Category: south africa

Water (in)security: the art of resilience

Water (in)security: the art of resilience

By Nicholas Simpson

South Africa’s National Water week takes place from 16 to 22 March. Dr Nicholas Simpson, from the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town, was part of a research project focusing on why people opt for off-grid solutions in response to disruptions in supply of water or energy and what the effect of those actions might be.

Water security is more often thought about at high levels of water-resource planning, governance and national security – South Africa’s co-dependent relationship with Lesotho illustrates one example of this. However, less thinking has gone into considering how the everyday actions of the general population contribute towards or compromise water security1.

The Art of Resilience, a research project within the Global Risk Governance Programme, set out to explore just that during the Cape Town drought to consider what household-level actions and practices emerged as people searched for ways to secure access to water.

“Climate shocks are increasingly disrupting the ability of the state to deliver key public services.”

Climate shocks are increasingly disrupting the ability of the state to deliver key public services,2 particularly for sectors at high risk from climate variability, like water. Over the past five years, globally significant climate hazards, augmented by climatic changes, have created disruptive shocks, which have undermined service delivery.

California and Sydney saw their electricity disrupted by unprecedented wildfires; Puerto Rico and Beira had their electricity and water systems severely disrupted by hurricanes. After three years of drought, Cape Town came within days of declaring “Day Zero” where large portions of the city would have their water shut off.

Since the frequency and intensity of these events are anticipated to increase in years to come, we were interested to see how people secure their lives when the state appears unable to do it for them. Our observations centred on why people opt for off-grid solutions in response to disruptions in supply of water or energy and what the effect of those actions might be.

Landscape scale disruptions

Events like the Cape Town drought are considered “landscape scale” disruptions2 by scholars. These disruptions can potentially change how we do things and allow for the scalable adoption of innovations that might otherwise be ignored, such as rainwater harvesting tanks prior to the drought3. We were interested in the effect of these disruptions on the actions and mindsets of people across various levels of society2,4.

The conventional approaches of the City of Cape Town were challenged by the potential of a ‘new normal’ in climate risk and their ability to deliver water during severe droughts. Although there was internal resistance, there was a clear shift in the City’s approach to water, and the general population, as the drought became increasingly severe4.

“There were also many people whose mindsets and actions did not change in response to the drought.”

One of the most obvious changes made by the City was the revision of the water tariff. This was in response to reduced overall water consumption during the drought period, which reduced revenue for the City and threatened the sustainability of the City’s budget5. These changes highlight the importance of flexibility and backup systems (redundancy) in infrastructure, finance and governance domains5.

But there were also many people whose mindsets and actions did not change in response to the drought3,6,7. This was most evident in those accustomed to, or requiring, large amounts of water and therefore resistant to reducing their consumption.

Climate gating

We related these climate risk responses to emerging trends, particularly the cascading uptake of off-grid water sources – a decentralising water security phenomenon we call ‘climate gating’3. Off-grid alternatives like boreholes and water tanks were just some of the innovative arrangements that emerged, at extraordinary scales, to secure household-level water access and build private reserves while expanding general reserve margins3.

The figure that follows illustrates the chronology of rainwater harvesting tank sales data for a popular tank manufacturer in South Africa, the number of registered boreholes and well points, and the reduction in the number of households consuming more than 20 000 litres per month over the drought period3.

Figure 1: Rainwater harvesting tank sales data, number of registered boreholes and well points, and reduction in number of households consuming more than 20 000 litres per month, Cape Town, Sept 2016–April 20193.

The securing actions of the private sector highlights the importance of alternatives and backups. Boreholes and rainwater tanks are a means to redundancy – an expression of resilience at a household level. The unintended consequence of these new off-grid capacity arrangements meant that the City was faced with public governance challenges, not least of which was the undermining of revenues collected for water.

Reconfiguration of water systems

We used the Cape Town drought case study to draw attention to the entrenching effect of climate shocks on areas of privilege and inequality of water access7 – where those with access to the grid (unlike many in informal settlements) decided the grid was not good enough to secure their needs.

The figure that follows sketches how the governance of water has changed due to off-grid supplies and asks questions about the reconfiguration of water systems facing climate disruption7.

Figure 2: Mentalities, transitions and pathways accommodating partial nodes of water security7.

This highlights the mentalities and behaviours that have not changed in the private sectors that were able to secure water through off-grid means. Although the drought has changed mindsets and has enabled novel pathways to new sources of water, we question how ‘climate gating’ has allowed the behaviours of the affluent to remain largely unchanged.

Reliable and equitable access to water will become increasingly challenging in the face of anticipated disruptions to city-wide infrastructures caused by climate change and variability.

The water capacity generated by ‘climate gating’ – whether through boreholes, wells or water tanks – has decentralised water reserves. This has allowed water resilience to become more distributed, diverse and self-healing than an assessment of the Cape Town water supply prior to the drought may have suggested.

The Cape Town drought illustrated the need for the public sector to consider the distributional effects of their actions for the broader populace, particularly those most vulnerable. These observed climate risk responses to water access could signal a more permanent shift towards a dual system in which the rich become self-providers and more resilient, while the poor remain exposed and dependent on the public provision of water.


  1. Mutongwizo, T., Holley, C., Shearing, C. D. & Simpson, N. P. Resilience Policing: An Emerging Response to Shifting Harm Landscapes and Reshaping Community Policing. Polic. A J. Policy Pract. (2019) doi:
  2. Simpson, N. P. Accommodating landscape-scale shocks: Lessons on transition from Cape Town and Puerto Rico. Geoforum 102, 226–229 (2019).
  3. Simpson, N. P., Shearing, C. D. & Dupont, B. Climate Gating: A Case Study of Emerging Responses to Anthropocene Risks. Clim. Risk Manag. (2019) doi:
  4. Simpson, N. P., Shearing, C. D. & Dupont, B. When Anthropocene shocks contest conventional mentalities: A case study from Cape Town. Clim. Dev. 12, 163–168 (2019).
  5. Simpson, N. P., Simpson, K. J., Shearing, C. D. & Cirolia, L. R. Municipal Finance and Resilience Lessons for Urban Infrastructure Management: A Case Study from the Cape Town Drought. Int. J. Urban Sustain. Dev. 00, 1–20 (2019).
  6. Simpson, N. P., Shearing, C. D. & Dupont, B. ‘Partial functional redundancy’: An expression of household level resilience in response to climate risk. Clim. Risk Manag. 100216 (2020) doi:
  7. Simpson, N. P., Shearing, C. D. & Dupont, B. Gated Adaptation during the Cape Town Drought: Mentalities, Transitions and Pathways to Partial Nodes of Water Security. Soc. Nat. Resour. (2020) doi:

This article was originally published on University of Cape Town news.
Cover image by Bob Metcalf on Wikimedia Commons.
Training workshop: Integrating climate risk considerations into decision-making processes

Training workshop: Integrating climate risk considerations into decision-making processes

A three-day training workshop hosted by the Banking Association of South Africa (BASA) in collaboration with GIZ’s Climate Support Programme (CSP) in South Africa, will provide eight South African banks with the knowledge and tools required to take demonstrable action to embed climate risk into their existing risk management frameworks. The training will take place from November 27th to 29th at the Standard Bank Global Leadership Centre in Johannesburg.

            Through a set of interactive plenary presentations, practical exercises and contributions from guest speakers, the workshop is designed to provide training participants with an incremental understanding about the relevance of climate risk management and disclosure and its integration in existing decision-making processes, in line with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related financial Disclosure (TCFD). The training will aim to foster peer-to-peer learning between international and national banks that are at different stages of their journey in integrating climate-related risks into their governance structures, risk management processes and disclosure, as well as undertaking climate scenario analysis. Perspectives from South African companies that have been considering climate risks into their supply chains, business assets and operations, customers and other stakeholders will be also sharing their experience with the participating South African banks on the market needs and opportunities they foresee in their sectors towards a low carbon and climate resilient economy.

            Over the course of the three days, Acclimatise’s own Virginie Fayolle will introduce participating banks to relevant climate change-related risks in South Africa, as well as help them navigate the suite of climate scenario-based tools available to them for evaluating climate risks based on their existing needs and capabilities.

Key events include:

27th November 2019

10:45-11:15 Climate change-related risks in South Africa / Virginie Fayolle

11:45-12:25 Key International regulatory and market related development on climate risk management, including the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related financial Disclosure (TCFD) / Chiara Trabacchi

28th November 2019

9:15-09:45 Integrating climate risk considerations into decision-making processes in line with TCFD’s recommendations / Chiara Trabacchi

14:45-16:00 Mainstreaming climate scenario analysis in existing risk management frameworks / Virginie Fayolle

29th November 2019

9:15-9:45 Overview of climate scenario-based tools / Virginie Fayolle

9:45-11:00 Perspective from a provider and a user of climate scenario-based tools / Florence Palandri, George Harris, Jaco G. Swart, Lizette Perold, Simon Connell

Cover photo by Mark Jelley (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Reflections on Adaptation Futures 2018

Reflections on Adaptation Futures 2018

By Laura Canevari

This year, Adaptation Futures opened its doors in Cape Town from 18 to 21 June. As the city faced the strongest drought in decades, delegates gathered in the South African capital to discuss how climate-related problems, such as the one Cape Town is facing, can be solved and managed.

Starting on the Gold Coast in 2010, the biannual conference has been frequented by a growing and largely diverse community of individuals and organisations from around the world who are all committed to developing responses to the impacts of climate change across a wide range of themes.

During this year’s conference, strong emphasis was placed on the role of community- and network-led initiatives in Africa as well as on the role of international financing institutions bridging the adaptation-development gap.

Mobilising the private sector

Efforts to demystify international climate finance continue, and voices from the private sector were heard, expressing the need to build a stronger business case for adaptation solutions.

For example, it was made evident that in order for the private sector to invest in Ecosystem-based Adaptation and Nature Based Solutions, metrics need to be developed that help translate environmental and societal adaptation benefits into indicators of adaptive performance on which to monitor progress and success. Accordingly, we need to re-integrate the time dimension into these discussions and acknowledge that not all adaptation options are formulated to produce immediate results, and that a mix of short, medium and long-term solutions is needed.

From satellites to court rooms

On Wednesday, Acclimatise, together with Space4Climate and GEO, organised a World Café on applications of Earth observation data, collecting the efforts from 13 organizations facilitating discussions around 14 case studies on agriculture, cities, financial institutions, insurance, and health. Our combined efforts highlighted the need to combine EO data with socio-economic data in order to develop adequate narratives about the experienced impacts of climate change. A summary of the session can be found by clicking this link.

On Thursday, during a session focusing on “Resourcing Adaptation”, Acclimatise reflected on the results from two Horizon 2020 projects, MARCO and EU-MACS, noting that in order to mobilise private sector investment in adaptation, we need to develop adequate services for sectors where the demand for climate information is increasing.

In our presentation, we discussed the climate service needs of the financial and the legal sector, noting how increased attention and action on climate related legislation and litigation, as well as the emergence of voluntary and mandatory financial disclosure frameworks, have triggered an exponential increase in the need to develop climate services for these two sectors.

Consolidation and innovation: two key areas for future development

At Cape Town, the conversation remained generally vibrant across the halls and in parallel sessions, but there is scope for improvement on at least two fronts. On the one hand, future conferences under this biannual series should strive to motivate participants to consolidate knowledge emphasising the need to formulate better initiatives in the future. Last week, we saw numerous case studies showcasing “success” stories, however, mostly without in-depth analyses of adaptation-enabling factors or descriptions of the mechanisms that could be used to replicate and scale up solutions. Equally, there is still a lot of room for innovative ideas and solutions. An exploration on how other fields are innovating may help to uncover some hints on how to remain innovative in adaptation: words inundating the web such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the circular economy were missing from debates, yet they could enrich discussions around adaptation.

As noted in the opening plenary by Patrick Child, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General Research and Innovation, climate adaptation requires partnerships between researchers, innovators, and administrators. Partnerships that combine the experiences and skillsets of different actors are highly needed and should be framed around specific aspirations on adaptation outcomes. Efforts over the next two years should focus on nurturing these types of partnerships in order to create an enabling environment for adaptation innovation and consolidation.

Cover photo by Marlin Jackson on Unsplash.