Fear did more than water restrictions to defeat Day Zero

05 December 2018 - 11:41 By TimesLIVE
Brandon Herringer, a City of Cape Town plumber, demonstrates what a water collection point would have looked like if Day Zero had arrived.
Brandon Herringer, a City of Cape Town plumber, demonstrates what a water collection point would have looked like if Day Zero had arrived.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux

Fearmongering did more to stave off Cape Town’s Day Zero than water restrictions.

This is one of the main findings of a study by researchers from Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town published in the journal Water Research.

“Our findings suggest that Capetonians responded more strongly to the threat of waterless taps than to the implemented levels of water restrictions,” said Professor Thinus Booysen, from the electrical and electronic engineering department at Stellenbosch University.

“Our smart water meter data combined with billing data from the [City of Cape Town] points to a remarkable success on the side of citizens to drastically change their consumption patterns over a relatively short period of time.”

Booysen, who did the study with economists Martine Visser (UCT) and Ronelle Burger (Stellenbosch), said on Wednesday: “Our study seems to indicate that while inciting some level of fearmongering may have been a risky strategy for the City of Cape Town to undertake, it may have been the single most successful intervention in changing Capetonians’ behaviour as far as water usage is concerned.”

The researchers connected key events to changes in behaviour of households that used hot and cold smart water meters that measured water usage.

Hot-water meters (Geasies) were installed in Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the Western Cape from June 2015 to December 2016, and these enabled the researchers to compare the hot-water usage in the three provinces.

Booysen pointed to three events in the first two weeks of August 2017 that might explain lower consumption in the last half of August: the government derided the City of Cape Town for not reacting adequately to the drought crisis; the city threatened to install water-restriction devices for heavy users; and the West Coast Flower Show was cancelled because of the drought.

A week after the announcement of the disaster plan on October 4 2017, the difference between regions started to increase, reaching 21 litres a day in the first week of November, indicating a substantial reduction in Capetonians’ water use.

Our findings suggest that Capetonians responded more strongly to the threat of waterless taps than to the implemented levels of water restrictions.
Professor Thinus Booysen

“A week after the level 5 restrictions were introduced, hot-water usage in Cape Town perversely increased, and the difference between the two samples quickly reduced to two litres per day in the following four weeks, apparently indicating diminished savings subsequent to level 5 implementation,” said Booysen.

“After the holiday, which overlapped with the implementation of level 6 restrictions, the difference between the groups increased steadily, reaching 33 litres per day in the last week of January 2018, as Capetonians used less water in response to the looming crisis and the introduction of level 6B restrictions.”

The researchers also analysed mainstream media and social media reactions to government announcements by searching for terms related to water restrictions and drought.

“We wanted to identify points of heightened public engagement with the threat of empty taps to understand how Capetonians digested, assessed and navigated the barrage of notices and news during the crisis,” said Booysen.

“Our analysis of the terms used … shows that the biggest response was observed not when the restrictions or tariff increases were imposed, but in response to a three-phased disaster plan that warned of disastrous outcomes.

Booysen said these spikes give the impression that the announcement of tighter water restrictions might have had less effect than the scaremongering after the disaster plan referred to the risk of running out of water, the possibility of having to queue at collection points, and the increased threat of fire and disease in crowded settlements.


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