Just a year ago, Cape Town residents faced a crisis that threatened to lead to taps running dry. Now the city has received world attention for how the disaster was averted. A Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative and Film Library project, hailed as a world first, documents key lessons from the water shortage that hit the city between 2017 and 2018.
"The complexity of the response to this crisis was striking," said Peter Willis, one of the prime movers of the project.
"The city as a whole responded in a lot of intelligent ways, but often with limited awareness of how the rest of the system was responding. In the end, what we collectively achieved was remarkable and many around the world see it as such. Since the story of what actually happened is tremendously rich and vivid, we wanted to make sure some of these perspectives were preserved, allowing us all to learn from what happened."
The project brought together leading local academics and practitioners and received support from the City of Cape Town, financial institutions and 100 Resilient Cities - pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation.
The first phase of the initiative was the establishment of the film library - a free online resource, which would eventually feature 45 in-depth interviews with a range of people across several sectors who were intimately involved in the drought response.
With dam levels at just 38.4%, in November 2017, the City of Cape Town officially adopted the concept of Day Zero - the day when the taps would run dry and citizens would be rationed to collecting 25 litres of water per person per day - which was set as April 22 the following year.
"A key factor in managing the drought crisis was to reduce water consumption immediately, as it was not possible to bring substantial alternative supplies online quickly enough for the city to meet the needs.
"We also realised that rainfall variation has changed drastically and that we have to diversify our supplies and cannot rely only on surface water supplies such as dams," said mayoral committee member for water Xanthea Limberg.
Other lessons included employing behavioural interventions such as the green dot map for water consumption, strategic stakeholder engagements, alien vegetation clearing around catchment areas and communication and awareness campaigns.
"The messaging was to bring home the reality to the public that, if we do not reduce consumption, we will run out of water. The intention was not to drive panic, but to drive responsible behaviour and communicate frankly and pro-actively with a concerned public at all times," Limberg said.
Professor Mark New from the African Climate and Development Initiative at UCT said that the initiative was an exemplar of a trans-disciplinary approach that saw researchers working with societal actors to understand and find solutions to complex problems.
"The aim is to create situations where we can have challenging conversations out of which important insights can emerge. The film library alone will be an invaluable historical archive and a resource for a whole range of analysis for many years to come," he said.
Cities worldwide were at the front line of great challenges and water - either too little, too much or of poor quality - was central, said Dana Omran, managing director for Africa at 100 Resilient Cities.
"Cape Town avoided a major crisis last year, though our new climate reality dictates that similarly extreme droughts may be expected in the years ahead. By learning from the experience, we can put systems in place so that Cape Town and cities worldwide can build a water resilient future," Omran said.
The city has been approached for information by a number of countries, including Columbia, Argentina and Guatemala.
The city has also received invitations from the EU, Stockholm Water Institute and the World Bank and others to help raise awareness.
Limberg said more work had to be done to build the city's water resilience.
"As we recover from the drought we have to progressively rebuild our water supply capacity. From the lessons learnt, Cape Town is thus moving into a new water supply strategy to introduce a mix of alternative supplies, primarily from groundwater, desalination and water reuse," she said.
Phase Two of the initiative will include sharing the material in the film library with different sectors in order to build resilience more broadly and a feature-length documentary titled Day Zero will constitute phase three.