In 2017, Cape Town, South Africa, was on a countdown to disaster. An unprecedented and wholly unforeseen third consecutive year of drought threatened to cut off water to the city’s four million citizens. Faced with the prospect of running dangerously low on potable water, local officials raced against time to avert “Day Zero”—the date on which they would have to shut off drinking water to most businesses and homes in the city. Cape Town’s government responded effectively to the fast-worsening and potentially cataclysmic situation. Key to the effort was a broad, multipronged information campaign that overcame skepticism and enlisted the support of a socially and economically diverse citizenry as well as private companies. Combined with other measures such as improving data management and upgrading technology, the strategy averted disaster. By the time the drought eased in 2018, Capetonians had cut their water usage by nearly 60% from 2015 levels. With each resident using little more than 50 liters per day, Cape Town achieved one of the lowest per capita water consumption rates of any major city in the world. The success set a benchmark for cities around the world that confront the uncertainties of a shifting global climate.
Leon Schreiber drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2018. Case published February 2019.