What Cape Town’s Drought Can Teach Other Cities About Climate Adaptation

Extreme weather events, such as Cyclone Idai that has recently devastated Beira, Mozambique, and Hurricane Harvey that hit Houston, USA, in 2017 are the types of climate extremes that cities increasingly have to prepare for.

Cities, particularly those with extensive informal settlements in the developing world, are being hit hard by these new climatic realities. Although rapid onset disasters often have devastating effects, slow onset climate events, such as drought, can also be detrimental.

Cities need to build their capacity to adapt to this range of impacts. One of the best ways to do this is to learn from other cities’ experiences. Drawing lessons from other places that have gone through climate crises is a good way to guard against future shocks and stresses.

One very recent case that cities around the world are watching is Cape Town’s severe drought and the threat of “Day Zero” – when the city’s taps were due to run dry. Although the city came close to having to turn off the taps, they managed to avoid it. After better rains in 2018 and significant reduction in water use across the city, the dams are now reassuringly fuller than they were in 2017 and 2018, although caution is still needed ahead of the winter rains.

A lot has changed and it’s important to reflect on and share.

Research has been conducted to establish some key lessons to be drawn from the Cape Town drought. Local governments must focus on several important areas if they’re to strengthen urban water resilience and adapt better to climate risk. These include improving data collection and communication, engaging with experts and enabling flexible adaptive decision making.

Governance must be strengthened. Although three years of low rainfall lead to very low dam levels, there were breakdowns in the interaction between national, provincial and municipal government that exacerbated the problem.

The findings

The research suggests that effective water management requires systems of mutual accountability between spheres of municipal, provincial and national government.

In South Africa, the national Department of Water and Sanitation is responsible for ensuring that there’s sufficient bulk water available, often in dams, that can be transferred to municipalities. The municipalities are then mandated to provide clean drinking water. This means that intergovernmental coordination across the spheres of government is vital.

As it stands, different spheres’ mandates overlap. This creates confusion and means the buck is often passed: one sphere of government will insist a particular competency isn’t its job, and hand the work on to another sphere.

For this to be resolved there has to be clarity on shared responsibilities and roles, as well as the development of mutual accountability. To achieve this, technical skills, personal and institutional relations need to be strengthened. This requires strong leadership.

Collaboration within municipal departments also needs to improve. The Cape Town drought highlighted the importance of this. Before 2017, there was limited collaboration between city departments on water issues. During the drought however, collaboration between certain departments increased considerably as the complexity of the crisis became clear.

Not only is collaboration within government important, it needs to extend beyond government. During a crisis, all of society needs to be engaged, including citizens and the business sector. Technical expertise need to be balanced with opportunities for a broader group to share its perspectives and concerns. Partnerships can help gather the range of perspectives and support needed to respond to complex problems.

Municipalities which, during the course of their normal business activities, have developed strong relationships with their stakeholders, will be better placed to respond effectively to a crisis. That’s because they will be able to harness stakeholders’ collective knowledge and contributions more easily.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the Business Chamber has done this by strengthening relations with the municipality to help to facilitate the ease of doing business in the city. They recognize that all businesses require electricity, water, transport and logistics, for example, and so focus on improving these areas. The municipality developed task teams made up of volunteers from their member companies who have skills set in those areas.

Importantly, there is an agreement that the Metro places high level executives to sit in the task team meetings to ensure plans are put into practice. These types of relationships can be invaluable during a crisis.

Moving forward

While my study focused on Cape Town, its findings can be applied to other cities that want to strengthen their ability to adapt to climate change. Yes, cities need to pay more attention to how climate variability impacts on their resources, particularly water. But just as important is strengthening the governance of the water system. A well adapted city is one that understands who is responsible for what and has strong trust and partnerships between and within government.

In order to build capacity to adapt, new types of skills are needed. Local government needs to pay more attention to how to build partnerships, enable flexibility and support learning. These are the types of skills needed for a well adapted city, but still often lacking in local governments.


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Sources: [1], [2]. Image sources: Jason Blackeye [1], [2].

Cape Town Hotel Gets Off the Water Grid with New Desalination Plant

A five-star hotel in Cape Town has built its own desalination plant to enable it to get off the city’s water grid.

The Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront in Granger Bay can produce 7,000 litres of fresh water an hour using sea water pumped from a 100m borehole.

The hotel is the latest large business in Cape Town to install a reverse-osmosis desalination plant so that it is no longer reliant on mains water.

Engineers sank a borehole under the hotel, which is close to the Atlantic Ocean, allowing for up to 11,500l of seawater an hour to be pumped into tanks.

The reverse-osmosis plant treats 7,000l an hour, which is pumped into a 70,000l fresh- water tank.

The desalination system at the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront, in Cape Town.

“Using a desalination plant allows us to operate completely off the municipal water supply,” said hotel general manager Clinton Thom.

A year ago, Cape Town was only weeks away from “Day Zero” – when taps would have been turned off – after three winters of low rainfall. The city council constructed three temporary desalination plants – in Strandfontein, Monwabisi and the V&A Waterfront.

Dams are now around half full. Four months ago, water restrictions were relaxed from level 5 to level 3.

Enver Duminy, CEO of Cape Town Tourism, said: “Only 1% of people in the Western Cape at any one time are comprised of overseas tourists and visitors, but it’s essential that the tourism industry leads the way in sustainable practices.”


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Sources: [1], [2]. Image sources: [1], [2].

Another Desalination Plant on the Cards for Cape Town

Cape Town Harbour may soon get a desalination plant as further studies into the viability of this option have been approved by Transnet SOC Ltd.

The plant will assist in converting ocean water into drinking water through seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO), and if studies find this option to be viable it could become a reality by as soon as 2020.

Transnet National Ports Authority’s (TNPA) Cape Town acting port manager, Alex Miya, told IOL that the next step would be to appoint consultants to perform studies that could be concluded by September.

In the meantime, the port will align with the City’s initiatives to supply extra water.

“The port is confident the municipality will ensure a water-resilient region through a mix of water sources. We have considered a few options to ensure economic sustainability. One is an SWRO plant for port use. This is being explored in conjunction with various regulatory authorities and has received support from Transnet to proceed with further studies,” Miya said.

If the plant is approved, it will be located at the Quay 700 port area and would be expected to provide an average of 1-million to 3-million litres of water a day.

The port has also been providing assistance with regards to the potential site availability for a permanent plant.

As dam levels have dropped below the 50% mark again this week, there can be no doubt that it is a worthwhile initiative to look further into so the city can provide more water for its residents and fight back against the looming threats of drought.


For information as to how Relocation Africa can help you with your Mobility, Immigration, Research, Remuneration, and Expat Tax needs, email, or call us on +27 21 763 4240.

Sources: [1], [2]. Image sources: Cape Grace [1], [2].