Day Zero: Lessons for cities in Global South



Gina Ziervogel and Leonie Joubert, authors of Day Zero: One City’s Response to a Record-Breaking Drought, argue that for an unequal and growing city such as Cape Town to survive a climate shock needs more than just a good technical approach to managing water, it also needs clear communication, inter-departmental co-operative governance, evidence-based research and involved citizens

The drought that hit Cape Town last year was the worst in more than a century of record-keeping. No one saw it coming, not even the seasoned weather-watchers and climate scientists. As the crisis worsened, fault lines began to emerge in what is often described as one of the most unequal cities in the world.

How does a city deliver water — something that’s a basic human right — where there’s potentially less of it to share as its population and economy grow, where it costs money to deliver that water into everyone’s homes, and yet where not everyone has the means to pay for that service?

Cape Town caught the attention of the international media as the threat of Day Zero drew closer in 2018, the day when emergency rationing measures would kick in and the city said it would cut off water to suburban homes and businesses outside of the central business area. Everyone would have to queue for a daily ration of 25 litres of water per person per day, from 200 distribution points around the city. Middle-class people would have to collect water in containers the way many in informal settlements have to every day, regardless of drought conditions.

In many ways, this drought, in this city, was the local expression of what happens when a climate shock like this hits a city that already has the everyday development challenges of service delivery backlogs, high unemployment, contentious political rivalries, and generations of systemic inequality. It showed how politically and economically unstable a city can become, very quickly, if a “natural” disaster of this scale hits.

But it also shows how quickly a city and its citizens can respond. Cape Town became a living laboratory for testing how to navigate a crisis like this, and other cities can draw from these lessons.

From the perspective of Capetonians, the lesson from this drought is that we’re all part of the collective project of managing and using this resource in a way that’s fair and for the common good. As citizens, we need to adjust our attitude towards water, and use it wisely and sparingly so that there’s enough to go around. This means understanding that, for some, keeping a private swimming pool topped up with water might come at the cost of another person’s access to basic water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, if the common, shared resource runs out. At the same time, because of the city’s cross-subsidising water tariff structure, the water bill for that swimming pool might help generate the city’s revenue that helps pay to get running water into the kitchens and bathrooms of the estimated 180 000 households in informal settlements who still collect water from standpipes every day. When dams are full, this approach to managing a city’s water system makes sense; when dams are empty, it doesn’t.

Cape Town’s population is growing along with its economy and, even without extreme drought, rising temperatures, heatwaves and less predictable rain, demand is expected to outstrip supply soon. Added to that, rising global temperatures will alter this region’s climate, making these kinds of extreme droughts more likely to occur.

There is also message of hope, though. One analysis by the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative shows that the city has managed to stabilise the growth in water demand at 2% a year, because of its demand management practices. And, as the post-drought analysis shows, when a city government and its residents mobilise around a climate shock such as this, they can make steps towards being more water- and climate-resilient in the longer term.

The Day Zero story shows how complex it is to deliver water across a wide geographical scale, in a region that is naturally water-scarce and will probably become more so as climate change heats the place up and makes rainfall less predictable and droughts more common.

Being part of this collective project of creating resilient cities means being an involved citizen, holding our elected officials accountable as employees of the public in terms of how they manage the water system today, and build a more resilient water system for the future. Citizens needs to appreciate the technical, legal and institutional challenges of delivering water across such high levels of inequality, where many government departments have different constitutional responsibilities and have to work within rigid legal parameters. In many cases, these responsibilities may fall on the shoulders of departments that are under-staffed, under-skilled and sometimes stretched to breaking point during a crisis.

Meeting the existing development challenges of the city, in a context where water will be more scarce in future, means understanding this, not just in terms of its day-to-day water delivery, but how it is planning for decades, not just the next five-year electoral cycle.

The city-wide response to the drought, captured in Day Zero, fleshes out the most important lessons that any city can draw from Cape Town’s experience. It looks at the need for stronger governance between city departments and with national government, the need for better data, knowledge and communication, the need to understand how the wider water system works, and the need to skill people up to be adaptive and competent. These lessons can help prime the residents of a city to understand their own role in this complex and challenging city-scale water system.

When the winter rains finally arrived in 2018, Day Zero was called off, at least until the end of 2019. This meant that it looked as though the dams were recovering well enough to guarantee enough water to keep the city going for the next 18 months. By the end of winter, dam levels were back to 75%.

But that doesn’t mean that the threat of such extreme rationing measures won’t be needed in the future, whether it’s called Day Zero or not. Hopefully next time — because there will probably be a next time — the city and the people living in it will be better prepared.

This is an edited excerpt from Day Zero: One City’s Response to a Record-Breaking Drought by the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative, where Gina Ziervogel is research chair. Leonie Joubert is a science writer. The book is available at

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Gina Ziervogel
Guest Author
Leonie Joubert
Leonie Joubert works from Cape Town. Science writer: political-economy of climate change, the hunger-obesity poverty-paradox in cities, mental health Leonie Joubert has over 1355 followers on Twitter.

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