Cape Town’s Water Crisis From a Social Marketing Perspective

On April 12, Cape Town, South Africa is on track to become the first major city in the world to run out of water—officials are calling it Day Zero. Cape Town has faced three consecutive years of extreme drought and is now less than three months from its taps and toilets running dry.

In order to slow water consumption, the city has instituted self-imposed caps on household water usage to 13 gallons per person, per day. These limits translate to shorter showers, recycled bathwater, fewer toilet flushes, infrequent usage of dishwashers and washing machines, and no garden watering or car washes. But the self-regulation isn’t really working—Day Zero recently had to be pushed up two weeks from late April because of the city’s daily water usage.

“We have reached the point of no return…It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care.” – Patricia de Lille, mayor of Cape Town

What can we, as social marketing professionals, learn from Cape Town’s water crisis? How can we make people care enough to change behaviors? A social marketing approach means that we must make water conservation choices obvious, easy, and accessible. The challenge with water conservation is that, in many cases, behavior change among just a few individuals is not enough to mitigate community-wide water issues.

Social marketers must identify the key barriers—such as lack of awareness of personal contribution to a water crisis; perceived discomfort with less water usage (like low-flow showerheads); or a lack of incentive to make changes—and address those barriers through the four Ps:

  • Promotion. Strategic campaign messaging is critical to dialing up the urgency for residents to recognize the impact of not having municipal water and motivate them to care about their role in conservation. Only then will they be primed to use water-saving products and take advantage of incentives. Messaging must directly address the identified barriers within a specific community and reach residents through appropriate online and offline channels.
  • Product. In January, Cape Town launched an online map as a social norming product that allows people to check their neighbors’ water consumption. Perhaps the positive-reinforcement alternative could be public recognition for taking a water-saving pledge. Allowing residents to gauge their own contribution to the problem—or the solution—may create the motivation needed to change behaviors.
  • Additionally, technology has come a long way in developing products, like low-flow showerheads and toilets, that make it easier and more convenient to use less household water. Products like simple, easy-to-install shower meters may also help raise awareness of residents’ roles in water conservation by tracking water usage and giving residents a quantifiable metric to work toward.
  • Price. In Cape Town, city officials have not been punishing individual residents who are not complying with stated limits, thus impacts are felt community-wide. However, monetary incentives or rebates for water-saving appliances like low-flow toilets and showerheads, in addition to fines for overuse, may be effective in other communities dealing with water shortages. Impacts of products lowering residents’ water bills could be quantified to show benefits over months and years.
  • Place. One of Cape Town’s biggest challenges is water conservation at home, in the moments when residents are making water usage decisions: while showering, washing dishes, using the toilet, and doing laundry. Home visits by trained volunteers can help residents flag all the places—and moments—in their homes where and when they can choose to use less water.

Climate change research indicates that water shortages are likely to continue in many parts of the world, and water conservation behaviors will simply become the new norm. Environmental issues, from recycling to woodland conservation, have long benefited from the application of social marketing. Here’s to continuing to build on decades of social marketing wins to address our world’s growing water concerns.

Roshni Devchand, M.P.H., M.C.H.E.S.
Associate Director, Strategic Planning & Research