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#CapeWaterGate: In the end, what was Day Zero all about?

#CapeWaterGate: In the end, what was Day Zero all about?

Now that Day Zero has been pushed back to 2019, it is possible to take a step back, draw breath, and consider Cape Town’s water crisis anew. In particular: what was the Day Zero messaging actually about? What role did Tony Leon’s communications agency play in the end? And what does the City of Cape Town wish it had done differently in trying to get Capetonians to get on board? (Spoiler alert: nothing.) By REBECCA DAVIS.

17 January 2018, and 7 March 2018

Those have been the two red letter days of the Cape water crisis. It was on 17 January that Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille announced that the city had reached “a point of no return” in its water supplies, and Day Zero was now virtually guaranteed in a matter of weeks.

And it was on 7 March that DA leader Mmusi Maimane broke the glad news that Day Zero had been pushed out to 2019.

Coming less than two months apart, the difference in these statements has understandably caused some public confusion. Conspiracy theories now abound, and reached fever pitch in the National Assembly last week when a National Freedom Party MP suggested that Day Zero had been an invention to justify the signing of a R6-billion contract with the Israeli government.

A more measured but no less irate response was delivered by Janse Rabie, AgriSA’s head of natural resources, who wrote in an op-ed that Western Cape farmers were left feeling “let down and betrayed by government” as a result of the decision to scrap Day Zero as an imminent possibility.

Nothing much has changed in the City. The prevailing drought continues unabated. None of the City’s augmentation schemes are up and running yet. The City’s consumption target of 450 Ml/day has never been met. There is no guarantee of the coming winter season’s rainfall being sufficient to break the drought,” wrote Rabie.

He suggested that the City “appears to have cried wolf too soon and now needs to backtrack on its expedient Day Zero predictions”.

On the other side of the debate, DA MPs have suggested on Twitter that anyone who believes that Day Zero was a myth “needs to get their head read”.

But Day Zero was a myth in one sense: in that it was largely a communications tool designed to focus Capetonians’ minds on the severity of the water crisis.

Taking a look at a year’s worth of communications from the City on the topic of the water crisis, one can separate it into three periods: Ineffectual, Punitive, and Congratulatory.


Formal campaigning from the City of Cape Town about the water crisis began in November 2016 with the launch of the “ThinkWater” campaign, with its slogan: “Care a little. Save a lot”.

The insight behind this slogan was the fact that many people who have easy access to water take it and its availability for granted and without a second thought,” City of Cape Town Communications Director Priya Reddy told Daily Maverick on Wednesday.

At this stage, it’s important to note that Day Zero did not yet exist as a formal concept within the City’s lexicon. On 14 February 2017, the City warned: “We could be looking at about 135 days of usable water left.” There was no indication as to what would happen after that.

Later that month, Mayor Patricia de Lille did sketch a worst-case scenario – but a wholesale “switching off the taps and queuing for water” was not mentioned.

At between 10 and 15% storage levels in the dams, we will implement intermittent supply in some areas, with stringent restriction measures,” De Lille said in a statement. “At below 10% storage levels in the dams, we will be providing a ‘lifeline’ water supply, which would involve minimal supply pressures, intermittent supply, and very stringent restriction measures.”

In May 2017, De Lille would host inter-faith prayers for rain on Table Mountain.

It was only on 19 June 2017 that the City of Cape Town released an RFI (request for information) for water augmentation schemes, stating: “It is envisaged that the first plants would be available for production towards the end of August 2017.” This was to prove wildly optimistic.

Two months later, De Lille would tell the media that it was impossible for water rates to be raised for the remainder of the financial year – concluding at the end of June 2018.

Tariffs, inclusive of water and rates, are already established for 2017/2018 and cannot be adjusted,” De Lille said.

For this reason, consumers will not face any new costs for the remainder of the financial year.”

Yet, by February 2018, consumers were hit with steep new water tariffs.

During the same press briefing, on 16 August 2017, the mayor would pay tribute to “the extraordinary contribution by the vast majority of our residents to conserving and using water more efficiently”.

That friendly tone was soon to change.


What can be thought of as the second phase of the City’s communications strategy around water began in November 2017, when Day Zero was first formally put on the table as a concept.

On 15 November 2017, De Lille gave details to the public for the first time as to what Day Zero was and when it was estimated to take place: at that stage, 13 May 2018.

This timeline coincides with the arrival of former DA leader Tony Leon’s communications agency, Resolve Communications, which was contracted by the City’s creative agency to work on the strategy.

Reddy told Daily Maverick: “They were brought on board because they offered specific skills and vast experience in government crisis communication strategies and behaviour change.”

Reddy confirmed that it was Resolve who pushed for the adoption of Day Zero as a means to induce Capetonians to change their attitudes towards the crisis.

The term was used by members of the public for some time before it was adopted into a formal campaign,” Reddy said.

It was Resolve Communications who suggested using the term to mobilise residents to reduce their water use.”

A weekly water dashboard was launched by the City, offering residents a fluctuating date for Day Zero based on dam storage and water consumption. Over the next four months, the date for Day Zero would vary by as much as five months: from 18 March 2018 to 27 August 2018.

By December, the tone taken with Cape Town’s residents had shifted from cajoling to stern, with references to “stubborn” residents “behaving badly”.

In mid-January 2018, the City released a water map, enabling people to monitor water usage at residential addresses. The implicit suggestion was that residents police one another. The City said: “Neighbourhoods should have constructive engagements with one another to ensure that their neighbourhood is painted green.”

It was on 17 January, however, that things took a decidedly dramatic turn. This was the occasion of De Lille’s now famous “point of no return” statement, announcing that Day Zero was now virtually certain.

It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero,” said De Lille.

We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them.”

In addition to invoking Day Zero as an inevitability, the mayor announced a raft of punitive new water tariffs in combination with Level 6B water restrictions.

This approach, in combination with De Lille’s other political troubles, appears not to have pleased the DA. Exactly a week later, DA leader Mmusi Maimane announced that he was taking the “unprecedented” step of taking control of the water crisis, relieving De Lille of her duties.

Significantly, Resolve Communications’ contract with the City also did not extend beyond the end of January 2018.

Cynics might suggest that it was a good time for the DA to seize control of the issue. At the end of January, as a number of water experts had pointed out, the agricultural sector was due to complete its water allocations for the year. This would instantly relieve almost half the demand on the Western Cape water supply. The DA, then, was stepping into a situation which was guaranteed to look a lot rosier in a matter of days.


Indeed, from early February onwards, the situation began to look a lot more positive, and communications from both the City and the DA started to reflect this.

Team Cape Town, we are getting there,” was the headline of a statement from deputy Mayor Ian Neilsen – by this stage heading up the water task team – on 12 February. “It is absolutely clear that when we need to pull together in this city, we can do so,” said Neilsen.

In fact, a tone of pride began to creep into communications – suggesting that Cape Town would not just prevail, but set an example to the rest of the world.

Cape Town could “become known as one of the most resilient cities in the world”, proposed Neilsen.

His second-in-command Xanthea Limberg subsequently declared: “We are confident that Team Cape Town will show South Africa and the rest of the world how to beat a drought.”

But Neilsen sounded a word of caution, too. On 19 February, he warned: “We cannot afford to slow down when the estimated Day Zero moves out, simply because we cannot accurately predict the volume of rainfall still to come or when it will come.”

The fact that nobody could predict winter rainfall was one stressed by City water officials and meteorologists. Yet just over a fortnight later, without any further indication of impending rains, the DA’s Maimane officially took Day Zero off the table for 2018.

This means the taps will stay open in 2018!” Maimane said.

Amid widespread relief from Capetonians, there was also a sense of confusion. This extended to water experts too, who seemed taken aback by Maimane’s confidence.

The WWF’s Christine Colvin was quoted as saying: “We have definitely not defeated Day Zero. It is still as likely to happen as it was a week ago.”

The DA’s assertion that Day Zero will not happen has largely been ignored by other bodies; which is to say, in other respects, the prognosis remains unchanged for Cape Town. Ratings agency Moody’s warned on Monday of potentially dire effects of the water crisis on the city and province’s economic situation.

On Tuesday, national government finally declared the drought a national crisis, allowing it to access disaster funds from Treasury.

Writing for Daily Maverick this week, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille explained that the factors which removed Day Zero from the 2018 calendar were fourfold: reduced water consumption; farmers reaching the end of their allocations; donations of private water from farmers; and the coming on board of augmented water sources.

But Zille also seemed to acknowledge that Day Zero as a concept was becoming a destructive strategy.

While the Day Zero messaging helped us achieve our water saving targets, it also had some seriously negative consequences, especially for the economy,” Zille wrote.

The idea of Day Zero hovering on the horizon has had a major effect on the big pillar of our economy, tourism. Visitors stay away from a city at risk of running out of water. Many also cancel their bookings. And this has a knock-on effect through the entire pipeline of tourism offerings.”

AgriSA’s Rabie also suggested that the Day Zero campaign had had unintended effects.

Panicked persons (who could afford to do so) began buying and stockpiling both raw and treated water in anticipation of Day Zero coming about,” he wrote.

This disruption of normal consumption patterns created enormous difficulties for City water planners as well as the Department of Water and Sanitation.”

The City of Cape Town’s Reddy, however, says the City has nothing to regret in its approach.

Of course there are learnings that we will take on board but, by and large, we have had a very successful campaign that has seen perhaps millions of Capetonians changing the way they treat and use water.” DM

Photo: Residents of Cape Town collect drinking water in the dark early hours of the morning from a mountain spring collection point in Cape Town, South Africa, 31 January 2018. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA


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