Box 1.4). The resilience strategy aims to integrate further climate adaption into all types of municipal planning and to integrate spare capacity to be better prepared for times of disruption. It also explicitly recognises the importance of partnerships through improved stakeholder engagement for water governance, holistic water resilience and collective ownership of water-related topics in the city. Indeed, the drought had a strong impact on municipal adaptation to climate change with, for instance: household installation of rainwater tanks, boreholes and well points, driving down consumption in homes through conservation and use of greywater; the creation of spring water collection points in communities; a greater understanding of climate risk; advanced pressure management in the city distribution system; and new water supply systems rapidly installed by the city. These measures as well as the change in water bylaws and building requirements within the metropolitan area of Cape Town adopted in 2019, placed more responsibility on property owners to provide for onsite water storage, water reuse and water efficiency.

The South African economy is largely based on services, manufacturing and mining (FAO, 2016[5]) in which water plays a critical role. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, South Africa’s economy was growing moderately: real GDP grew at an estimated 0.7% in 2019, down from 0.8% in 2018, and was projected to rise to 1.1% in 2020 and 1.8% in 2021 amid domestic and global downside risks (AFDB, 2019[44]). The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have led to a sharp economic contraction and rising unemployment, particularly affecting youth (OECD, 2020[34]). Post lockdown, mid-September estimates of 2020’s second quarter-point to the economy contracting by 51% quarter on quarter. All sectors, except – notably – agriculture, printed a negative output (Stats South Africa, 2020[45]). The early and strict lockdown from mid-March to the end of June explains the severity of the contraction but monthly indicators point to a rebound of activity since July which is confirmed by a rebound of 66.1% for the third quarter (quarter on quarter).

Despite economic progress since the transition to democracy in the mid-1990s, South Africa retains one of the highest inequality rates in the world and significant poverty prevails. South Africa had a Gini coefficient of 0.63 in 2015 (World Bank, 2019[46]). Inequality has been persistent and is perpetuated by a legacy of exclusion and the nature of economic growth, which is not pro-poor and does not generate sufficient jobs. Inequality in wealth is even higher: the richest 10% of the population held around 71% of net wealth in 2015, while the bottom 60% held 7% of the net wealth (World Bank, 2019[46]). Furthermore, intergenerational mobility is low, meaning inequalities are passed down from generation to generation with little change in inequality over time.

As in most African countries, the economic landscape of South Africa is dependent on the effects of climate change and this also has significant implications for water. Higher temperatures and a reduction in rainfall expected as a result of climate change will reduce already depleted water resources, contributing to an increasing number of droughts in the country. South Africa’s development is highly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and forestry. Increases in temperature and reductions in rainfall threaten the productivity of these sectors. Tourism is another key driver of South Africa’s economic growth. Ranked third in the world in terms of biological diversity, desertification caused by a hotter drier climate could potentially reduce biodiversity, threatening the tourism industry. Temperature rise and changes in rainfall patterns also increase the potential for malarial disease, with significant impacts on health and the economy (UNDP, 2020[47]).

Cape Town is a critical economic hub in South Africa and presents its own unique characteristics. Cape Town’s economy has progressively shifted towards a predominantly service-driven one with growth in tertiary sector industries outpacing growth in both primary and secondary sector industries in the last decade. The local economy has recently grown faster than the national economy primarily because it is not heavily dependent on the mineral sector, which has experienced a recent downturn. Cape Town’s unemployment rate at the end of 2018 was 21.2% on the narrow definition and 23.1% on the broad definition (City of Cape Town, 2019[43]). While Cape Town’s narrow unemployment rate is significantly lower than the country as a whole and the broad unemployment rate is the lowest out of all metropolitan municipalities, half a million Capetonians are unemployed. High unemployment is a significant stress in Cape Town and is a contributing factor to high levels of poverty and inequality. Increasing employment is thus a crucial component of building resilience to shocks and improving quality of life.

In times of crisis, finding a balance between protecting the general interest and ensuring economic activity for the continuance of livelihoods is a challenge. During the water crisis, the authorities implemented measures to reduce water consumption while supporting economic activities. Despite the emergency, all around Cape Town wine production continued in order to prevent an ensuing economic crisis (ISPI, 2018[48]), which caused notable tension between water user categories due to differentiated restriction measures. This “water versus wine” polemic clearly illustrates the tensions created by the water balance between both “essential” and “non-essential industries” especially in times of crisis. Nonetheless, winemakers still experienced a notable decline in their activity, owing to water use restrictions.

In the past decade, Cape Town experienced a population growth rate of 2.5%, exacerbated by significant and fast migration into the city. Cape Town is the second-most populous city in South Africa, behind Johannesburg, and the 10th most populous city in Africa. From 2011 to 2016, Cape Town had the 4th-highest annual population growth of all the metropolitan municipalities in South Africa, increasing from 1.5% between 2011 and 2012 to 1.6% between 2015 and 2016. This rapid urbanisation is largely the result of inward migration of South Africans, particularly from the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and other parts of the Western Cape (Stats South Africa, 2018[49]). A significant number of new migrants to Cape Town find a residence in one of the city’s many informal settlements (City of Cape Town, 2019[43]).

Although the city now continues to grow at a slower pace, this demographic upward trend has many water-related impacts. For example, urban sprawl contributes to increasing the ground sealing thus exacerbating flood risks and reducing groundwater recharge. The loss of agricultural land and areas with high biodiversity conservation potential induce water conservation, runoff and quality issues. In the city’s growth areas, the water and sewer infrastructure is stressed. The pressing housing challenge has given rise to a growing number of backyard dwellers which increases the water demand and sewer load on existing infrastructure. For instance, contamination of the city’s freshwater systems is primarily due to contaminated urban stormwater and raw sewage from informal settlements, leaking sewers and pump stations.

Cape Town’s success will be contingent on its capacity to manage the implications of these demographic changes. The city has managed a relatively stable water demand over the last 20 years, despite a rapidly increasing population, thanks to the implementation of water demand management measures and various city initiatives. There is also an increased consumer awareness of water-saving, with improved maintenance of household plumbing by fixing leaks and installing more water-wise toilets, taps and showerheads. The city has increased its efforts in reusing water for industry and for watering golf courses and sports grounds. However, significant inequities stemming from apartheid still plague the city, highlighting the unique importance of human capital development in order to mitigate the consequences of poverty. In this sense, the city’s resilience strategy considers the role of water in reducing urban inequalities and promoting health and safety for all its residences. For example, one strategy-based objective recognises the current poor state of Cape Town’s rivers and waterways as a breeding ground of inequality and focuses on rejuvenating rivers and spaces around them to create healthy, safe and productive urban waterways which produce multiple resilience dividends, including flood mitigation, new work and recreation opportunities, improved water quality and crime reduction.

As a result of long-standing inequities and the rate of population growth in the city, Cape Town is facing a serious housing crisis which affects the quality of basic services provision. The city of Cape Town has an estimated population of just over 4 million people, with most recent official population Census data showing that 20.5% of households live in informal housing (13.5% in informal settlements and 7% in informal backyard dwellings) (City of Cape Town, 2012[50]). According to Stats South Africa’s General Household Survey of 2018, the Western Cape, after Gauteng, has the second-highest proportion of households living in informal dwellings (Stats South Africa, 2018[51]). Most of the informal settlements in Cape Town are situated on city-owned land; however, some are located on private land, which creates unique and complex legal challenges for the provision of basic services to these specific informal settlements and for the implementation of informal settlements regeneration projects.

The growing challenge of informal housing due to immigration has resulted in increasing demands on water and sanitation services and increased inequalities in access to basic services. There are approximately 230 000 informal households (City of Cape Town, 2020[16]) in 204 informal settlements throughout the city, which are serviced by approximately 10 000 communal taps and 50 000 toilets (City of Cape Town, 2018[14]). In terms of water use, residents in formal housing use 66% of the city’s water, while informal settlements account for only around 4%-5% of total water consumption (City of Cape Town, 2018[21]; 2018[14]). Informal settlements are characterised by a lack of formal tenure, insufficient public space and facilities, inadequate access to municipal services and poor access ways. Some informal settlements are built on dangerous sites such as unplanned landfills, wetlands or retention and detention ponds, which intensify the likelihood of disasters such as flooding. From a social point of view, these areas often overlap with high social vulnerability such as poverty, unemployment and high crime rates (City of Cape Town, 2019[43]).

Cost recovery and sustainable funding of water is another challenge and the dynamics of class and race reflect themselves in water funding strategies. About 1.5 million people, making up more than a third of the total population in the city, cannot afford to pay for water and therefore are eligible for a free allocation each month. The policy intention is for water tariffs to fully recover the cost of the water service except for the allocation of free water, which is paid from a national operation grant known as the Equitable Share. However, in practice, cash revenues are insufficient to cover all of the costs, especially timely rehabilitation and replacement of existing infrastructure (Ziervogel, 2019[52]). This situation for low-income households significantly contrasts with the trends of urban development in Cape Town for middle and upper classes with low-rise buildings, swimming pools and lawns, which also hold implications for water use and demand in the city.

The Cape Town Resilience Strategy specifically recognises the need to innovate for improved conditions, service delivery and well-being in informal settlements as a way to achieve a connected and climate-adapted city. This goal specifically envisages two actions: exploring alternative, innovative and financially feasible mechanisms of service delivery in informal settlements which are acceptable to local residents, and co-designing informal settlement upgrading projects with local residents. Clear alignment between city officials and NGOs and informal settlements is a key necessity for these actions to be implemented effectively as well as accurate up-to-date data and information.

The water crisis took the form of drought, rare in its intensity and duration. The El Niño-triggered drought in the Western Cape developed over a period of three years from June 2015 through to June 2018. Rainfall over this period represented 50% to 70% of the long-term average (Wolski, 2018[53]). In 2017, many rainfall records were the lowest since the 1880s (Wolski, 2018[53]). This low rainfall resulted in increasingly lower and lower dam levels. In fact, the overall level of storage in the 6 largest dams, accounting for over 99% of total system storage, dropped from 100% in 2014 to 71%, 60% and 38% in the subsequent years (as measured at the start of each hydrological year, 1 November, also marking the start of the dry season) (Figure 1.3) (Ziervogel, 2019[52]).

Institutional responses during the peak months of the drought between 2017 and 2018 included risk assessments, communications and stakeholder engagement efforts, and regulatory changes. The City Council appointed a Water Resilience Task Team (WRTT) in May 2017, headed by the Chief Resilience Officer, within the Directorate of the Mayor, which designed a Water Resilience Plan outlining water supply augmentation targets. On the technical side, groundwater and desalination were identified by city officials as potential techniques for supply augmentation. In August 2017, the Water Resilience Advisory Committee (WRAC), was established in the city to convene monthly external advisors, share knowledge and plan actions with a number of stakeholders outside of the municipal administration. This committee included around 15 members from academia, business, NGOs, non-profit organisations (NPOs), provincial and national government, among others.

On the technical side, responses focused on demand management. In this sense, the city scaled up the installation of household flow regulator devices to target households using large amounts of water (i.e. houses with large gardens, etc.) and effluent reuse schemes were stepped up to increase the amount of potable water that could be used. In order to strengthen the effect of these technical measures, the city engaged in a strong communication campaign and stakeholder engagement strategy to make everyone aware of the crisis and increase water conservation efforts (Box 1.5).

At the start of the height of the crisis in late 2017, the municipal Department of Safety and Security released a Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan that laid out three phases for demand management based on the gravity of the depletion of water resources:

  • Phase 1: Water rationing through pressure management and supply limitation.

  • Phase 2: Disaster restrictions aimed at intensive water rationing, prioritising human life and critical services.

  • Phase 3: Full-scale disaster implementation where non-surface drinking water supplies, sourced from groundwater abstraction from various aquifers and spring water, would be available for drinking purposes only and where critical services would be significantly reduced.

Although the Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan was never implemented and Phase 1 was never surpassed, it was an ambitious exercise that ensured a city plan for water shortage, if it ever came to fruition.

In January and February 2018, at the peak of the crisis, fear spread across city residents after municipal authorities aggressively restricted water use to 50 litres per person per day by limiting supply and enforcing tariffs and initiated more active communications campaigns. Residents and businesses reduced water use and daily use in the city was driven down to just below 500 000 m3 several times, which was about 50% of the pre-drought usage. No other city has ever achieved this level of reduction without resorting to intermittent supply (Ziervogel, 2019[52]). At this point, the concept of Day Zero, coined by a provincial government official, entered the public consciousness. The term was originally meant as when the dams would run dry but the city started defining it as the time when the water supply to homes would be cut off and residents would have to collect water from public collection points. However, the idea of “zero” was a powerful one and encouraged residents to use even less water. Day Zero was initially forecast by city officials for April 2018 but through a combination of stringent water consumption restrictions, temporary infrastructure interventions and late-season rainfall, it was then pushed back to 2019 and then later cancelled. The restrictions were accompanied by strict tariffs. The cost of water for non-domestic use, which accounts for about 30% of city usage, more than doubled (to over ZAR 40 or USD 3), making it very expensive to use more water than restrictions allowed. Commercial and industrial water use declined by about 20% (Ziervogel, 2019[52]). The city maintained its social tariff, providing 10.5 m3 per month at no charge to the approximately 270 000 residential properties with a property value below ZAR 400 000 (which is about 30% of the total formal housing) and free water through public standpipes to a further 180 000 households living in informal settlements. Other domestic users faced a very steep inclining block tariff with very large increases if they used more than restrictions allowed. The winter rainfalls during 2018 filled the dams to above 75% by the end of the winter, marking the beginning of the recovery with dams reaching 100% in 2020.

Several factors brought the city of Cape Town to the brink of a water crisis in early 2018. First, planning models had not been updated using the latest hydrology data available and the potential effects of climate change on dam inflows had likely been underestimated (the hydrology in the planning models was last updated based on 2004 rainfall/runoff information). While the baseline study on reconciling demand and supply, completed in 2007, was updated each year, changes in water availability as a result of changes in vegetation and other factors were overlooked. The plans used at the city, provincial and national levels initially indicated that the city was water-secure until 2022. But it turned out that the city was more vulnerable than these plans indicated. While the severity of the drought, a 1-in-590-year event, could not have been foreseen, resilience planning, including extensive use of climate change scenarios, might have helped to be better prepared (Water Research Commission, 2018[55]).

Second, the city’s reliance on traditional surface water sources made it more vulnerable in the context of much-reduced rainfall. The city had run a successful groundwater abstraction and recharge system for a number of years and had also begun investigating other alternatives including more extensive groundwater abstraction, reuse and desalination before the drought. Nevertheless, when the drought hit, the city had limited ability to abstract water from these alternative sources and thus mitigate the impact of the drought.

Third, some weaknesses in governance and water management became evident during the drought. While the drought brought many organisations together and united residents and businesses towards conserving water to the best extent possible given the circumstances, it also exposed gaps in co-ordination, leadership and capacity with delayed water restriction decisions and enforcement, for instance. Though restriction measures and temporary infrastructure implemented by the city eventually averted the crisis, these gaps will remain in the long run. As a response, in 2019, the city of Cape Town developed its Water Strategy which aims to take a more holistic approach to water management and focuses on what is needed to build resilience (Kaiser and Macleod, 2018[56]) through five commitments: safe access to water and sanitation; wise use of water; sufficient, reliable water from diverse sources; shared benefits from regional water resources; and a water-sensitive city. Part of this strategy includes improved stakeholder engagement through collaboration, thus recognising that multiple actors need to be engaged to manage water across levels of government and between organisations. The COVID-19 disruption may challenge and delay the achievement of these goals but is also an important testing ground for some lessons learned during the water crisis (Box 1.6).


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← 1. Usually low or very low levels of species diversity; usually very highly productive systems; nuisance growth of aquatic plants and blooms of blue-green algae, often including species which are toxic to humans, wildlife and livestock.

← 2. Municipalities determine their own criteria for identifying and registering indigents. In 2017, 147 municipalities (out of 257) classified an indigent household as a family earning a combined income of less than R3 200 per month (http://www.statssa.gov.za/).

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