Unpacking the Cape Town drought: Lessons learned

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


As the drought in Cape Town intensified in 2017/2018 and then abated later in 2018, international and national attention was focussed on Cape Town. Importantly, Cape Town is just one example of how many towns and cities in South Africa, and other semi-arid regions, can be impacted by water stress. It can be argued that Cape Town received such a high level of attention, because of its global status as a tourist destination, an economic hub of South Africa and because of how the political and bureaucratic response culminated in the dramatic “Day Zero” narrative. However, many other metros, such as Gauteng, eThekwini and Nelson Mandela Bay, and smaller municipalities have been, and are, at stress points with regards to their water resources. Of the eight metros in South Africa, seven of them implemented water restrictions in the summer of 2016/2017 due to low dam levels (Eberhard 2018).

The Cape Town drought experience needs to be examined to understand what happened and to extract the lessons for Cape Town, but also for other South African municipalities and metros as well as further afield. 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) 1. Adapting to such vagaries of climate is not easy, particularly in the water sector, where high assurance of supply is needed, climate variability directly impacts on water sources and impacts on all aspects of urban life. Failure to adapt, however, will come at a cost, as became evident in Cape Town (Ziervogel 2018). Importantly, although the role of climate variability was significant, it is clear that many other factors also contributed to the crisis. As with many other African cities, Cape Town has high levels of inequality and informality. Governance is complex, requiring activation of responses and resources across scales. Building a water sensitive city requires a holistic understanding of the system and an ability to adapt at a variety of scales in a range of ways. Reflecting on the drought provides an opportunity to examine how cities might better manage a slow unfolding climate event in future.

This paper aims to understand what happened in the Cape Town drought with a view to learning lessons that are translatable to other contexts. Due to the complex nature of the drought only certain aspects are investigated in depth in this paper namely the governance process, including the role of some of the actors and institutional arrangements. However, in order to provide context, issues related to water management, information and communication are included as well.

The data for this paper comes from interviews with senior officials and experts who were intimately involved in the drought response. Interviewees were sent a list of barriers and enablers to the drought that was compiled before the interviews, and were invited to add new entries to the list during the interview itself.

Twenty-one people were interviewed between August and October 2018, with interviews lasting between one and two hours (two national government officials, three provincial government officials, nine City of Cape Town officials, one City politician, four Non-profit organisation representatives, one NGO representative and one international development organisation representative). Interviewees are not named in this paper in line with ethics protocols and efforts to ensure anonymity.

As the author, I was involved in the drought process, as a member of the Section 80 Water Resilience Advisory committee that the City of Cape Town (from now on the City) established in 2017. Through this I attended monthly meetings where updates on the drought and related issues were presented. I was also involved in some processes related to the 100 Resilient Cities work and two drought learning dialogues, which has given me insight into how the drought unfolded over time.

The paper is structured into three sections. The first section provides context to Cape Town and its water management. The second section tells the story of the drought chronologically, breaking it down into three phases of the drought. Although the drought started from a meteorological perspective in 2015, the more acute phase for the City of Cape Town started in early 2017, which is called the “new normal” phase, followed by the “Day Zero” and disaster management phase from late 2017 and drought recovery in 2018. The third section, based on the themes that emerged during the interviews, puts forward 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.