This article explores responses to one type of climate risk, severe water scarcity, during Cape Town’s drought from 2016 to mid-2018. Advancing our understanding of how societies can cope and develop despite disruptions, it considers how selected pathways shaped noteworthy response diversity to mitigate the impact and potential harms associated with the unprecedented drought. Enhancing capacity through off-grid alternatives, private responses led to the emergence of innovative arrangements, at extraordinary scales, to adaptively secure variants of household level water access and reserves while expanding general reserve margins. Unintended consequences of nascent off-grid capacity arrangements precipitated transformations and accommodation challenges to public governance systems. We relate these observations to emerging trends in ‘off-grid’ provision of goods by non-state actors, seen in other fields, a phenomenon we call ‘climate gating’. These observations highlight what is and what is not potentially safeguarded by such decentralised and polycentric responses.