Episode 07: A Look Back on the Western Cape Water Crisis

Episode 07: A Look Back on the Western Cape Water Crisis
Original Language: 

In this episode of the Comundos podcast, guest Matthew Sheldon takes us back to the 2017-2018 water crisis that affected the Western Cape in South Africa, reminding listeners that we need to "rethink the way we use water". At the end of the interview, Matthew also discusses the utility of digital storytelling and the importance of media literacy. This interview expands upon the digital story that Matthew previously made with Comundos:

Water Crisis in South Africa


*Correction: It should be noted that although sometimes referred to in the interview as the 'Cape Town' water crisis, this water shortage in fact affected the wider Western Cape.

Podcast Duration: 
Andru Shively & Matthew Sheldon
Tuesday, June 6, 2023
Podcast Category: 



Andru Shively (AS): Hello and welcome to another edition of the Comundos Podcast. My name is Andru, and I’ll be your host for today.

Before we get started, a quick reminder of who we are: Comundos is a non-profit organization that connects communities. We encourage media literacy and promote digital storytelling as a technique to amplify the voices of young people worldwide so they can communicate the issues that matter most to them. More information can be found at our website, Comundos.org. Look for us on YouTube and Facebook, too. Comundos: Connecting Communities.

Today, I’ll be discussing the water crisis that affected Cape Town in South Africa, which reached a peak in 2017-2018. This topic correlates with Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, specifically SDG6 Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG12 Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG13 Climate Action.

I’m very excited to be joined today by Matthew Sheldon. Matthew collaborated with Comundos back in December 2019, contributing a digital story about the water crisis. You can find the link to his story in the show notes of this episode. Without further ado, today’s guest: Matthew Sheldon.

Hi, Matthew, and welcome to the Comundos Podcast. Thanks for joining me today.

Matthew Sheldon (MS): Hi Andru, and to your listeners. Thank you for having me on your platform.

AS: Matthew, let’s start by getting to know you better. Could you briefly introduce yourself and your background?

MS: My name is Matthew Sheldon and I’m from a place called Paarl which is about 60 kilometres from Cape Town, in South Africa. I’m a communications expert with 8 years experience in the public sector, coupled with 4 years of experience in the private sector, within the South African media industry. I am also an award-winning journalist.

Since 2018, I have been the Head of Communications at Bergrivier Municipality, which is based in the West Coast District. I have vast knowledge of the local government sphere with a keen focus on reputation and media management.

Finally, I have a National Diploma in Journalism and will have completed my Bachelor’s Degree in government, administration and development in June of this year.

AS: That’s very exciting. Congratulations! Wow.

What I would like to do now is to expand on a topic you previously discussed in a digital story for us a few years ago: the Cape Town water crisis.

Could you first explain the nature of this crisis? What happened, and when did it begin?

MS: For quite a number of years now, South Africa has experienced very dry winters. The main narrative was that El Niño was the main reason behind increased temperatures and low rainfall.

AS: Okay, I see. Could you explain what El Niño is and its effects?

MS: El Niño basically refers to drought conditions and drier winter periods. This then created the ideal grounds for ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town becoming a likelihood in 2018 - since the dam levels feeding the Western Cape Water Supply System simply plunged into critical levels during summer months and wasn’t able to stabilise during the dry winter months.

Already in 2017 though, in my opinion, the water situation became extremely dire and we needed prolonged rainfall immediately to push back Day Zero.

AS: Okay. And could you explain to our listeners what is meant by ‘Day Zero’?

MS: ‘Day Zero’ is a term used to explain a situation when all residents’ taps would run dry, and there would be no water available for anybody. This is at least how it has been branded to the public. But in my opinion, Day Zero simply means that dams will reach critically low levels - like around 13% or so - which in itself causes distribution and water pressure challenges.

AS: I have to say, that sounds pretty alarming… Did Day Zero ever come, in the end?

MS: No, no, no. It must be stated that Day Zero was avoided. Dam levels miraculously recovered after reaching all-time lows. And good rainfall landed and both local authorities and the public breathed a huge sigh of relief. And due to collaborative efforts between government, the public, and the private sector, we never reached a so-called Day Zero.

AS: I’m glad to hear it. I’m sure that it was a rough experience for everyone. Could you give us an idea of what it was like at the time?

MS: Well, if I can take you back for a moment to when the water crisis was at its worst, or at its peak: There were water stations that were opened up across Cape Town and in other districts, also in Bergrivier Municipality, where residents would have to queue in long lines, with empty containers to fill it up with potable water. And this is so that people could have fresh water to drink, and a little extra to cover their basic needs at home, without adding too much strain on the water supply system. These initiatives were driven by municipalities. And, this situation, from what I can remember, lasted for at least a couple of months.

AS: In what ways did the water shortage disrupt daily life for people? Can you give some concrete examples from your own personal experience?

MS: Well, the first thing is that people were limited to around 50-100 litres of water usage per day, depending on which municipality you fell under. But if you exceeded 100L, for example, you would immediately be paying a higher water tariff rate at your local municipality. The water pressure was so low in some instances that the water came out very slowly, or in drips and drabs. For example, when I would take a shower, it was such a challenge because minimal water was coming out of the showerhead. And I would believe that that was most people's challenge at the time, too. And as I said before, people would have to spend lengthy periods of time in queues waiting for water, which is a huge inconvenience.

AS: So, in addition to a shortage of water itself, this in turn caused other disruptions, in terms of cleanliness or maintaining daily schedules, and so on.

MS: That's right, yes. There were some activities that I can remember that the public were prohibited from, due to the implementation of water restrictions by municipalities. You, for instance, couldn’t water your garden, you couldn't wash your vehicle, and you couldn't even fill up your swimming pool. And those are just a few of the activities that you were restricted from, at the time.

AS: Oh, wow, okay. I suppose activities like those become luxuries in such times. What about economic effects?

MS: This water crisis hit people's pockets very, very hard, because people rushed to shops to stock up on bottled water, out of fear that they might not have enough drinking water for the next couple of days. Furthermore, this prolonged drought period posed numerous challenges for the agricultural sector, since they require constant access to water to ensure food security. And of course, you would imagine food prices skyrocketed during this water crisis period, creating extra financial pressure on the public.

AS: Thank you for that, Matthew. I hope our listeners can appreciate just how difficult this period must have been. Now, as this crisis developed, what was the initial response from the local or national authorities?

MS: The initial response from local authorities was save water now, and limit your consumption to 50L per day. Bergrivier Municipality initially implemented Level 5 water restrictions: limiting residents to 50 litres of water per day.

AS: I imagine this was a message that needed to be spread urgently. So, how was the public made aware of this?

MS: An entire communication drive was conducted through all communities within the Bergrivier Municipal Area. This included activities such as loud-hailing, we put up ‘Save Water’ posters on lamp poles, and we handed out information leaflets to all households, explaining the urgency of the crisis and giving residents information on how they could help to save water.

AS: Was anything done on a national level, too?

MS: Bergrivier Municipality lodged an urgent request in late 2017 to the National Minister of Water and Sanitation to sanction the release of 5 million cubic metres of water from the Berg River Dam. Bergrivier Municipality was facing a truly unspeakable scenario, had the Minister not approved this request.

But thankfully, on 16 April 2018, the Minister approved the release of the water and it took roughly seven days for the water to reach Misverstand Dam, which is just outside of Piketberg. And once the water reached Misverstand Dam, three towns were able to benefit from this water injection which, of course, managed to push back Day Zero.

AS: Just in time, it sounds like. And could you explain, in what ways did people take action themselves?

MS: Well, the best way that people could assist was to limit their water consumption, immediately, to only the essentials that they needed it for in their houses. They could also report excessive usage of water by other residents, or report water activities which were prohibited under water restrictions, to their local municipality.

AS: And did you take action yourself, personally?

MS: As the Head of Communications, I was heavily involved in rallying the public support to save water by launching numerous Save Water campaigns. I also sent out regular communication on all the Municipality’s platforms, to keep residents informed about the water crisis and any changes in the water restrictions.

I must also admit though that I was one of those people who stocked up on bottled water to ensure that I have enough fresh water to drink.

AS: I’m sure most of us would have, to be honest. And, you mentioned launching Save Water campaigns. Could you tell us more about these, and, what concrete actions did this campaign involve in order to raise awareness?

MS: The Save Water campaign was introduced to alert the public to the fact that water is a precious and scarce resource, especially in South Africa. It's important to always use water wisely, so that there is never an issue with water supply.

The campaign was a collaborative effort between several local municipalities in the Western Cape who partnered with the Western Cape Government to come up with creative communications ideas, not only to get the public to use less water, but also to give the public easy and practical steps to implement in order to use water more wisely. Without knowing, one can waste a lot of water.

AS: Can you give some examples of these? As you say, many of us might not be aware of how much water we are using.

MS: Certainly. Did you know, if you take a shower for only five minutes, you use around 70L of water, and a 10-minute shower is almost 150L. And did you know that a single toilet flush uses roughly 11L of water. Imagine how many times a toilet gets flushed per day. Did you know that an open tap can use between 4L and 8L of water per minute.

Practical steps you can take include: when you brush your teeth, close the tap whilst brushing. Maybe use greywater to flush the toilet, instead of potable water. Take a ‘power shower’ instead of a long one, and so on.

The main idea was to put household and general use of water under the spotlight, and to place emphasis on what can be done to use this resource more sparingly.

AS: Excellent, thank you. I hope our listeners take note of that! It’s been some time now since the height of the water crisis. Are any of these restrictions you mentioned still in place today, in 2023?

MS: No. Well, at least not due to the water crisis we experienced here in 2017 and 2018.

Bergrivier Municipality did introduce water restrictions early this year, I think in January, which lasted for about a month, due to prolonged high stages of load-shedding by Eskom. To quickly explain what Eskom is and what load-shedding means: Eskom is a State Owned Enterprise in South Africa, which operates as the nation’s electricity public utility. Currently, South Africa faces a new challenge with regards to an insufficient electricity supply for the entire country, creating a situation where Eskom has to switch off certain areas in order to keep the grid stable. This happens on a daily basis.

Now, this created a situation whereby Bergrivier Municipality’s infrastructure, such as its Water Treatment Works, isn’t able to function optimally, leading to water supply issues. This matter has, however, been resolved after the Municipality purchased two large generators to keep the system running, despite the implementation of load-shedding.

AS: I see. It seems, then, that many factors can complicate this issue. Although the water shortage from five years ago has been alleviated, do you think that this problem is gone?

MS: We cannot predict what future weather patterns would be like, and the impact it may have on our water resources. What we can, however, learn from this past water crisis is to save water and to save it now, and to use it more sparingly, and not to take it for granted.

AS: As you said previously in your digital story, we need to “rethink the ways we use water”. A lesson for the future.

MS: Also, on that point, I think the take home message here is to introduce water awareness campaigns in schools - especially in primary schools - to expose children at an early age to the importance of saving water for future generations to come.

Another practical step which Bergrivier Municipality is taking is to build another water reservoir in Piketberg to store more water for any eventuality. But all in all, we haven’t had any water crisis since 2018 again.

AS: Good news, I'm sure. That’s wonderful to hear. And let’s hope it remains that way, for your community and for others across South Africa, too.

Now, before we finish: It’s been about 3 and a half years since you made your digital story about the water crisis. I wonder if you could briefly reflect on your experience with digital storytelling in relation to this. Do you think it helped to raise awareness about the water crisis? Did it inspire further action for the future? What are your thoughts on this?

MS: I’m a very optimistic person and would say that there certainly is a market for digital storytelling, especially for local municipalities, who are in the business of constantly having to find unique and more informative ways to connect with citizens, and using visuals and audio is an ideal method. This is the communication of the future. I think audio-visual is way more impactful than convoluted text-based communication. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words. What about a short digital video?

My story was played on TV screens at the entrances to all of our Municipal Offices at Bergrivier Municipality, and the public, whilst waiting to be assisted, were able to watch this video. This video was also played at our Economic Portfolio Committee, for Council and Management to view, and had also been viewed by Communication officials across the Western Cape. In my opinion, water awareness shouldn’t end after a crisis. It should be an on-going educational topic year-in year-out. And this is where real, long-term change will take place.

AS: That’s incredible. Its reach was quite far, then. Matthew, one final question about media itself: As a media expert and professional, why do you think media literacy is important? In what ways can it contribute to civic engagement, as well as benefit and empower your community? Not only in relation to the water crisis, but also in general.

MS: The importance of citizens being able to hold public officials to account is incredibly vital in a democracy. The media is a major player in keeping societies informed about current affairs.

Now, media literacy means that citizens have the ability and skill to critically analyze information, and use the knowledge gained to actively engage on any subject matter, which in effect gives people the power to change their communities and society for the better.

AS: Thanks very much for your time, Matthew. It was a pleasure.

MS: Thank you very much, Andru, for having me on your podcast, and I certainly hope we can engage again in the future. Keep well.

AS: Thanks for listening to this edition of the Comundos Podcast. Be sure to listen to our other episodes, available on Spotify and on our website: Comundos.org. We’re hoping to get more episodes out soon.

And check out the hundreds of digital stories on our website and YouTube channelStories that span the globe: from the Amazon Rainforest in South America to the Philippine islands in Asia, with Central and Southern Africa along the way. Maybe one of them will inspire you!

Stay updated on Comundos activities by following our Facebook page. We regularly post news about our non-profit, digital stories, and podcast episodes like this one. Join our growing community!

Today’s episode was written, produced, and edited by me, Andru Shively, an intern from the VUB in Brussels, Belgium. I would like to thank my guest Matthew Sheldon once more for an insightful discussion. This episode would also not have been possible without Bart Vetsuypens, the Director of Comundos, who supervised the project.

Until next time, I’m Andru Shively. From here to there, and everywhere, there is Comundos: Connecting Communities.


A Message from the Interviewee:

I would like to thank all residents living within the Bergrivier Municipal Area for supporting the Save Water Campaign and for playing their part by using water sparingly. It took dedication, regular and inspiring communication, and strong partnerships between Bergrivier Municipality and the public (residents) to overcome the water crisis. We did it together! Thank you.

Matthew Sheldon

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