How did Cape Town avoid running out of water?

South Africa has been celebrating dams in the Western Cape filling up with the recent rains. Soon, however, it is likely that the real possibility that Cape Town would run out of water will be forgotten.

Before this happens it is important that lessons are learnt. In particular, it is valuable to understand how Cape Town was able to radically reduce water consumption (from 1.2 billion litres per day to 516 million litres) within very short time frames, as shown in the graph above.

This radical saving has been attributed to a wide range of factors that can be broadly described in terms of The Consequences of Inaction, Managing Supply, Setting The Example and Peer Pressure and Awareness:

The Consequences of Inaction

  • Day Zero: Cape Town ran a well-publicised campaign indicating what would happen if water ran out. This included demonstrating how people would have to travel to standpipes for their ration of water and transport this back to their homes.
  • Monitoring: Websites were developed that provided up-to-date information on water levels and current water consumption which enabled ‘Ground Zero’ dates (when water would run out) to be predicted.

Managing Supply

  • Throttling water supplies: The City substantially reduced water pressure in many areas at specific times. This caused some high lying area to be without water at some points during the day.
  • Water restrictions: Gradually ramping up water restrictions which provided very clear requirements such as a ban on using drinking water for irrigation, a ban on washing cars and limiting personal water use to 87 litres a day.
  • Enforcement: Enforcement of water restrictions was carried out through patrols and fines for infringements.
  • Water Management Devices: Ongoing disregard for restrictions was addressed by installing water management devices at properties. These cut off water supplies after 350litres per day had been used and 18,000 of these devices were installed.

Setting the Example

  • Walking the talk: Leaders in Cape Town not only urged people to use less water but also shared their personal experiences on how they were reducing water consumption.
  • Swimming pools: Municipal swimming pools were closed and topping up of private swimming pools was only allowed if the water was transported from other areas.
  • Business: The City’s investment agency engaged business regularly on how water could be reduced in large businesses.
  • Restaurants: Many restaurants radically transformed how food was prepared and served.  For instance, the Test Kitchen developed a “Drought Kitchen” and reduced washing by serving food on cardboard in picture frames.

Peer Pressure and Awareness 

  • Maps: The City developed online water maps that showed water consumption at a household level. This showed whether households were meeting their quota of water or going above it.
  • Equality: Restrictions were applied across all households evenly and as a result, very wealthy households used the same amount of water as very poor households who were already relatively water efficient.
  • Residents: Residents started water saving groups to share water saving tips and how to access technologies such as composting toilets and greywater systems which could save water. Many of these groups grew rapidly through Facebook and other social media.
  • Media campaigns: Water saving tips, such as “If it is yellow, let it mellow” were widely shared to encourage people to reduce water consumption, for instance by not flushing toilets after every use.
  • Water Ambassadors: Water ambassadors were appointed that publically supported reductions in water and shared new ways water could be saved.
  • NGOs: NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund developed guides and updates that could be easily accessed with information on the current situation and how households could reduce water consumption
  • Tourists: Tourist were encouraged to behave like locals and reduce water use. In many hotels, baths were plugged to avoid them being used and showers encouraged.