Spear to the heart of the water crisis!

Pictures taken by: Linden Birns

The Cape Messenger recently ran a poll on whether or not people think the City of Cape Town has the water crisis under control. Almost 90% of people voted ‘No’. I wonder how different the poll would have been if there had been the option “I don’t know”.

I recently wrote an article about what the City of Cape Town could learn from Windhoek on how they have survived water crises in the past. One of the lessons we can glean from the Windhoek experience is the need for strategic communication to citizens to promote water conservation behaviour at the household level – where most of the water is consumed.

I would argue that not only are people not aware of some of the situational context surrounding the water crisis, but that they don’t know what the city is actually doing about it.

We also learn from Windhoek and water crises globally that people tend to only change their water consumption behaviour if they perceive the need to do so. In addition to motivation, behaviour is also influenced by capability and opportunity. Some of the interventions that can change water use through providing motivation, capability and opportunity include education to increase awareness, persuasion through communication, incentivisation through rewards, coercion through punishment, training to develop skills, restriction through rules, restructuring of the physical or social context, providing role models for people to aspire to, and enablement through removing barriers to increase capability or opportunity. In addition to enforcing regulations, strategic communication through the mass media is, therefore, an important component of the tool-kit to changing water use behaviour.

The Department of Water and Sanitation works on a 98% assurance of supply. This means that in 2 out of every 100 years there is a possibility that there won’t be enough water. The current crisis is a result of two consecutive years of low rainfall and high demand. With a steadily increasing population in Cape Town, and climate change likely to influence rainfall in the future, the chance of this happening again is going to be even more likely – if current levels of supply and demand don’t change.

Although reducing water demand includes effort by industry, agriculture and fixing leaking infrastructure,  suburbia is a major water user – and the importance of the power of individuals cannot be underestimated.

Changing perceptions, values and – ultimately – behaviour is not only needed for directly conserving the water we have now, but may be needed in future when we need to use technology such as water re-use.  They do in Windhoek.  Other steps have indirect benefits for water conservation – for example, in our choice of food. Something we can learn from media coverage of the drought in California is that a lot of our water footprint relates to what food we eat – with meat production being a massive water guzzler.

In the meantime, we’re possibly dealing with a bit of a tragedy of perception, where people perceive others not to be saving water, and this then reduces their own motive to conserve water. Fortunately, there are also many citizens who cooperate with regulations and campaigns, have inherent environmental values, or are motivated by seeing others conserve water. But we need to increase this piece of the pie, and the media has a role to play here.

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