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Investigating community buy-in to reduce water usage

Dr David Olivier, GCI Postdoctoral Researcher

David OlivierGlobal climate change is expected to raise temperatures in most places and reduce precipitation in many parts of South Africa. In the first part of his postdoctoral research, Dr David Olivier focused on food security issues. With the severe drought and scarcity of water in the Western Cape, the attention has now expanded to include the food-and-water nexus. The Western Cape Province is the hardest hit, experiencing record low rainfall and dangerously low dam levels. Following the slow response by residential water users to increasingly severe water restrictions, on Friday 3 March 2017, the City’s Executive Mayor declared a local disaster in terms of Section 55 of the Disaster Management Act. Experts warn however, that although the province’s dams may not empty before the onset of winter rains, the real challenge lies in future summers, as dam levels take years to recover.

The greatest consumers of municipal potable water are residential homes, where on average half of the water consumed is used for luxuries such as irrigation and recreation. Preliminary research reveals that much of the discourse coming from residential water users centres around increasing water supply alternatives, such as desalination, groundwater and raising dam levels, not at reducing excessive water use. The primary objective to increasing the sustainable use of this natural resource does not lie in increasing residential access, but rather in changing perceptions around water use to minimise residential water use.

While much research is underway to solve water access challenges technologically, there remains a gap in knowledge regarding how to change cultures of water use. David’s research will therefore adopt a social science lens, asking how the Western Cape government can maximise community buy-in to minimise residential water use for the long-term. Answering this question involves discourse analyses of popular media articles and discussions as well as systematic reviews of existing scholarly literature. It is hoped that the results will provide practical guidance for increasing the sustainable use of water in the Western Cape, as well as lessons to be applied more broadly.