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31 January 2018

Cape Town: A city learning to live with drought

Water is, and will continue to be, the defining resource in our urban future. Water is pivotal to our development and is the lifeblood that sustains our cities and regions.

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Building resilience

Access to the quality and quantity of water that we need is becoming increasingly difficult and uncertain in the face of climate change. This is a global phenomenon, yet is experienced more severely in unserviced urban areas where our most vulnerable citizens live. There is growing realisation that the impacts of climate change in Africa will be experienced through floods, droughts and extreme weather events, with very direct and potentially severe socio-economic impacts. Coupled with this, urbanisation, increasing populations, and the corresponding rise in demand for services and infrastructure place increasing demand for water on our cities. How we collectively respond to the multiple, highly complex and deeply systemic water challenges, both globally and in Africa, and the way we manage water and urban development is what will determine how and where we live, our economic stresses and failures, and our development paths.

Globally, water resources are scarce and cities are having to resort to increasingly extreme measures to establish water security. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to the largest number of water-stressed countries of any region (1), with only 9% of global fresh water resources being located in Africa (2). Further, it is estimated that roughly half of the infrastructure required to supply the needs of Africa’s cities by 2035 has yet to be built (3). It is therefore important for cities to implement more efficient water management practices as they develop, to prevent increasing water scarcity as they grow.

This will not be the last climate change crisis to face our cities in Africa and elsewhere. We are living in a time of increasing uncertainty. Yet, it is just this kind of challenge that generates opportunities to mobilise our urban communities and build social cohesion.

Cities need to consider the long-term planning of water supply – beyond the span of any elected government that is in place – in the context of climate change and climate variability, in addition to the demands for building new infrastructure. There is a need to build resilience in the water sector to ensure water resources meet future demand and adapt to increasing variability within the urban environment.

Situated at the southernmost tip of the African continent, the City of Cape Town, with its population of 4 million, and its surrounding towns, are currently in the grips of a severe drought. This is a complex challenge to prepare for and manage; particularly for a country that has traditionally been heavily reliant on surface water to meet the demands of growing cities. Now, the world is watching how Cape Town will fare in this drought. With increasing climate variability and uncertainty it will certainly not be the last city to face such challenges.

Ensuring integration

In a complex sector, such as water, which is deeply connected with other development challenges, each with its multiple facets, variables and actors, it is imperative that we see all levels of government working together. This requires a very real commitment to vertical integration and horizontal alignment. Ensuring that all spheres of government – local, subnational and national – are working hand in hand in a transparent and coordinated manner, and that within government spheres, we are working across departments and disciplines. It requires a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), researchers and the private sector through collaboration and partnering in completely new ways, often embracing different, less comfortable and even highly unconventional solutions to harness opportunities for improved water resilience.

Rising to the challenge

With water resources becoming increasingly scarce, Cape Town is seeing the private sector come to the fore, with farmers decreasing their water use by reducing harvests, improving soil quality (to hold soil moisture better), removing water-intense invasive vegetation, among other interventions. The tourism sector, one of the major contributors to the economy in Cape Town, has also been contributing to the call to save water. Many well-known hotels have removed the plugs from baths to encourage showering, retro-fitted taps and showers with water efficient connections and are educating visitors to encourage water conscious behaviours. Businesses, such as South African Breweries (SAB), have also stepped up to the plate, offering assistance and solutions such as the bottling of water from a nearby spring to provide potable water to citizens.

We have seen leaders in the NGO field, such as WWF South Africa, introduce initiatives such as their regular “Wednesday Water Files”. Through this initiative they have recently released an information pack to help residents across the city understand what ‘Day Zero’ means and how to prepare for it.

We are hearing researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs propose blended water supply models for the city. Citizens have been remodelling their gardens, developing water-wise, indigenous habitats, investing in the installation of rainwater harvesting tanks, and flushing their toilets with greywater. Engineers are exploring groundwater harvesting, desalination plants, with some projects already in development. Topical discussions being raised by multiple stakeholders include the reuse of wastewater and stormwater to augment the supply in the potable water system and to develop non-potable water systems.

At the household level residents are being asked to use no more than 50 litres of water per person per day and plans are evolving for water collection points should Cape Town reach ‘Day Zero‘ – the day when the taps will be turned off for all but the most critical services and most vulnerable in society.

The ICLEI Africa office, based in Cape Town, is doing its part to reduce water and make every drop count. In our building, alternative supply systems are being implemented to augment water to flush toilets and reduce the volume of municipal water consumed. Staff have committed to reducing the number of times the toilet is flushed, switched to waterless hand sanitizer, and are only washing dishes once a day by hand, among other water use reduction strategies. Additionally, ICLEI Africa has developed a Business Continuity Plan for Water, to ensure that our work and sustainability services to our more than 100 member cities across the continent will continue smoothly should ‘Day Zero’ arrive.

Learning from a crisis

Experiencing this drought in Cape Town has provided us with an opportunity to reflect on urban water resilience. The question now is how can cities improve their resilience and ensure sustained supply of water to their residents in time of crisis, such as a severe drought, and learn from the experience.

The first and most fundamental principle of sustainable development is long-term planning that integrates climate change and variability across all sectors of urban development. To build resilience, such plans need to be developed with a systems-thinking approach, presenting multiple scenarios and highly flexible and adaptive approaches to deal effectively with challenges that arise in the management and supply of water. In order to develop robust and integrated plans, all levels of government and civil society should participate in the planning process to ensure co-production, trans-disciplinarity, integration and buy-in, as well as build trust and garner commitment for implementation. The processes adopted should be transparent and ongoing, with plans and actions developed in line with the availability of new data and with proper consideration of the growth and development of the city and the sustainable well-being of its citizens. Robust and reliable data should be used in policies and plans, based on the most up-to-date science and research, thus bridging the science-policy interface. Furthermore, during a time of crisis, frequent and ongoing communication with, and input from, residents and all other stakeholders is essential to build trust and gain support for collective action.

We have found it valuable to reflect back on the ten principles developed in the Ekurhuleni Declaration on Water and Sanitation for Cities adopted at ICLEI’s pan-African Water for Cities Congress hosted by ICLEI Africa and its partners in March last year in the City of Ekurhuleni in South Africa. Through this Declaration, urban leaders across Africa have committed to exploring innovative systems and approaches to improving the management of water resources and supply at the local level. During the congress, ICLEI Africa’s Dr. Meggan Spires recognised that the business-as-usual approach will no longer suffice in relation to how we build and maintain water and sanitation infrastructure, and in relation to how we engage with civil society. Spires further noted that the solutions we develop should be based on knowledge that is co-produced by diverse stakeholders in transdisciplinary ways.

Reimagining our shared future

As the world watches South Africa, the Province of the Western Cape, the City of Cape Town and its surrounding towns, residents are stepping up to save water, sharing their innovations, and motivating for collective action, as evident from the fast-growing and very lively social media channels.

This will not be the last climate change crisis to face our cities in Africa and elsewhere. We are living in a time of increasing uncertainty. Yet, it is just this kind of challenge that generates opportunities to mobilise our urban communities and build social cohesion. These are the times that push us as individuals, communities, government, private sector and civil society groups to reinvent how we view water resources, manage water, and work together towards building our urban resilience.


2. Tran, M., Koncagul, E., and Connor, R., 2016. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2016: Water and Jobs. Facts and Figures. Available at:

3. UNWater. 2017. The United Nations Water Development Report 2017: Facts and Figures. Wastewater the Untapped Resource. Available at:

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