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Day Zero: Can Cape Town prevent the taps from running dry?

For the last few months, Capetonians have been talking about Day Zero, the day when a million homes in the city will no longer have any running water. Manfred Braune of the Green Building Council of South Africa outlines the factors that have led to this severe water shortage and the solution to prevent the taps from running dry.

Cape Town is currently experiencing the toughest drought in its history, and the city’s residents are having to pull together like never before to save water. Although Day Zero has not yet struck, Capetonians are already feeling the effects: thousands of jobs are being lost in agriculture and other industries reliant on water. As an employee of the GBCSA, I have the privilege to be part of a movement whose purpose is to inspire a built environment in which people and planet thrive together. Through our work, we’ve seen incredible transformations in the building sector that have seen a reduced impact on the environment, and are saving millions of litres of potable water every year, such as buildings like the Estuaries Plaza which is a net zero water building. So how then has the Western Cape and the city of Cape Town got itself into this position? And what do we as South Africans need to do to fix this urgent problem and move towards a thriving planet?

Firstly, let’s consider the contributing factors to this water drought:

  1. Consecutive years of low rainfall: South Africa has experienced five consecutive years of below average rainfall. This means dam levels are not able to recover after the rainfall season, thus considerably reducing the remaining water available for the city to distribute to its residents.
  2. Population Growth: Cape Town’s population increased by 53% between 1995 and 2015. When population grows, consumption grows too, and this must be planned for when considering water storage capacity.
  3. Culture of over consumption and wastefulness: Despite the City’s strong environmental consciousness, Capetonians waste millions of litres of clean, potable water each year. Whether it is for swimming pools we use for just three months a year, or when our sprinklers water the roadway, or when we let millions of pipes leak into the ground. But it’s not just clean water; all water is usable and reusable for some purpose. Our attitude and behaviour towards water needs to change, forever.
  4. Low price of water: In countries where water is priced more highly, consumption levels are lower and it is a more highly valued and preserved resource; South Africa must emulate this. Also, municipalities must be allowed to appropriately fund maintenance and future investment into water infrastructure.

Now if you combine these factors, we arrive at the crisis that Cape Town finds itself in. While rainfall is not in our control, it is the other three factors that we must act on immediately, partly to address the short term crisis, but also to change the long term trajectory of water availability in South Africa – and in the building and construction sector, in particular.

Take action now!

All Capetonians, whether at home or in their places of work or learning, need to take action. Firstly, as an emergency response to prepare for – or ideally avoid – Day Zero, and secondly, to make plans for a long term shift in how we use water.

The City of Cape Town advises each resident to limit their own water consumption to 50 litres per person per day. Having successfully reduced my own family’s household consumption to below this recommendation, we’ve found it’s not been too difficult, and it doesn’t make life uncomfortable. What is difficult, however, is changing wider consumer behaviour, especially in a short space of time. So far, only about 50-60% of Cape Town residents are responding and changing their behavior adequately. If the remaining 40% cut their consumption to required levels, we can avoid “Day Zero”, but if not, it’s certainly likely to happen. The City, as well as other organisations, such as WWF have provided many resources to make it easier to save water at home.

50 litres per person per day must be our total water consumption for the day, including at the work place or school etc. In other words, the target for home should be less than what is consumed elsewhere during the day. We must monitor what we are consuming away from home, and add it to our total daily consumption to measure ourselves against the City’s target of 50 litres per person per day. What we also don’t acknowledge enough, is that millions of South Africans, because of the apartheid, have had to and still do live without clean running water in a home. We can learn a lot from communities that have lived in such dire conditions for many years, and take this opportunity to also consider how we can change our situation permanently while we come up with water solutions for the city.

Lastly, we want to strongly encourage Cape Town residents to make transitions that permanently change their approach to how to use and re-use water. Clean potable water is a scarce resource that will only become even scarcer, and as such, we need to make a permanent shift to sustainable water usage.


Manfred Braune is Executive Director and Chief Technical Officer at the Green Building Council of South Africa. To find out more about the City of Cape Town’s recommendations for preventing Day Zero, click here. To find out more about the Green Building Council of South Africa, click here.