Water restrictions didn’t make Capetonians save water – fear did

Business Insider SA
A Day Zero graphic designed to encourage Capetonia
A Day Zero graphic designed to encourage Capetonians to save water (supplied)
  • Cape Town’s average water consumption only started to drop after fears of a ‘Day Zero’ was announced, a new study says. 
  • The introduction of water restriction, on the other hand, actually led to a slight increase in consumption. 
  • The study suggests that scaring people is much better than new rules and tariffs in reducing consumption.

Water restrictions in the City of Cape Town did little to reduce water consumption, a major study by Stellenbosch University (SU) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) found. 

In fact, those restrictions led to a small increase in the amount of water people used.

But the imminent threat of "Day Zero" – the day that Cape Town’s taps would run dry – finally got Capetonians to save on their water consumption. 

The “temporal case study of household behavioural response to Cape Town's ‘Day Zero’ using smart meter data” found that Capetonians started using, on average, 21 litres less water every day than the rest of the country – but only after the city announced a disaster plan in October, 2017. 

In the first week of September, when level 5 water restrictions were implemented, city residents actually used slightly more water than usual. The same thing happened again in January after level 6B restrictions were introduced.

Also read: How Cape Town avoided Day Zero and cut its water usage by 50% in 3 years - it took Melbourne 12 years to do the same

The study made use of smart meters installed in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Mpumalanga to make comparisons in water consumption.

These meters were installed at high-income properties that were most responsive to water announcements and who also, on average, use the most water. 

“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,” one of the researchers, Thinus Booysen from SU’s department of electrical and electronic engineering, said in a statement. 

“During the week preceding the drop in usage, there was an increase in terms related to drought panic and a decrease in terms relating to the Level 5 restrictions.”

Cape Town's Theewaterskloof dam - one of its main
Cape Town's Theewaterskloof dam - one of its main feeder dams - in July 2017 (Facebook, City of Cape Town)

He said by January 2018, when it was announced "Day Zero" would arrive on April 21, Capetonians used a whopping 33 litres less water every day on average, compared to the rest of the country.

Daily consumption increased again when the anticipated date for "Day Zero" was postponed to July.

Also read: Cape Town hotel rooms are still cheaper than last year, despite the Western Cape recovering from the drought 

“Our study seems to indicate that while inciting some level of fear-mongering 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,” Booysen said.  

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