South Africa beckons travellers from all over the world with summer, sun and beach. But while water flows into pools, golf courses and spas, the country fails in supplying its population with the precious resource. A problem - also for the sustainability of tourism.
South African water crisis reflects inequality
The distribution of water is an issue of social justice in South Africa, the most unequal country in the world according to a recent World Bank report. During the drought in Cape Town from 2016 to 2018, the South African government has restricted access to water - but not for everyone. While the impoverished townships often have no access to the water network anyway, the temporary regulations mainly affected the working-class districts in Cape Town. Residents had to queue early in the morning with jerry cans at water taps, while in rich suburbs and posh tourist districts the water continued to flow for a long time.
Tourism at any cost
Water and the hospitality sector have become a hot topic in recent years. Water-intensive tourism activities also increase water consumption. The amount of water used to irrigate the lawn of a golf course is enough to supply up to 15,000 households with the liquid resource. However, while the population has already had its water cut off, hotels and tourist attractions were still allowed to keep their doors open for a long time. The economic value of tourism is just too important, says Dr Anthony Turton, professor of environmental management at the University of Free State in South Africa and co-author of the World Water Assessment Program 2012: "Closing the sector would have had a severe impact on the South African economy out of all proportion to its water consumption. Tourism is probably even one of the most efficient transformers of a unit of water into a unit of economic development.” Dr Jo Barnes, water expert from Stellenbosch University, adds: "Restricting tourism cannot prevent the next water crisis in South Africa. While the sector's water consumption is much higher than that of private households, it is only a drop in the ocean compared to other sectors such as agriculture. Nevertheless, the industry was forced into water-saving behaviour for economic reasons. When the drought reached its peak in 2018, water was turned off for the whole city and it also became more expensive. Some upmarket hotels even closed their doors because they could not offer the best service to their guests.”
Water-wise tourism: the new normal in South Africa?
The industry had creative ideas itself to save the precious resource without any special regulations from the government. "Ultimately, the drought created a sense of community. People left their car dirty, stopped watering their gardens, or flushed the toilet less often. All citizens tried to save water - including people working in tourism. The industry has changed its management in a water-conscious way. For example, many golf courses already capture rainwater and reuse wastewater, which is much cheaper but also helps to conserve water resources," says Dr Barnes. Indeed, suppliers have installed water-saving techniques in restaurants; floors are mopped with water from air-conditioning units; water from showers, bathrooms and sinks is pumped into catchment tanks for toilet flushing; rainwater from roofs is used to irrigate gardens; low-flow taps, and showerheads are used, and bath plugs have been removed. Ultimately, water is now used more efficiently, but water-intensive offerings such as golf courses or water parks have not been eliminated from South Africa's tourism portfolio. Tourists in particular are called upon to be more conscious in their use of water, for example through the #waterwisetourism campaign.
New incentives instead of restrictions
“South Africa has shown pretty poor planning for future droughts”, says Dr Barnes. Instead of finding further saving measures and new sources for water, South Africa is investing millions of dollars in the aging water infrastructure. “What we can do in the hospitality sector is saving water wherever possible and raising awareness to also make tourists more water conscious. But in terms of lessons learned we must keep in mind that former „no gos“ are possible and important to cope with such a severe resource scarcity. Just like restricting water use in households AND economy “, says Dr. Barnes. Incentivising hotels to save money by reducing their water consumption works much better than bans and imposed restrictions, says Dr Turton. "But the most important measure would be to adjust water prices for bulk water users. There is no place in the world except South Africa where private households pay a higher water tariff than large consumers. If those were asked to pay appropriately for their consumption, they would have an incentive to save more water, for example by recovering water from wastewater." A fair tariff structure could also improve access to water for the local population. "The state pays only 0.25 EUR per kilolitre to treat drinking water, but sells it to private households for 2.41 EUR. With bulk users, it could make considerable profits that can be used to cross-subsidise free water in poor neighbourhoods."
A symbol for social justice
For the moment, water in Cape Town is flowing again. But still not everywhere: the taps in the townships running sporadically while tourists wash the sand off their feet after a day at the beach. Furthermore, the country faces the next serious drought in Nelson Mandela Bay. "One of the most pressing vulnerabilities brought to the fore by this pandemic is the inadequate progress in providing safe access to water and sanitation in many communities across South Africa. In poor and informal settlements water provision is a problem on an ongoing basis. There are more people living in unserviced areas than the infrastructure of taps along the road can handle. Once the pandemic has been brought under control to some extent, we need to reprioritise our activities to pay much more attention to basic human needs. This is non-negotiable," Dr. Barnes claims. Holding tourism accountable for its water consumption may not be the sole answer to South Africa's water crisis. But it is certainly a symbolic response to South Africa's social injustice. Even though it may be economically wise to promote tourism even during a water crisis, the right to water must also apply to the poorest households. Also, for the sake of social peace, on which tourism depends at least as much as on swimming pools and golf courses.