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Business has a key role in crisis, with its ability to adapt, innovate and invest for impact. What role did business play in responding to Cape Town’s drought crisis, both as a water consumer but also public influencer?

See the full video on the role business in crisis here as part of the Drought Response Learning Initiative.

Cape Town was a water abundant city. For businesses, considering water access a risk to business that merited taking it up to a senior level was not a serious proposition. Companies did not know what they were doing with water which was a cheap and unconstrained resource. The crisis changed that and quickly.

Incentivised by increases in the price of water, businesses were able to invest to effect cost savings through reduced consumption, often cutting usage by 40 to 60 percent.

Claire Pengelly, Water programme manager, GreenCape


“When the private sector is forced into a situation where they have to do something, their ability to react, respond and invest is incredible”.

Claire Pengelly, Water programme manager, GreenCape

Resisting knee jerk reactions and creating whole-systems change

For businesses, getting their response to the crisis right not immediate. Knee jerk responses were often the incorrect ones focussing on augmenting supply rather than reducing consumption. However, when given guidance on how to respond, starting with metering, monitoring and behaviour change, by the end of that cycle businesses on average reduced consumption by 45%.

Solutions that were previously unviable became cost competitive when the price of water increased; businesses were willing and able to incur investment costs with a view to recouping these through savings on operating costs over time.

Nardo Snyman, Sustainability specialist, Growthpoint Properties


“If an intervention does not decrease our [water] consumption, it is not worth our time”.

Nardo Snyman, Sustainability specialist: Growthpoint Properties




In some instances, such as the construction industry’s replacement of potable water with treated effluent to mix cement, the drought and corresponding water price increases acted as catalyst to fundamental changes in how the economy is clearing, and this will be permanent: there is no economic driver to revert to using potable water, as the latter is more expensive.

In the case of some businesses with national operations, the cost savings they were able to achieve in the Western Cape led them to roll out the same approaches elsewhere.

Mike Mulcahy, CEO, GreenCape


“There is no economic driver to go back to old water consumption habits. We have seen the drought as a catalyst for fundamental system change”.

Mike Mulcahy, CEO: GreenCape

Business as resilience influencers

Beyond adjusting their own consumption patterns, businesses also fulfilled a number of other roles, starting with the role of influencer within their own systems of supply chains, customers and staff, and expanding to their communities and broader society.

Large public-facing corporates cooperated to ensure that the messaging emanating from them was consistent, and aligned with the messaging emanating from local government, for continuous reinforcement of messaging from multiple sources

Businesses also made available donor and sponsorship funding to the broader society through CSI and philanthropic activities to encourage and assist in water savings.

Sharing best practise on water reduction

As well as convening forums for businesses to share knowledge on best practise for water reduction, businesses set up community schemes to help community institutions reduce their water consumption too.

One example was the Smart Water Meter Challenge with schools. A corporate would sponsor to have a smart meter installed at a school helping them identify where leaks were taking place. This had a money-saving impact on schools and helped reach a wide audience with the message on simple steps that can be taken for water reduction.

“The greatest benefit came working together and sharing best knowledge”

Mike Mulcahy, CEO, GreenCape

Through their ability to react, innovate and adapt quickly, as well as their powerful position as a communicator to supply chains and the public, businesses were able to produce outsized impact responding to the water crisis, helping spread knowledge of best practise and behaviour change which has embedded resilience across multiple systems.

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