City without water


Summary of the documentary

This 2018 documentary, directed by Amos Roberts and Joel Tozer, shows impressively how climate change is already affecting people and how severe the effects on the local population in Cape Town have been in recent years. Intensified by apparent mismanagement, a dry period lasting several years led to an extreme water shortage in the city, which is almost exclusively dependent on a few reservoirs outside the city. Although many efforts have been made in recent years to reduce water consumption, new possibilities for increasing and diversifying water supply have hardly been considered, and so Day Zero, the day when taps run dry, is approaching.

“City without water” uses individual personal examples to compare the impact of the impending Day Zero scenario and associated restrictions on the urban middle class, businesses, and the dwellers of the informal settlements known as townships.

Focus on community solutions

This documentary focuses on the impact of water restrictions on life in Cape town. It shows how communities prevent Day Zero from happening. A short problem description and views of extremely low dam water levels immediately grab the viewer's attention. A middle-income family then discusses the measures they had to take in order to reach a maximum water use of 50 liters per person a day (Stoddard, 2018). Without any background knowledge, this restriction seems to be sudden and extreme. The City's Water Resilience Plan, examined by Booysen et al. (2018), shows that restrictions gradually increased over the course of 2 years. Local government has halved the city's water use by strict rationing, public campaigns in the form of posters and billboards and local singers with a two minute song that should be used to time showering and strict enforcement of residential and commercial restrictions (Villiers, 2018). Middle class residents describe their water saving measures and discuss the social pressure for using little water. As employers ask for monthly water use records and household water use is publicly available, there is pride in using minimum water. A hairdresser is interviewed about how customers takes voluntary measures by bringing their own water and towels for their haircut. Interviews with people at water stations from natural springs already show a more extreme reality. Many residents are often times cut off from tap water (Enqvist & Ziervogel, 2019), making these stations their only source of water. The deputy mayor expresses his understanding for the risk of riots and social unrest due to the restrictions and, with hindsight, admits that measures could have been implemented earlier.  As argued by M. Muller in Nature (2018), Cape Town is characterized by very large class differences, and while residents in townships have seen Day Zero since decades, the elite is still able to use water unrestricted. The documentary ends with the first family that says Day Zero is inevitable. “Cape Town will be a wakeup call for the world”.

Driving forces of approaching Day Zero

“Last year cape town experienced the lowest rainfall since records began in 1933" (Wolski, 2018). Decreasing precipitation led to reductions in water stored behind the dams. This, together with a population increase of 45% in 20 years (Cape Town Population 2020), resulted into water restrictions since 2017, as the government was not able to increase supply. However, it still won an award for supplying water to its growing population (C40 Cities Awards 2015).The documentary describe neither the reasons for this reduction in precipitation (decreased winter rainfall links with Hadley cell) nor Cape Town’s overall water governance structure (Burls et al., 2019). Scientific literature points towards water governance failures as a major driver of Day Zero. South Africa is the only country with a constitutional recognition of the human right to water. Yet, many cities see water as a commodity and increased privatization led to disconnection of thousands of households (Yates et al., 2018; South African Water Caucus, 2017). Disagreements between the national government and a city government led by a rival party stifled adequate and timely responses (Nhamo & Agyepong, 2019). These are all important factors that would provide a different view on the government’s top down restrictions and community bottom up response.

Cinematographic contribution

Amos Roberts and Joel Tozer know succeed in creating a certain tension in the audience. At the beginning they show how the rationing of 50 litres of water per person per day affects a middle class family. For the average viewer, whose knowledge is largely limited to the amount on the annual water bill, it is fascinating to see how such restrictions affect everyday life.

Then a press conference of the responsible politicians is shown. The understanding of the fact that the water problem has remained unaddressed at the political level for far too long causes a certain feeling of anger. In stark contrast with this political inertia are the many creative responses by local musicians or businesses that aim at saving water, suggesting that the Day Zero scenario can be averted. The patrol of law enforcement officers accompanied by the film team also strengthens this hope, as all businesses inspected comply with the restrictions.

Finally, the life of the poorest people in Cape Town is shown. The vast majority of these township inhabitants have no access to clean drinking water and have to share public sanitary facilities with many other residents. The sight of the simple, often non-functional, sanitary facilities fills the viewer with sadness and anger about politicians, who apparently have little interest in the township's residents.

What remains is the hope that the day zero scenario can still be averted through the commitment and the many creative ideas of the people, but also the knowledge that much still needs to be done in Cape Town,  in view of the constantly growing population and gradual climate change.

The documentary "City without water" gives a good overview of the causes of the water crisis in Cape Town. However, it largely ignores the question of the relationship between corruption and mismanagement. This issue, and an illustration of how the upper class in Cape Town deals with the water shortage, would deserve to be addressed in order to complete the viewer's understanding of the topic.


Also see another documentary on Capetown's water crisis


Booysen, M. J., Visser, M., & Burger, R. (2019). Temporal case study of household behavioural response to Cape Town’s “Day Zero” using smart meter data. Water Research, 149, 414–420.

Burls, N. J., Blamey, R. C., Cash, B. A., Swenson, E. T., Fahad, A. al, Bopape, M.-J. M., … Reason, C. J. C. (2019). The Cape Town “Day Zero” drought and Hadley cell expansion. Npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, 2(1), 1–8.

C40 Cities Awards 2015. (n.d.). Retrieved January 20, 2020, from

Cape Town Population 2020. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Enqvist, J. P., & Ziervogel, G. (2019). Water governance and justice in Cape Town: An overview. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1354

Muller, M. (2018). Cape Town’s drought: don’t blame climate change. Retrieved January 17, 2020, from

Nhamo, G., & Agyepong, A. O. (2019). Climate change adaptation and local government: Institutional complexities surrounding Cape Town’s Day Zero. Jamba: Journal of Disaster Risk Studies, 11(3), 1–9.

South African Water Caucus. (2017). Report on the State of the department of water and sanitation.

Stoddard, E. (2018, April 3). Cape Town 'Day Zero' pushed back to 2019 as dams fill up in South Africa. Reuters. Retrieved from

Villiers, J. de. (2018, March 7). How Cape Town avoided Day Zero and cut its water usage by 50% in 3 years - it took Melbourne 12 years to do the same. Businessinsider. Retrieved from

Wolski, P. (2018). How severe is Cape Towns “Day Zero” drought? Significance, 15(2), 24–27. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2018.01127.x

Yates, J. S., & Harris, L. M. (2018). Hybrid regulatory landscapes: The human right to water, variegated neoliberal water governance, and policy transfer in Cape Town, South Africa, and Accra, Ghana. World Development, 110, 75–87.

Contributions by Johannes Scharf and Frans Wijkhuizen



Additional Info

  • Director: Amos Roberts and Joel Tozer
  • Producer: Dateline SBS
  • Language: English
  • Year: 2018
  • Duration (min): 24
  • Theme: Water supply, Water scarcity, Dams, Climate change, Water governance, Water allocation, Water politics
  • Access: Free
  • Country: South Africa
  • Technical quality (star): Technical quality (star)
  • Academic interest (star): Academic interest (star)
  • Societal interest (star): Societal interest (star)
  • Technical quality: 4
  • Academic quality: 3
  • Social interest: 5