The Desired Future of Urban Water Management in Cape Town

By Julia Davies

“We can and must avoid day zero,” declared Dr Kevin Winter of the Future Water Institute at the University of Cape Town on Monday. He was giving a talk entitled ‘Cape Town’s Water Future Before Day Zero. The open lecture, which drew a theatre full of academics, students, expert practitioners, members of civil society and generally anxious-yet-interested people; couldn’t have come at a better time. Capetonians are currently abuzz with talk of the water crisis, with much of the sentiment erring on the edge of hysteria. Local and international headlines are driving the sense of panic and dread, and social media sensationalists have hardly helped to mollify our fears of a Hunger Games-like scenario (‘may the odds be ever in your favour... #DayZero’). Whilst Cape Town’s drought crisis (and the various social and economic knock-on consequences thereof) is real and requires real commitment to finding (and implementing!) real solutions, Dr Winter’s talk served to bring us all back down to Earth. He reminded us to ‘keep calm and save water while we have it’ - because we do still have it, albeit in far smaller quantities than we did pre-2014 / 2015.

To avoid regurgitating Dr Winter’s lecture, and given that I am not an expert on water myself, I thought I’d take this opportunity to give a slightly alternative angle on the crisis - at least in terms of how we might approach it, individually and communally. To do so, I draw on my learnings from the second of two Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP)[i] workshops held in the Bobirwa Sub-District of Botswana in January 2018. The TSP methodology, which I have written about before, is something that ASSAR uses to engage stakeholders around pertinent, complex and challenging issues, the aim being to facilitate systemic change through the application of transformative methods.

Transformation, whilst a conceptually complex concept, is essentially a type or degree of change that goes beyond incremental adaptation. The latter merely involves adjustments to a prevailing norm. For example, if the taps are turned off and we can no longer flush the toilets, some will adapt by investing in composting toilets. Others might use migration as an adaptation strategy, for example by moving businesses to less water-stressed cities. Transformation refers to something greater than this – it is a significant directional shift or a fundamental alteration of state (Few et al., 2017)[ii]. Transformation requires us to consider what we can do to help shape what the future will look like, and to ask what we can - and must - do to change a future that we cannot accept.

Transformation requires courage, collaboration and communication. What also helps, at least when it comes to envisioning the future that we desire, is a little bit of creativity. Thus, as part of the TSP process, stakeholders are asked to imagine what the future might look like out to the 2030s, and to illustrate what their desired future would be in relation to the pertinent issues identified. In Botswana, these issues were the (non-) optimal utilisation of land, and human-wildlife conflict. In Cape Town, the major issue at present is clearly water – its availability, its management, the (socially differentiated) impact of its scarcity, etc. I therefore tried to imagine what the ideal future would look like in the city, in relation to this. What I came up with in my picture (which can be found in the ASSAR version of this blog) included things such as:

  •  Integrating supply-side management (e.g.: desalination, groundwater abstraction and rainwater harvesting) with demand-side management (e.g.: water restrictions, phased tariffs and education and awareness-raising)
  • Focusing on both drought management and drought risk management (i.e.: adopting a more proactive rather than crisis-driven approach)
  •  Adhering to the principles of collaboration, participation and cross-scalar governance
  • Supporting innovation and ‘learning by doing’ through strategic adaptive management
  • Mainstreaming Water Sensitive Urban Design and Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems into policy and practice
  • Integrating research with policy and practice
  • Identifying a future-focused, sustainable vision for water governance across scales

According to Dr Winter, achieving a more water-sensitive future for Cape Town lies in our ability to transform the way in which we think about water, and thereby the manner in which we handle it. Namely, we should be seeing water as fundamental to the life of the city, as a catalyst for creating a more compact, liveable and connected city. In turn, the city itself should be seen as an urban catchment, in which supply is reconciled with demand and in which future developments proceed as if water really mattered. If you want to know more about this vision then take some time to learn about the principles of Water Sensitive Urban Design, or just read up on cities such as Singapore or Melbourne, which have accomplished remarkable things.

In considering the future that we desire and what actions (whether incremental or transformative) we need to take to achieve it, one is obligated to think about change. Change, as a process, is usually uncomfortable. This is because we get used to certain ways of doing things, and so when we are asked to do things differently we often find it difficult. Change therefore requires us to move out of our zones of comfort and contentment, a journey that will likely take us through a phase of defiance and into one of confusion, before reaching a place of renewal and growth. In relation to Cape Town’s story of water scarcity, Dr Winter deconstructed the process of change into the stages of denial, procrastination, blame, implementation and reluctant acceptance of our new reality, with ongoing adaptations along the way.

In practice, I find it more useful to think about change as a ‘place’ rather than a process. What I mean by this is that, when determining what we can and must do to initiate change, it becomes important to consider the different ‘sites’ at which change can occur, which I argue is in the following places:

  • Ourselves: we have the sovereign power to change our behaviour, our values and belief systems;
  • Others: we may be able to initiate change in the behaviour of the people who we have direct control over (e.g.: our children or employees); and
  • Our relationships: we cannot control or force change within our broader relationships, communities etc., but we can influence change at these ‘sites’. The sphere of our influence in this regard may be narrow or wide.

If we consider change in this way, then we are more likely to be able to let go of those things which are outside of our power, and focus on that which we can control or influence. In times of crisis especially, this could be a far more effective strategy than panicking about matters that are out of our hands - such as when the next rains will come or whose fault the water crisis is. So, as we hurtle towards the impending ‘Day Zero’ (which, by the way, may not even arrive)[iii], let’s all take one step back and two deep breaths. Then, from this perspective, let us consider the following:

  • What does success look like?
  •  What are the steps that can and must be taken to achieve the future that we desire?
  • What is within our immediate or broader sphere of influence?
  •  What tools do we need to employ along the way?

In so doing, we are likely to find a lengthy list of possibilities. Whilst many of these may be incremental in nature (such as flushing less, showering using less, sharing information and empathising with those more vulnerable than ourselves), it is only through taking these initial steps that we can begin shifting toward more transformational change – that which puts us on the path toward our desired future for urban water management in Cape Town. 

[i] TSP is a methodology developed by REOS Partners that applies transformative methods to facilitate systemic change in complex, often conflict-ridden systems. For more information see

[ii] Few, R., Morchain, D., Spear, D., Mensah, A., & Bendapudi, R. (2017). Transformation, adaptation and development: relating concepts to practice. Palgrave Communications, 3, 17092. 

[iii] Dr Winter is “more than cautiously optimistic” that we will avoid day zero. 


Julia works full-time on the ASSAR project as a Senior Research Assistant.