Cape Town drought delivers powerful lessons to cities on climate adaptation

African Centre for Cities (ACC) has released a new paper Unpacking the Cape Town Drought Lessons Learnt by Associate Professor Gina Ziervogel. The research was commissioned by the Cities Support Programme, within National Treasury in the South Africa National Government, to ensure that lessons learned from the Cape Town drought experience would serve to inform other municipalities when adapting to drought and water insecurity.

Data for this paper was collected through 21 interviews with senior officials and experts who were intimately involved in the drought response and distilled into 12 lessons across four areas of action that could help municipalities adapt to drought, namely 1) strengthening governance; 2) improving data, knowledge and communication; 3) taking a systemic approach, and 4) building adaptive capacity.

The research also revealed the complexity of urban governance. It showed how something that might initially seem like an environmental concern so clearly impacts on all aspects of city life including economic opportunities, politics, social dynamics among others. Therefore different actors need to be involved in responding to a city-wide event, both within the city, between different spheres of government and with citizens. Local government (in Cape Town and most other cities) does not have the adaptive capacity to respond flexibility and comprehensively enough to these complex problems.

“New ways of working are needed that build capacity to deal with these problems. Central to this is the ability to strengthen collaboration across actors and draw on robust data and expertise to inform decisions,” comments Ziervogel. “Climate change adaptation cannot be the responsibility of one actor alone. We saw the Cape Town avoid “Day Zero” due to the remarkable collective achievement of halving water consumption. This could only have been achieved through both changing citizens and businesses water-use behaviour along with the numerous water demand management measure implemented by the City”

Ziervogel advocates for a change in attitude from relying solely on local government to recognising that everyone needs to play a role in reducing climate risk.

While the paper uses the Cape Town drought as a case study, it also speaks to the wider issues of how a city responded to a widespread climate shock. The report draws  out a number of issues that are important to strengthen going forward to build a more resilient well-adapted city.

The research forms part of Ziervogel’s  interest in how to adapt to climate variability and change while ensuring that social and economic development needs are still prioritised.

“In the context of South Africa, with high levels of inequality and informality, basic needs need to be urgently addressed. Yet if these responses do not consider climate change, they are likely to be undermined. For example, if low-income housing developments are built on a flood plain and do not considering ventilation and how hot it might get, residents will be negatively impacted. Many of these residents are likely to not have the insurance to deal with flood impacts and will battle to pay the price of health costs.  The drought in Cape Town was a good example of how a city responded to a widespread climate impact, that had different impacts on high to low income households.

  • Download the full paper here as well as a condensed version here.