UK Energy Crisis: Lessons from Cape Town’s “Day Zero” Campaign

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Last month, startling news of the UK’s impending energy crisis made it clear that the public understands very little about how we get our gas and electricity, and what happens when that system is disrupted. But as the Guardian’s energy correspondent Jillian Ambrose points out in the Today in Focus podcast, this latest crisis comes as no surprise. Rather, in the midst of a global energy crisis, the UK’s current shortages are a result of a chain of events that started nearly a year ago with a “perfect storm” of market forces, as well as a cold winter, a windless summer and a fire in Kent that shut down a vital power cable

This conversation got me thinking about the importance of communications campaigns and media coverage around energy shortages and how these crises can be effectively communicated to the public and mitigated – before it’s too late.  

Cape Town water shortage crisis sign, “Use less than 50L per person per day”

Cape Town’s “Day Zero” communication campaign

Another striking example of the severity of supply shortages around the world is the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa between 2018 and 2019. I wrote about the content, production, politics, representation and effects of the “Day Zero” campaign for an essay as part of my MA Media in Development degree, but here I will focus specifically on the media discourse of this particular environmental issue and how it is mirrored in the ongoing crisis in the UK. 

On 18 January 2018, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille announced that the city had reached a “point of no return” and that 12 April 2018 would be the day that all Capetonians’ taps would be turned off. It was apocalyptically labelled “Day Zero” and signalled the launch of an aggressive communications campaign to preserve the city’s rapidly dwindling water supply. In addition to mounting a huge awareness campaign, the City of Cape Town also imposed strict water usage limits, installed mass infrastructure and organised public education events to help conserve water. 

Then, the much-anticipated end to a three-year-long drought, coupled with these unprecedented remedial actions resulted in the ominous day being postponed – twice. But while the city’s water scarcity issues have been temporarily postponed, they have not been resolved. “Day Zero” looms on the horizon as it continues to face the threats of climate change and urbanisation. 

Global shortages looming

And around the world, it is only a matter of time before other major cities including London, São Paulo, Beijing, Cairo and Miami experience their own water shortage crisis. According to the United Nations, “an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to face water shortages in the next five years, thus making water supply and water scarcity crucial issues and increasingly urgent problems”. In light of this reality, it is pertinent to develop communications and media strategies that will raise public awareness and mitigate responses to global water and energy shortages.

Picture of wind turbines

The problem of hyper-localized media coverage

In her analysis of the media discourse surrounding the Cape Town water crisis, Catherine Bruns (2019) found that while local news discourse “showcased clear themes of avoidance, solutions, and teamwork” the national media discourse did not begin until the height of the crisis and focused more strongly on the day-to-day challenges faced by Capetonians. She argues that these findings highlight a key problem of isolated coverage in media discourse. 

In other words, despite the successes of the Day Zero communications campaign in twice-postponing the crisis in Cape Town, Allsop (2018) points out that the national and international media “did not use Day Zero as an entry point to systemic scarcity issues in the country, or to newer, crippling drought conditions in other towns and cities”. The failure of the campaign, and in turn the media, to properly contextualise the Cape Town water crisis and connect the dots within global climate change discourse is an important point to address in future environmental communications campaigns around the world. These lessons can and should be applied to the energy crisis here in the UK. 

The role of the media to add global climate change context 

Furthermore, the media plays a key part in environmental communication by informing the public about the issue of water scarcity, shaping public opinion about the crisis, and encouraging civic engagement to take action. But when the announcement came that Day Zero would be postponed, international media attention waned and “climate science, and its effect on the global poor, was relegated to its habitual, secondary status” (Allsop 2018). This can be partly attributed to the fact that international media coverage of Day Zero did not substantially exist until the height of the crisis and it largely reflected the panicked official messaging from the campaign with articles “detailing city mandates of two-minute showers, drained swimming pools, or minimal toilet flushing” (Voci et al: 2020: 6). 

Climate change protest
Climate change protest

We also see this alarmist messaging reflected in news coverage of the energy crisis in the UK with reports of rocketing energy prices that could raise the spectre of a three-day working week. Given the urgency of these issues in Cape Town and now in the UK, it makes sense that this apocalyptic rhetoric is hyper-localized. However, it would be more beneficial to the public to offer greater context and transparency around the need to move away from our over-reliance on fossil fuels and hydrocarbons to foresee and avoid these crises and rally the support of national and international actors to care about, and in turn, take action on this issue. 

The energy shortage in the UK is just the latest example of how the impacts of climate change, water scarcity and energy shortages are becoming more acute around the world. Thus, in addition to examining communications campaigns and media coverage at the height of a crisis such as Day Zero in Cape Town, future academic research should consider the role of these campaigns in the public sphere of debate, as well as on the peripheries of social media in the lead up to and after an environmental crisis. This insight will be particularly valuable in understanding the implications of social media for digitally-disrupted and post-truth communication surrounding environmental issues as the countdown to the next crisis begins.

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in South East Asia and West Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

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