As cities move to secure their water supplies in the backdrop of extreme drought, two cities in two continents provide blueprints for solutions.
Drought is becoming an ever-growing stress to cities. More people are moving to cities at the same time as rainfall is becoming more variable and droughts growing in intensity and frequency. Although dams and reservoirs are critical, soft infrastructure is just as important. Cape Town in South Africa and Santa Cruz in the USA are two cities who stared drought in the face and turned to external help to solve their problems.
In 2018, the South African city of Cape Town was gripped with fear of ‘Day Zero’ — the day in which the taps were potentially going to be turned off, following three years of anaemic rainfall. At the height of the Day Zero restrictions, residents were limited to 50 litres of water use per day — about the equivalent of a five minute shower.
In their bid to avert a water disaster, the City of Cape Town convened the Water Resilience Advisory Committee (WRAC) in 2017, bringing in external experts to help address the crisis.
Co-opted committee members were water experts or major stakeholders, who showed “genuine generosity of spirit,” according to one of the Department of Water and Sanitation City officials, in providing expertise and perspective.
The WRAC pressured officials to share more information with the public. City officials created a dashboard, which transparently shared updates on dam levels and mapped areas of high water use.
One of the clearest long-term benefits emerging from the WRAC was improved lines of communication between officials and external stakeholders. While the decision-making arrangement didn’t go as far as a collaborative mode of governance, the WRAC process brought in more expertise to drought management and adaptation. Drought governance improved, both during the crisis and after, helping Cape Town develop a more resilient urban water system.
Cape Town’s WRAC offers a blueprint for cities looking to open their water governance up to the wider water community. And they are not the only city pursuing this model.
Santa Cruz, a city just south of San Francisco, USA, understands Cape Town’s water struggles. It has similar climate conditions to Cape Town, with winter rainfall and reservoirs (known as dams in South Africa) being the main source of water for the city. Its water supply has also been under extreme threat due to drought.
The Santa Cruz Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC), convened by the City of Santa Cruz in 2014, is a form of governance that goes further than Cape Town, handing over planning for the city’s water supply to a group of citizens.
The city nominated 14 people, largely from outside government. They were mostly interested representatives from organisations with a stake in environmental and business issues, and concerned citizens. This committee was supported by the Santa Cruz Water Department; the head of the Water Department, Rosemary Menard, was an ex-officio non-voting member. At the end of their 18-month tenure, there was unanimous agreement over their recommendations.
Essentially, they decided to prioritise using ‘excess’ water from north coast streams and the San Lorenzo river to recharge bore water reserves or send it across to adjacent water districts who either use it in lieu of their borewater or store it in their reserves (‘water transfers’).
If surface water can top up underground reserves – aquifers – then in drought years there is more water available. Adjacent districts with full aquifers could then send water back to Santa Cruz when needed (‘water exchanges’).
This approach means that water is not running out to sea, but rather being used instead of draining precious aquifer supplies. It hopefully helps to prevent sea water seeping into depleted aquifers, which is a growing concern. And because the water is stored underground, there is less evaporation which is important given climate change and rising temperatures. As the groundwater levels are restored, stream flows may improve which is important for the fish and ecosystem.
In establishing their committee, the City of Santa Cruz took two extraordinary steps – not only did the council hand over water planning to people outside of the city government, but it did so to people who were not necessarily experts on the subject matter.
The committee was supported by a panel of four experts, as well as a technical team who provided input on topics from geology to water modelling to law and econometrics, but decisions on final recommendations lay with the committee.
According to some committee members, the expert facilitation of the process was key to its success. Professional facilitators spent a lot of time developing a shared vocabulary and helping the group to hear one another. A lot of input was also provided by a ‘convention’ that solicited over 50 community-generated ideas for addressing water supply.
The committee met monthly, in the evenings, with food provided, which helped to provide a conducive atmosphere. The meetings were open to the public, who could also put forward ideas around water supply.
What was clear initially was the committee agreed they wanted the city to be more water resilient but disagreed on how to get there. So they set about exploring water-related issues and different strategies.
Historically, governments have borne the responsibility for drought management. However, as the scale of the challenge increases and as more attention has shifted to collaborative governance in managing natural resources, the ways of governing are changing.
As more cities fall under water stress, the approaches in Cape Town and Santa Cruz demonstrate the value in engaging citizens and diverse stakeholders in environmental governance. Soliciting the viewpoints of people who live and invest in the community, in consultation with experts, has the potential to improve the robustness of urban drought governance. It helps to build trust between citizens and local government as well as provide the opportunity to hear multiple perspectives and co-develop resilient responses.
Gina Ziervogel (ORCID) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She served on the City of Cape Town Water Resilience Advisory Committee from 2017 to 2021.
Prof Ziervogel’s Cape Town work was funded by AXA Research Fund, and research time in California was part of a Fulbright scholarship.
No conflicts of interest were declared in relation to this article.