Ten New Ideas for a Water Resilient Cape Town

Cape Town’s ongoing drought, the worst in over a hundred years, has shocked the city’s systems and populace into action. A combination of strict water restrictions, advanced pressure management, compelling communications, and other water demand management mechanisms served to deter a major crisis in the short-term. The result is that dam levels – which have increased from a starting point of 20% in April up to 76% in mid-October, according to the City of Cape Town’s latest Dam Levels Report – are inching back toward pre-drought capacity for this time of year.

Last month 100 Resilient Cities convened a group of experts to support the City of Cape Town’s planning for long-term water resilience and connect it to the wider urban resilience work. Officials from the City administration, local experts and stakeholders, international experts from the 100RC Platform of Partners, and resilience officers from other cities were present. The CoLab on Building a Water Resilient City explored the root causes of Cape Town’s water insecurity and its impact on social cohesion and economic growth, while creating space to use participants’ experience and knowledge to develop innovative, multi-disciplinary solutions.

The CoLab is a new tool from 100RC which convenes multiple stakeholders and partners in the pursuit of solving complex urban challenges. Read how previous CoLabs have informed decision-making and helped cities work toward implementing concrete resilience projects.

Ten main proposals emerged from the CoLab’s design sprint, well-received by a panel of the City’s leadership, including Councillor Xanthea Limberg, Mayoral Committee Member for Informal Settlements, Water and Waste Services; Michael Webster, Director: Water and Sanitation; and Hugh Cole, Director: Organizational Policy and Planning of the City of Cape Town.

  • Taking the CoLab to the Neighbourhood Level: A fleet of mobile co-design labs would engage communities in customer-aided designs for critical infrastructure, building resilience at the community and household level. With the community involved from the beginning stages, this proposal is particularly suited to generate co-participation in the city’s informal settlements.
  • Community Generated Data: Re-evaluating what we see as legitimate, reliable data, this engagement platform would make use of the wide range of data collected by communities in informal settlements – incorporating it into one cohesive package with comprehensive City of Cape Town data, and informing decision-making at the city level.
  • Liveable Urban Waterways: Using principles of transit-oriented development (TOD), this proposal would revitalize Cape Town’s waterways and integrate them into urban planning and city design. As such, these green-blue corridors can be transformed into an active, safe, and liveable catchment system with benefits for the city’s environment, public spaces, and beyond.

  • Catastrophe Bonds: As a financial mechanism which is triggered by and pays out for a range of pre-identified risks, a “cat bond” would protect the city against catastrophic shock by providing resources to mount a response. Cape Town could pursue the use of cat bonds as a shield so that the city does not have to deprioritize from certain investments in times of crisis.
  • Utilizing Groundwater Boreholes in the Public Interest: Residents and businesses use private boreholes to compensate for insufficient public supply during times of severe restrictions – yet uncontrolled and unregulated abstraction of groundwater is a possible risk to Cape Town’s resilience. The development of a comprehensive, regulatory approach would improve the city’s ability to ensure a water supply that is consistent, sustainably-managed, and remains a public resource.
  • Business Water Collaborative: In order to minimize future water shocks and improve the competitiveness of Cape Town’s water-reliant industries, this proposal outlines a diversified water portfolio for certain economic nodes – managed by the City and leaning heavily on alternative water sources.

  • Water Consumption Segmentation: Drawing on experience from other cities around the world and the input of local stakeholders, the City of Cape Town will build up its capacity in providing diversified water supply services – and channelling the different types of water resources to meet the specific demands of Capetonians and the city’s economic sectors.
  • Collaborative Resilience Action Plan: Using a whole-of-society approach, a multi-stakeholder platform would be convened to coordinate different efforts and improve governance and decision-making during crises. This would build upon the Section 80 Water Resilience Advisory Committee established by the City during the drought crisis and serve as an enabler during the implementation of the City’s new water strategy.

  • Communications for a Water Resilient City: Clear communication is critical to building water resilience in Cape Town. An effective communications strategy, that places an emphasis on the value of water in all its manifestations, including economic, spiritual, and cultural, will be especially necessary during the period that the city exits the drought while also preparing for future, more severe climatic shock events.
  • Western Cape Water Supply Partnership: Seeking to enhance the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS), this initiative would enhance the system’s capacity to respond to and cope with future shocks and stresses. Recognizing the complexities behind WCWSS, the solution requires a robust, bottom-up process steering toward integrated water management.

Moving forward, eight of these proposed solutions have been prioritised for further action and inclusion in Cape Town’s forthcoming strategies for resilience and water, complementing existing efforts being undertaken by the city. The CoLab has additionally been recognised within Cape Town as an effective tool for galvanizing local resilience champions and we are looking to implement scaled-down replicas with stakeholders across the city. The first of these modified workshops was held in early October with a group of 30 City councillors who are developing the new water strategy.

The CoLab overall proved to be an excellent means for amplifying the City’s current efforts to build water resilience. There is already much work in Cape Town to augment water supply and build new redundancies in the water system. With its effective methodology, the CoLab presented an occasion to pause and reflect on what other opportunities the City might also pursue. We look forward to moving the outcomes forward by further developing the proposed solutions and identifying a coalition of implementing partners.