South Africa: Visionary Leadership Needed to Handle the Emerging Long-Term Water Crisis


The panic that emerged after Day Zero was announced was instrumental in getting Capetonians to cut water consumption substantially – but a water-saving programme driven by fear is not sustainable.

This is the view of Gina Ziervogel, an associate professor at UCT’s Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, one of the presenters at the Adaptation Futures 2018 conference in the city last week.

Interviewed on the conference side-lines, Ziervogel, who spoke on the extent to which leadership had been shown during Cape Town’s water crisis, said while the Day Zero panic in January and February had helped cut water consumption drastically as citizens rallied to help avoid the taps being switched off, it had not helped get the public to trust the City council.

In looking at the leadership shown during the water crisis, Ziervogel conceded that it had been a difficult situation for the authorities to handle.

“So many things needed to be juggled. The City was working 150% of the time, putting in a huge amount of effort. It was crisis management. A lot of plans were put in place to deal with it, but communications were poor. The ability of the leadership to bring people into to the problem early on was not good. And it is hard to win back that trust,” Ziervogel said.

Water shortages disaster plan

The time to bring Capetonians on board about the emerging water crisis had been during 2017. This had not been done.

After two years of drought, in 2015 and 2016, the City established a water resilience task team in May 2017. When that winter’s rainfall was below average, Cape Town emerged from three years of drought, going into the dry summer season with low water reserves.

In October 2017, the City launched a critical water shortages disaster plan, and in November the possibility of a Day Zero was introduced. But it was only in January that Day Zero was announced, with a date pinpointed for when the taps were likely to run dry.

Then panic set in.

“In January, it was a case of ‘Oh my gosh, it’s real! We’d better reduce!’ The tricky thing with Day Zero is that people did respond, and the panic helped reduce water consumption, but it didn’t get people on board to trust the City.

“And if a water-saving programme is fear driven, it is not sustainable,” Ziervogel said.

What was needed to manage the water crisis was the kind of leadership that was visionary. There was also the need to develop partnerships between the City and other interest groups, with the space to create a long-term vision.

“The leadership was focused on a short-term response to the crisis, rather than on transforming the system.”

The risk of a long-term water crisis was emerging which required a systemic response from the leadership.

“It requires a new literacy of risk and a new leadership capacity to navigate the complexity,” Ziervogel said.


Asked to comment, Cape Town’s executive Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson agreed that panic was not the best motivation and that changing behaviour required a more comprehensive and informative public engagement.

The announcement of a Day Zero had not intended to cause panic, but to be open and honest with the public on what the data was indicating at the time.

Since then the City had driven an intensive communication campaign to bring home the reality to the public in order to drive responsible behaviour.

“We have significantly increased information on the state and management of our water supply system to the public so that they could derive their own understanding,” Neilson said.

A key issue in managing the drought crisis was that the only real short-term mechanism available was a reduction in water usage, as it was not possible to bring on other supplies quickly enough to meet Cape Town’s needs during the drought last summer.

Neilson said what the drought crisis had shown was that rainfall variation had changed drastically, and the city could no longer rely only on rainfall for its water supplies.

“Cape Town is thus moving to a new water supply strategy, a mix of supplies, principally from groundwater, desalination and water reuse,” Neilson said.




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