Learning from Cape Town’s water crisis

As part of London Climate Action Week, the Resilience Shift hosted a film screening of interviews with a number of Cape Town’s leaders from government, private sector, academia and civil society reflecting on how their city narrowly avoided running out of water. This provided the basis for a panel discussion on the lessons that London and other cities can draw from Cape Town’s water crisis.

With over 130 events, the first-ever London Climate Action Week brought together climate experts to discuss local, national, and international action in response to the climate emergency declared by the Mayor of London.

The Resilience Shift was proud to participate in the week’s events, with the ‘Cape Town: Day Zero – Sharing perspectives of a city’s water crisis’ event, focusing on key learnings from Cape Town’s water crisis of 2017-18. These can inform actions to enhance water resilience in cities around the world.

In the lead up to April 12, 2018 – ‘Day Zero’ when the city was projected to run out of water – all of Cape Town’s residents learned many hard lessons about managing and conserving their water, changing usage behaviour, communication and working in partnership to respond to a crisis.

Those involved in the city-wide response to ‘Day Zero’ were asked to share their stories as part of an innovative film project, the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative (CTDRLI), led by Peter Willis of Conversations that Count, and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and Victor van Aswegen, Director, CineSouth Studios.

The Resilience Shift brought Peter Willis together with three panellists to reflect on the preparedness of London and cities in southeast England to cope with a water crisis. In her role as the City Resilience Officer for London, Dr. Fiona Twycross provided the perspective of local government while Trevor Bishop, Director, Water Resources South East (WRSE), provided the water utilities’ point of view. From his work leading the City Water Resilience Approach, Martin Shouler reflected on the global value of these filmed interviews.

Jo da Silva, Acting Director Resilience Shift, introduced the evening, whose aim was to share the powerful lessons from Cape Town, and to trigger reflection and conversation about the content of the film and its relevance for others.

Audience discussion was encouraged by the Chair, Peter, in between each sequence of selected interview film clips. With many in the room representing city government, water utility companies and urban resilience practitioners, the clips promoted lively exchanges with many saying how much they identified with those in the films and the challenges they faced.

The expert panel shared their reflections, from the perspective of London and the South East.  The discussion confirmed our belief that there was real value in sharing this material to transfer lessons to other cities.

Some highlights of the rich discussion included:

  • Our short collective memories as a society: how to sustain action on water resilience when the threat of a crisis has passed. The panellists also spoke about the difficulty of prioritising drought and water shortages in London amid perceptions that it is a rainy city.
  • The challenges of communication about water, with the examples of technocratic language such as a ‘1-in-500 year event’ and ‘return period’, which are difficult concepts to grasp, and the idea of ‘redundancy’ which has a lot of negative connotations. One audience member offered ‘capacity’ as a more positive alternative. “The words and language we use in communicating messages are very important. ‘Building more capacity’ rather than ‘redundancy in the system’ is a more positive spin”.
  • Conveying the scope and scale of the city water basin to residents. After ‘Day Zero’, Capetonians have a better sense of the six dams from where their water is sourced. Will it take a crisis of the same scale for Londoners to be better aware of their water system?
  • Governance and managing resilience. “We need to expand our thinking from ‘just enough, just in time’ to include ‘just in case’” was a comment from Dr. Fiona Twycross, referring to the tension between planning for efficiency and planning for resilience.
  • “We don’t know what good looks like in the future”, said Trevor Bishop. “We are yet to understand technically, economically and psychologically how to manage deep uncertainty. We are still using 19th century solutions to 21st and 22nd century challenges”.
  • Peer to peer learning. Martin Shouler reinforced the role that initiatives like the film library to capture and share knowledge can play. “Initiatives like these will go global so that other cities can apply the learning”.
  • The importance of collaboration was also strongly emphasised throughout the film clips and the discussions. “A collective multidisciplinary action is needed if we are to pull through any crisis”, said Juliet Mian, Technical Director of the Resilience Shift, who closed the event.

This project follows our partnership with Cape Town, among others, in developing the City Water Resilience Approach. Cape Town is the first city to apply this methodology and city stakeholders have worked closely with the team to develop and pilot elements of the Approach.

The Resilience Shift is collaborating with the CTDRLI to create content from their bank of filmed interviews to produce learning materials that can be used by cities around the world to stimulate reflection on their preparedness and response measures in case of a similar severe water crisis. This will enable this treasure trove of film footage to be further shared in different geographies and sectors.

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