Lessons in Project Management from “Day Zero” in South Africa

Facing severe drought in 2018, Cape Town, South Africa narrowly avoided shutting down its municipal water supply. The massive “Day Zero” initiative saved the day and offers important lessons for project management professionals.

I knew something was different as soon as I stepped off the plane. There was signage everywhere, news reports on the radio and my news feeds, and a special notice when I checked into my hotel.

It was early 2018, and I was in Cape Town, South Africa—in the middle of one of the most severe and dangerous droughts in the world. The communications I’d been seeing contained updates on the city’s water conservation efforts and directives on how to reduce my water usage ahead of “Day Zero.”

If you think “Day Zero” sounds slightly ominous, it was. It referred to April 12, 2018—just weeks away and the day Cape Town would turn off the city’s water supply, requiring residents to line up at 200 centers throughout the city to collect their daily allotment of water.

Fortunately, the crisis never reached that point. Thanks to the combined efforts of governments, the business community, civil society, millions of Cape Town residents, plus a little help from Mother Nature, Cape Town narrowly avoided what would have been the largest municipal water failure in modern history.

At the time the Day Zero date was set, however, the drought had been building for three years. The city had launched earlier water conservation and public drought-awareness efforts. But with water levels dwindling, it had a mere 90 days to turn things around.

What came next serves as a master class in project management. The effort encompassed a wide range of projects launched by organizations from both the public and private sectors and coordinated by the City of Cape Town. These projects served not only to educate and persuade, they significantly altered the behavior of millions of people in record time. The Day Zero initiative thus illustrates important principles of project management that we should all heed in our professional lives. Here are some of the more important lessons I’ve taken away from the experience:

Gain the trust and cooperation of all stakeholders.

What was unique about Day Zero was not only the scale of the project but the number of stakeholders involved—government entities, businesses, farmers and ranchers, civil society, and a widely varied civilian population. Many of these groups had competing interests, yet all had to be brought onboard and included from a project management perspective.

It helped, of course, that so much was on the line. With a population of 4 million, Cape Town is the second most populous city in South Africa. The Cape Town region is also home to a significant portion of the country’s agricultural industry. Turning off the water would thus have had far-reaching economic and social consequences across the country and the continent.

Demonstrate empathy for the voice of the customer. 

Day Zero managers were able to reconcile all these competing interests because they demonstrated an important power skill: “empathy for the voice of the customer.” There was a real effort to be equitable in sharing the pain of the conservation efforts. No one got what they wanted, but everyone got at least some part of what they needed—and even offered to do more. For example, shortly after the agricultural sector’s water allocation was cut in February 2018, farmers agreed to divert additional stored water to the city.

Keep an eye on the big picture and use data and technology effectively. 

The project managers were able to accomplish so much because they looked at water demand and supply holistically, using system-wide data to develop effective water utilization strategies. In January, for example, the city put in place a new water-pressure system, which cut overall municipal water consumption by approximately 10 percent. And in February, as noted, it was able to reduce the allocation of water for the agriculture sector. Elsewhere, it implemented water tariffs and enforced prohibitions on heavy water use—for swimming pools, watering lawns, and other non-essential purposes.

Over communicate.

Project Zero’s real success, however, occurred at the grass roots level—through the conservation efforts of millions of local residents, as well as businesses, civic organizations and visitors. This required an unprecedented communications effort to all sectors of society that again relied on data to make the case.

In 2017, for example, the city began publishing weekly updates on water consumption and the water levels in local dams. By 2018, it had added a city-wide map that broke consumption down by household. Residents could literally compare their water usage to that of their neighbors and to city-wide averages. Tips on how to conserve water were ubiquitous on traditional and social media and promoted by a wide range of organizations. There were even “dirty shirt” contests—to see who could go the longest without washing a work shirt—and admonitions in public bathrooms that “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

If there are lessons to be learned from what went right in Cape Town, there are also “teachable moments” in what went less well. Here are a couple of examples:

Understand your current state and plan accordingly. 

One of the first rules of project management is to base our plans on the current context. In the case of Cape Town, 30 percent of its water is consumed by the agricultural sector and 70 percent by its urban population. The latter, however, had grown some 71 percent between 1995 and 2015, from 2.4 million to 4.1 million, while dam storage capacity during the same period had increased only 17 percent. By 2007, South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs and Forestry had warned that water demand in the Cape Town area would exceed supply if water conservation efforts were not implemented. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but in an ideal world, that would have been a critical data point for planners.

Speed to action is critical. 

Once the drought set in in 2015, the city gradually increased water conservation measures as water levels fell across the region’s six major dams. But the Day Zero initiative wasn’t announced until January 2018, when water levels were perilously low. As with many crises, the best defense is a good offence. For Cape Town, early, fast, and aggressive action would have been the best preventative.

In the end, of course, Cape Town never reached Day Zero. By March 2018, the city had reduced its daily water usage by more than half—to around 500 million liters or 130 million U.S. gallons. This provided sufficient maneuvering room for the city to push back the Day Zero date. And Mother Nature finally relented. Average monthly rainfall returned to normal in June, and the city was eventually able to postpone Day Zero indefinitely.

That doesn’t mean that Cape Town is out of the woods. Dam levels remain below pre-drought levels, so water conservation is still the order of the day. And the city is still struggling to diversify its water resources.

For project management professionals, however, Day Zero remains a fascinating case study—a treasure trove of best practices and cautionary tales that we’ll be mining for years to come.