Executive summary

While the COVID-19 virus has hit the Western Cape Province particularly hard with 270 691 cases and 10 731 deaths (20% of total deaths in South Africa) as of February 2021, located essentially in the city of Cape Town, the city administration has shown remarkable resilience in dealing with the pandemic, drawing extensively on lessons from past crises such as droughts. As in many other domains, COVID-19 has acted as a magnifying glass on pressing water challenges, amongst others stressing and widening existing inequalities in access to water and sanitation services in Cape Town’s informal settlements; where 230 000 households rely on public water points and shared toilet facilities.

Lessons learned during the critical stages of Cape Town’s 2016-18 water crisis were valuable for the city to manage the short-term COVID-19 implications and design long term solutions towards greater water resilience. At the beginning of 2018, the city of Cape Town was close to being the first city in the world to run out of water. Cape Town started experiencing drought in 2015, and water reservoirs reached critically low levels in 2017 and 2018. The intense hydrological drought attributable to the effects of climate change was exacerbated by anthropic factors such as rising urban population and competition among local water users, all placing enormous stress on limited resources. Without action, the 16 April 2018 was expected to be the day that Cape Town switched off its taps. Colloquially termed “Day Zero”, this was defined as the point at which the dam levels were expected to fall to 13.5%, therefore requiring taps in the city of Cape Town to be shut off and citizens to fetch a daily 25 litres per person from communal water collection points. Though Day Zero was avoided by the joint efforts of all stakeholders, extreme events will continue to jeopardisewater scarcity in South Africa 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.

While exposing the city to serious vulnerability, the risk of a “Day Zero” triggered actions to cope with water scarcity issues. 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 in May 2017 who designed a Water Resilience Plan outlining water supply augmentation targets. On the technical side, groundwater, reuse and, desalination were identified by city officials as potential techniques for supply augmentation. 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. Furthermore, the city 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.

Often – and the city of Cape Town is no exception – water crises are also eye-openers to governance gaps, revealing challenges in relation to who does what, at which scale, how, when and why, more than hydrological problems, which are often well-known. In the case of Cape Town, lessons learned from the water crisis management highlighted a series of governance gaps:

  1. 1. First, planning models, in which scenarios did not account for a drought event of such magnitude, had not been updated using the latest hydrology data available. It is likely that the potential effects of climate change on dam inflows had been underestimated since 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.

  2. 2. Second, delayed water restriction decisions and enforcement, and a lack of leadership, amongst others, further aggravated water provision difficulties during the drought. Indeed, the city’s exclusive reliance on traditional surface water sources made it more vulnerable in a context of much-reduced rainfall because when the drought hit, the city had limited ability to abstract water from alternative sources. Diversification of water supply through an optimised portfolio of grey and green infrastructure including water conservation measures, ground water abstraction, reuse and desalination, is needed and henceforth prioritised.

  3. 3. Third, the drought highlighted the absence of a holistic and effective water management policy. In 2019, with the objective to drive better resilience and preparedness to a future crisis, the city of Cape Town developed a Water Strategy aiming for a more holistic, integrated and multi-level approach to water management, in close coordination with the national government reconciliation strategy. The COVID-19 disruption may challenge implementation and delay the achievement of these goals, but is also an important testing ground for some lessons learned during the previous water crisis.

Crises, such as the one experienced by Cape Town, ften provide windows of opportunity for new ideas to emerge and create a social and political environment that is more conducive to making necessary reforms. Building on a year-long bottom-up policy dialogue with more than 80 stakeholders in Cape Town and South Africa, this report provides a diagnosis of key water governance challenges in Cape Town as well as policy recommendations to enhance more effectiveness, efficiency and inclusiveness in water management systems based on the OECD Principles on Water Governance. In particular, the report calls for:

  • Strengthening integrated basin governance by establishing a single Catchment Management Agency covering the Western Cape Water Supply System territory and making better use of abstraction and pollution charges to fund water resources and conservation policies and mandates.

  • Advancing the water allocation reform to better manage trade-offs across multiple users and revisiting water allocation regimes to face growing pressures on water resources and redress inequities in water use distribution. In that framework, cost-effective green solutions should also be prioritised to augment water yields in the Western Cape Water Supply System.

  • Collecting, generating and sharing accurate data in order to drive better informed and evidence-based policies and decisions, especially with regard to water balance and water supply management in the Western Cape.

  • Improving financial sustainability as well as technical and economic efficiency of water and sanitation services through developing an effective regulatory framework that incentivises utility performance. Indeed, service providers should not only approach cost recovery through increases in tariff levels, but should also seek efficiency gains as a priority. Moreover, thorough assessment and monitoring of all costs will help set up tariff calculations and levels that are sufficiently cost-reflective to drive long-term financial sustainability.

  • Strengthening capacities at all levels of government including through more emphasis on capacity building in the National Water Strategy as well as through restoring and expanding mentoring programmes to attract and accompany water-related careers, students and professionals.

  • Facilitating peer-learning and exchange of practices across water-related service providers and stakeholders would also contribute to further capacity development, stronger ownership and acceptance of decisions, and better policy implementation.

  • Strengthening transparency, integrity and stakeholder engagement, through innovative open contracting models such as integrity pacts and e-procurement, and citizen engagement mechanisms to promote accountability and prevent corruption, political interference and their adverse effects.

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