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?

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.

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 

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. Currently in pre-production.

One of the standout characteristics of the crisis was its multifaceted nature, encompassing a strikingly wide range of aspects: infrastructure planning, governance, engineering, system modelling, public finances, communications, consumer behaviour change, restrictions, tariffs, public trust in government, societal stresses and the social fabric, inequality and cooperation among citizenry, economic fallout. The lessons to be learnt from the event are correspondingly wide-ranging and richly multifaceted, drawn from egregious failures and avoidable mistakes, clear in hindsight, old wisdoms and insights reinforced and newly highlighted by painful experience, but also drawn, on the other hand, from world-leading innovations, shining successes, corrective steps and new strategies devised and successfully implemented. Some of the lessons learnt relate to managing a crisis, navigating away from disaster once crisis has become imminent. But the emphasis must be on the avoidance of a crisis situation in the first place. The fact that it was a well designed and generally well managed water supply system that came perilously close to failing contains the warning that this can happen elsewhere: it signals just how easily these events can be repeated in first-rate systems in other parts of the world. The most valuable learnings of this cautionary tale are therefore revealed by careful consideration of the decisions and practices in the years leading up to the crisis – understanding precisely how it came about that these decisions were made, and these practices became ingrained. From this story of missed opportunities, decisions and actions delayed, institutional shortcomings, rules broken, organisational effort misguided and misdirected, much can be learnt. To do so, the story has to be told, and Day Zero tells it in a way it has not been told before.

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

CAUSES How did it come to this in the first place? RESOLUTION How was disaster averted in the end? FAILURES What should be done differently in future? SUCCESSES What can be emulated elsewhere? LESSONS What was learnt?



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. This is the animating impulse underpinning the making of Day Zero: the drive to present the key lessons from one of the major critical infrastructure crisis events globally so far this century, and to do so more clearly, more rigorously and comprehensively – and for a wider audience – than this has been done to date. Globally, our insufficiently resilient infrastructure makes the world more dangerous than it needs to be. Jeopardy can be curtailed and our safety enhanced by more resilient systems. But strengthening the resilience of the critical infrastructure systems on which we all depend requires thoroughgoing understanding of the crisis events we experience, an evidence-based approach to dissecting their root causes and grasping the factors underlying their resolution. As we saw in Cape Town, interest in these lessons learnt is by no means the preserve of a narrow professional circle, limited to a scattering of technical specialists. On the contrary: there is broad public awareness that we are all at risk, vulnerable to the stresses, shocks and failures these critical systems serving us can undergo, all of us always exposed to the potential of system failure, with the attendant possibility of catastrophe. Widespread consciousness of the risks motivates keen, broad interest in the facts. The Day Zero film project, indeed, aims to serve the public interest in the dual sense of that term: the need to secure what is at stake, the desire to know.

A timely, topical film, delivering an authoritative and instructive report from the frontlines
as climate change concerns are rising rapidly up the global agenda,
casting a lengthening shadow over the human project.

The riveting story of a city facing crisis as its water runs out

and the lessons it learnt from the experience.


Filmmaker Victor van Aswegen has a background in, successively, law, economics, development, finance, private equity, consultancy, and business analytics. As founder-owner of CineSouth Studios, he works principally as director and producer, running the creative process from first concept to final output. At nearly one hundred film outputs, his existing body of work on the subject of the Cape Town water crisis is unrivalled. As co-lead of the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative for the two-year duration of the project, he delivered film outputs with a total runtime of more than 50 hours on a wide range of aspects of the crisis, including 39 in-depth filmed interviews with key players and experts and 56 learning outputs which he conceptualised and produced, articulating the lessons learnt, making the films and writing the accompanying text components, all publicly available here.

Knowledge base

The Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative was conceived and 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. It became the pre-eminent source of first-hand reflections on the crisis, and established a groundbreaking template for post-crisis learning. Observations of individuals involved in crafting the city’s response to the drought were recorded on film, from which the central themes and key lessons were identified and distilled into user-friendly outputs. Undertaken in association with the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative, it was 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.

Advisory Board

The project is fortunate to be able to draw on the deep knowledge of the subject, decades of experience and acknowledged expertise in the advisory board. As the film deals with a complex and often contested topic that is in the public eye and engages a public-interest issue as critical as the availability of water, heavy emphasis is placed in the making of the film on rigour in the treatment of the subject matter. Constituted of academics, researchers, consultants and other leading experts, the advisory board encompasses backgrounds in academic research and publication in the field as well as first-hand professional involvement in the management of the water supply system at the highest level during the crisis period. The documentation underpinning the content of the film, written by the director, will be reviewed by the advisory board and published on the film website upon release of the film.

The challenge of ensuring secure water supply
to the world's vast and growing population of city dwellers
Each crisis an invaluable learning opportunity
not to be squandered
The key lessons from one of the major
infrastructure crisis events globally so far this century

A threefold premise underpins and animates the project. First, the world quite correctly zoomed in on the Day Zero story as a significant event, emblematic of 21st century, Anthropocene challenges, and therefore a story that has to be carefully parsed for learnings, as these are bound to be relevant globally and likely to remain so beyond the lifetimes of all of us alive today. Second, this widespread and sustained interest in the subject has not to date been met with an adequate response; for all the work done in this field, the question “what was learnt?” has not yet been adequately, satisfactorily answered. Third, it is possible to articulate a satisfactory and adequate answer to the question as to what was learnt in Cape Town – by drawing and building on the work done to date, gathering the key lessons into a coherent, rigorous whole, and presenting a lucid, comprehensive understanding, critical globally for securing the supply of a vital resource. This is what the Day Zero film project will do.

Join us on a journey to one of the world’s most iconic cities,
flying over its mountains and communities and meeting its people.
Travel back in time to the recent past when it faced Day Zero, and pulled through.
Discover what it learnt.