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Last January — during the height of summer in South Africa — Cape Town was staring down the barrel of an unprecedented ecological crisis. In a few months, the municipal taps would run dry, making it the first major city in the world to run out of water.
A combination of population growth, poor planning and record-breaking drought brought the Mother City to the brink of disaster. Water restrictions, already in place for more than a year, were tightened to 50 liters (around 13 gallons) per person, per day. The government coined the term Day Zero for the day the taps would be shut off, and around 4 million Capetonians would need to go to official collection points to receive a daily water ration.
Residents and businesses desperately conserved water, doing everything they could to stave off Day Zero long enough for the winter rains to (hopefully) arrive. They installed rainwater tanks and sunk boreholes; they took two-minute showers and captured the used water in a bucket to flush their toilets. Hotels removed bath plugs from rooms, restaurants switched to bottled water and public restrooms turned off their faucets in favor of hand sanitizer dispensers.
It worked. The city managed to cut its water usage by 60% compared to three years prior, when the drought began. A fortuitously wet winter refilled the dams. Day Zero was pushed back several times and eventually postponed to an unnamed date in 2019. By December, water restrictions had been relaxed to 100 liters (around 26.5 gallons) per person per day. Cape Town managed to dodge a bullet, at least for the time being.
“We’ve exited the water crisis but if we aren’t careful, we could enter one again,” said Cape Town-based sustainability expert Elan Theeboom. “What we went through was a particularly bad drought that lasted three years. If we get hit by something like that again, there will be water shortages again and hotels will take away the bath plugs again.”
To shield themselves against future shortages, some hotels invested in alternative sources of water. Mechanical engineer Grant Duncan told The Points Guy that, during the water restrictions, he received enquiries from hospitality groups looking to go off-grid. “Hotel and leisure groups stood to lose a lot of business with expectant international visitors. They wanted to know what they could do to save, reuse and find new sources of water,” he said.
Some of the most common measures included sinking boreholes to access groundwater and recycling gray water. At The Backpack hostel, purified groundwater is used for drinking and washing, while the Table Bay Hotel irrigates its plants with gray water harvested from its air conditioners. Over at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, a mountain spring that runs through the property is used for laundry and tops up the swimming pool. The V&A Waterfront (a harborside retail and entertainment complex that includes the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) has switched from regular AC to seawater cooling and is even building its own desalination plant.
During the drought, hotels also asked guests to do their bit to conserve water during their stay. Signage went up encouraging visitors to avoid baths, to shorten their showers, to turn off taps while brushing teeth, to reuse linens and towels and to let it mellow if it’s yellow. For the most part, guests were happy to comply. “International tourists have heeded the call to save water in solidarity while they’re here,” said Donald Kau, head of communications and public relations for the V&A Waterfront, which receives 24 million visitors annually. “The insight has been that tourists and visitors very much want to have a positive impact.”
The desire to have a positive impact is not limited to those visiting Cape Town. Concerns about climate change have created a growing appetite for sustainable tourism that preserves, rather than exploits, a destination. But should we even travel to places facing an environmental crisis, and take up precious resources that aren’t ours to use? In Cape Town, tourism accounts for just 1% of water usage, but contributes 9% of South Africa’s gross domestic product and 9.5% of its total employment. Clearly, the economic benefit of visiting outweighs any negative environmental impact, especially if you’re traveling in a responsible and sustainable way.
But sustainable travel can be difficult to achieve, even for a mindful traveler. A trip is basically a long series of decisions — where to eat lunch, whether to buy a souvenir — and it can be challenging to ensure that every single choice is an ethical one.
“A lot of people think about sustainable travel in terms of environmental impact but there’s a huge social component as well that often goes understated,” said Eytan Elterman, co-founder of Lokal Travel, a booking platform for culturally-immersive tourism and sustainable lodging around the world. “According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) up to 95% of international travel dollars spent don’t stay in the communities visited, which can lead to illegal economic activities like hunting, mining or deforestation.”
And according to Kelley Louise, executive director of the Impact Travel Alliance, a global community and nonprofit that helps facilitate sustainable travel, consumer demand creates supply so being intentional about who we book with is one of the best ways to make a difference.
She noted that there are both small businesses and large corporations who are committed to doing better. Norwegian Air Shuttle, for example, has been rated the most fuel-efficient airline operating transatlantic flights, while Royal Caribbean has invested heavily in more eco-friendly cruise vessels. Resources such as the Impact Travel Alliance can help people find these eco-minded companies.
But Louise also points out that sustainability is a lifestyle that starts at home with little, everyday decisions. And no one knows that better than a Capetonian.
“[Water conservation] is a way of life for us,” said Lee Harris, co-owner of The Backpack hostel which has followed sustainable practices since it opened in 1990. “The world is running out of fresh water so we have to change the way we do things for our children to have a future.” Even though the crisis is over, many residents will never again view water as if it were an infinite resource rather than a precious commodity. And visitors would be wise to take that lesson to heart no matter where they’re visiting from.
Sustainable Travel Resources
You don’t have to be traveling to Cape Town during a severe water shortage to start making purposeful, sustainable travel decisions. These resources can help point you in the right direction wherever your travels take you.
Impact Travel Alliance: A global community and nonprofit that aims to improve the world through travel.
Lokal Travel: A booking platform for culturally-immersive tourism and sustainable lodging options around the world.
Visit.org: Find social impact travel experiences in more than 70 countries across the globe.
Village Monde: Promotes village tourism and accommodation outside of traditional tourist circuits.
Kind Traveler: Hotel booking platform that offers discounts to travelers who donate to local charities.
G Adventures: Adventure tour company and social enterprise.
Grassroots Volunteering: Resource connecting travelers to volunteer opportunities.
Bookdifferent!: Booking platform for eco-friendly and sustainable accommodations.
Featured photo by Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images.
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