By the summer of 2019, four million people in Cape Town—one of Africa's most affluent cities—may have to queue, surrounded by armed guards, to collect rations of the region's most precious commodity: drinking water.

Cape Town's main water supply, at the Theewaterskloof Dam, has begun to run dry, and the city may soon be forced to turn off its taps.

It comes as something a surprise to those not plugged in to the growing global problem of water security. Though South Africa is arid, the iconic Table Mountain traps onshore breezes coming of the warm ocean waters creating a lush oasis, fuelled by local rains and flowing rivers. The shortage feels at odds with this tourist-friendly vista.

However, as the city continued to prosper through the turn of the millennium, the region saw an influx of vineyards and private pools. Water use was on the rise along with the wealth of its growing population. It was not that the city failed to recognise the threat. Indeed, it won a number of international water management awards.

Nevertheless, the continued growth and the shifts that come with climate change – notably drier, hotter weather, with less winter rainfall — led to the somewhat inevitable water crisis that Cape Town faces today. An engaged, aware city with six reservoirs was unable to stem the tide of years of not quite doing enough.

The ‘day zero’ of turning off the taps has been delayed for a year through a cap on water usage and a reduction in the use of water by agriculture, but it appears to only be a short term relief.

Drought is nothing new, but the situation in South Africa appears to have sent seismic waves across the world. Urban centres (and indeed the surrounding rural communities) from North America to South America and from Australia to Asia are facing increasing threats of severe drinking-water shortages and governments are monitoring the Cape Town crisis with great interest, and concern.

As water shortages come more into the spotlight, researchers in the field have reached something of a watershed moment and have been challenged. How do you reduce the impact of human activity on hydrological cycles? And how can you realistically prepare for water shortages?

A new approach to drought resilience

The impact of climate change and hydrological processes have made global headlines for years. The spectre of devastating hurricanes looms large over New Orleans and Houston, the impact of the 2013 floods that wreaked havoc in Northern India is still felt today.

But hydrological extremes cover both ends of the spectrum. Droughts, and crises such as those in Cape Town have drawn the eye of governments across the world.

For countries like the US, their relative wealth allows them to be resilient to most hydrological extremes – for now. Food and water can be acquired to paper over cracks in the short term. However, extreme events cause severe water and food insecurities in many developing countries. Droughts are projected to increase in frequency and severity in the decades to come, and resilience is to be tested even further.

The CreativeDrought project, led by the University of Birmingham, is designed to increase drought resilience by combining local indigenous knowledge with scientific methods. The project is based on a framework by which to understand and help manage responses to drought, and by bringing together researchers from a number of different disciplines, they can develop an interdisciplinary approach unlike any other.

Dr Anne Van Loon, who heads up the project, explained the need for a new approach.

“In many of these countries resilience to drought is low for myriad reasons, including poverty, unequal political and social structures, limited access to information, and problems adapting traditional knowledge to changing situations. Research has shown that experiencing a drought event (or other natural hazard) leads to adaptation, better management and better preparedness for the next event. But this preparedness reduces over time as the memory of the event fades and we found that people find it hard to imagine what future droughts could be like and what they would need to be prepared. So we were looking for a method to let people imagine an event without experiencing it. We think that creative experiments based on past drought stories and future drought model scenarios might overcome this issue and might help increase drought resilience by engaging local communities and authorities.”

As a result, the Creative Drought project collected data that you might not expect to find in hydrological studies. It collected stories about past drought events alongside developing hypothetical future drought scenarios with a hydrological model. Through creative experimentation workshops, it worked with communities to build future drought narratives and then worked alongside local water management to discuss how the future drought narratives can be used.

The team decided to run their pilot study in the Limpopo Basin of South Africa, a rural area with a dry and irregular climate, traditional dryland farming systems, and limited effective water management.

Much like Cape Town, the region has experienced a severe drought due to below normal rainfall in two consecutive rainy seasons. The impact on local communities, in terms of food and water, has been significant.

Dr Van Loon continues, “This way of increasing resilience to drought is regarded as robust because it uses scientific methods, is culturally embedded and bottom-up. It also ensures that the perspectives of different members of the community are heard and incorporated. We were very happy to see how the workshops helped people to connect with people of different generations and occupations within the community and how the groups moved from a fatalistic perspective to designing adaptation strategies for future drought.”

The novel approach integrates tools from different disciplines; narratives, modelling and drought analysis, and science-policy interfacing – leaning on state-of-the art tools that have been developed in previous projects.

Dr Rosie Day, Senior Lecturer of Environment and Society at the University of Birmingham explained, “A pilot study like this needs to have value across other communities. In order to do so, we need a methodology that can adapt to the intricacies and nuances of the local setting. For example, we are aware that different groups in communities use different forms of narratives. The older generation tend to use oral stories, biographies, and songs, whereas the younger generation is more engaged in video, social media, and theatre. We also expected to work more with visual tools, like maps, but found that in the community we worked in maps did not resonate.”

Using local knowledge to understand the challenge

The collective team of hydrologists and social scientists from local and UK-based institutes and the groups in the community; the village leaders, livestock farmers, irrigation farmers, young mothers, and elderly people, engaged through a number of workshops.

Various scenarios were discussed. What would happen if climate change increased temperatures in the region? What would it mean for the hydrological cycle if more farm land was irrigated?

Groups were asked to describe the impacts of such droughts and then invited to share their solutions. Whereas some groups gave wholly individual solutions such as ‘digging for water’, other groups honed in on community projects such as building earth dams, and other groups described what they would need from elsewhere, including government.

Dr Mel Rohse, a former postdoc at the University of Birmingham, now at Anglia Ruskin University explained how research done prior to the workshops helped to set the hypothetical scenarios, “We found that the community were getting their water from different sources. Their drinking water was from a groundwater well, their irrigation water from a reservoir that releases water into the river, and their water for bathing, washing, brick making, and cleaning cars from the river. By understanding how water was being used, and why, we started to paint a better picture of the hydrological cycle in the region.”

What the team were able to learn from the community will prove invaluable for future water security measures. For example, although the project in question is centred on drought, the community told stories about past flood events.

“In many respects, the community see both of these water-related extreme events as having similar impacts. They experience crop loss, drinking water problems and outbreaks of disease. Even though floods and droughts are governed by different processes, and different tools and indices are used to characterise both extremes, people in local communities have to deal with both. We realised that our academic world is in danger of becoming so fragmented that we overlook the connection between floods and droughts in our scientific work. Furthermore, we forget that we may affect one hydrological extreme when trying to manage our resources for the opposite hydrological extreme.”

Shaping the global response to hydrological extremes

The hope is that the study will garner benefits well beyond the community in South Africa, for rural regions across the globe and perhaps, provide a new methodology for urban centres at risk such as Cape Town.

Without question, the current approach to drought management is inefficient because feedbacks between drought and people are not fully understood and local perspectives and effects of water management are not always taken into account. Drought is a complex, multifaceted issue. Traditionally, most definitions have viewed drought as a natural phenomenon and regarded human-caused water shortage as a separate process, and yet humans have the ability to both mitigate and enhance drought. The anthropological influence must be considered as a crucial cog in the hydrological processes that lead to such extremes.

Hydrological extremes, both droughts and floods, are expected to increase in the future. Humanity is changing the climate, the land surface and the water system in unprecedented ways.

Dr Van Loon added, “There’s a global trend towards more frequent and more significant extreme events, and the role of humans cannot be overlooked. Severe droughts in human-dominated environments, as experienced in recent years in California, Brazil, China, Spain and Australia, cannot be seen as purely natural hazards.”

“Take the 2012-2017 drought in California. This has severely affected both environment and economy. In this area where water supply is highly artificial, water storage in reservoirs and groundwater abstraction provide water during dry periods, but also increase evaporation and decrease groundwater levels, and thereby exacerbate the drought. In contrast, management responses, such as water transfer and water-saving measures, alleviate drought conditions. This recent California drought clearly demonstrates how strongly water and society are intertwined during drought periods. It shows that our work has value in even the most developed parts of the world.”

Human activity has led to the extraction of massive amounts of water from reservoirs and groundwater, which has intentional and unintentional consequences. We can manage water systems to prevent flooding and water scarcity, but we are also making droughts worse through extraction, and by paving our cities and gardens we are adding to the risk of flooding.

Interdisciplinary projects are needed to investigate how to manage society’s needs and the available water sources in a more sustainable way. If anthropogenic influence continues to be an afterthought and is not fully integrated into the management of surface and groundwater, and the sometimes perverse effects of water rights and insurance, then the warning of Cape Town will have been missed – and water security will continue to threaten livelihoods, and lives.

The research community can shape this response. It is, without doubt, a watershed moment for drought research.

Photos courtesy of Dr Anne Van Loon and Creative Drought.


Discover more stories about our work and insights from our leading researchers.