What lessons are learnt when
a modern city of four million people
faces the prospect of running out of water?
What lessons are learnt when a modern city of four million people faces the prospect of running out of water? What lessons are learnt when
a modern city of four million people
faces the prospect of running out of water?

The documentary feature film on
the lessons from the 2017-2018
Cape Town water crisis

P eriodic urban water stress, occasionally escalating into full-blown water crisis, is set to be one of the enduring themes of the 21st century. As the world’s four billion city dwellers grow to a projected six and a half billion by mid-century, and climate change brings more frequent extreme events, ever larger numbers of people will find their lives disrupted and their welfare threatened from time to time by drought, water shortage and water crisis. The knowledge base of skills and wisdom required to avoid and minimise stress on urban water supply systems, and to manage the resulting crisis when these systems do come under strain, is growing in importance and value with every passing year. Each crisis is an invaluable learning opportunity, not to be squandered.

In late 2017 and early 2018 the South African city of Cape Town suffered such a crisis. Many lessons were learnt as it teetered on the brink of running out of water, and eventually managed to steer itself away from the looming disaster. These lessons apply to rainfall-dependent cities the world over. The documentary feature film Day Zero, currently in production, is an authoritative and instructive report from the frontlines, setting out the lessons on a problem that is not going to go away any time soon. On the contrary: heeding the lessons from Cape Town will only grow more critical as the century wears on.

A global news event

The Day Zero story

In 2017-2018, in the third consecutive year of an unprecedentedly severe drought, the water crisis in Cape Town made headlines around the world. Residents faced the unthinkable prospect of a disastrously disruptive ‘Day Zero’: the day when dam levels would be so low that reticulation to most households and businesses would be switched off and residents would queue to collect their daily water rations of twenty five litres per person from central distribution points to be set up around the city.

Theewaterskloof dam,
February 2018

Western Cape, South Africa

Before Cape Town’s water crisis in 2017-2018 came the crises of São Paulo in 2014, Barcelona in 2008, Australia’s large cities in the 2000s. Failure to learn from past mistakes is to self-condemn to repeating those mistakes in future.

System management

Lessons about the
management and operation
of the water supply system


Lessons about governance
and the governance framework
set up around water

Climate change

Lessons about adapting to
changing climatic conditions
in water resource planning

Supply diversification

Lessons about diversifying water
supply sources and the limits
to emergency augmentation

Demand reduction

Lessons about reducing water
demand and effecting behaviour
change among consumers


Lessons about messaging and
communication of information
by government to citizens


Lessons about the importance
of leadership and the dangers
posed by politics during crisis

Disaster planning

Lessons about the planning
and preparation for a
slow-inset disaster scenario

Documentary feature

The film that sets out the lessons

The Day Zero film tells the riveting story of a brush with contemporary urban catastrophe and gives an authoritative account of the lessons learnt. With clarity and dispassion, it articulates sharp, actionable conclusions drawn from Cape Town’s searing experience – invaluable around the world today, as water supply systems globally come under strain. The film is currently in production and is scheduled for international release in the second half of 2021.


Extensive in-depth interviews with the most knowledgeable people on the subject, including academics, researchers and consultants, as well as senior officials involved in the city’s crisis response.


Striking footage of the city in its picturesque natural setting and rich diversity, of the Western Cape water supply system and its dams in the mountainous interior, and archive material from the drought period.


Static and animated graphics that make dramatically visible the movement and stark implications of some of the pivotal numbers, and crystallise and land the lessons learnt in succinct, sharp, on-screen conclusions.

Knowledge base

Learning initiative

The Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative was launched in the aftermath of the 2017-2018 Cape Town water crisis by project partners Victor van Aswegen and Peter Willis with the aim of distilling the key learnings from the event, and became the pre-eminent source of first-hand reflections on the crisis, all available on the initiative’s website. It was undertaken in association with the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative, and made possible by the generous support of lead partner The Resilience Shift and donors Old Mutual, Nedbank, Woolworths, GreenCape, Aurecon, PwC, Arup and 100 Resilient Cities.