A Designer’s Approach to the Cape Town Water Crisis

Cape Town has water problems. Essentially a massive oasis in the desert, the city’s water supply has been drained in recent years by drought and population growth. For a while this year, Cape Town seemed destined to reach “Day Zero,” when the taps would run dry and people would need to stand in line for drinking water. Strong seasonal rains helped push back the date to 2019, but restrictions limiting personal consumption to 50 liters per day remain in effect.

The city has tried a variety of techniques to encourage people to conserve. A class of Yale students has been testing a new approach: design. Led by Jessica Helfand, lecturer in design and management, Yale SOM and Yale School of Architecture students spent the spring semester approaching the water crisis the way a designer would, with an emphasis on collaborating and fostering innovation. Throughout the semester, the course built toward the Cape Town crisis, culminating in a trip to South Africa for a week of on-the-ground research. Split into small groups, the students studied different parts of Cape Town’s civic life—a luxury hotel, a poor township, a wealthy suburb, hospitals, and elder care homes. Back at Yale, they presented their ideas for moving the needle a little more toward conservation. For example, the students working with the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel suggested playing off a series of historical cartoons hung in the five-star hotel with a version stressing short showers and other water-saving actions. The team whose project was based in a wealthy suburb proposed covers that could turn ubiquitous swimming pools into water storage tanks or aqua gardens.