South Africa Water Drought: To Stay Or To Go?

Whilst South African officials have now declared that Day Zero is unlikely to arrive, Cape Town is still suffering its worst drought in over a century. I for one can’t imagine what it would be like for our taps to run dry or for water to become so scarce that there is only one water point to 200,000 people. How on earth could this work in practical terms without tensions running high? And how would locals feel about tourists visiting and putting further strain on such a precious resource?

Hopefully Day Zero has been averted. But this has not come without huge combined efforts. I read recently how a farmers association agreed to put 10 billion litres of their own private reserves back into the hands of the cities storage dam. Then there are the steps Capetonians have made – collecting excess grey water from their 90 second shower to flush their toilet and collecting any rainwater they can by whatever means. Furthermore, many hotels emptied their swimming pools months ago and the ones we work closely with can provide, in great details, how and what they are doing to save water and protect what supply there is (as you will read later).

It’s not just Cape Town suffering with this water shortage – Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape is in almost as desperate a situation and many parts of the Western Cape such as Stellenbosch face restrictions on water use even if less severe.

However, the Western Cape water shortage is just one of many examples of a situation that often lead us as travel experts to ask “given the gravity of the situation, should tourists still be travelling there? “

I have travelled extensively in South Africa personally and we send a good number of tourists there. It is easy to see why it is popular,  It’s a beautiful country to visit – impressive ocean roads, phenomenal food and wine, great hospitality, wildlife, watersports, dramatic landscapes. It’s a challenging country too, with extremes of wealth and poverty. One minute you’re enjoying a flat white in a hipster café in a gentrified suburb and the next you are hearing of how a family survive in their tin shack with power from a car battery. What struck me about the latter experience is how content the children appeared to be with their hand-made games and instruments – singing, dancing, beaming big, joyous smiles. This is a whole complicated subject in itself. My point is, South Africa will satisfy the most demanding of cultural tourist. I love the country, and I’m asking myself this question as I want to do the right thing by my customers and by the countries we send them to, but where do you draw the line?

On the one hand it seems totally irresponsible to visit South Africa at all. The most essential resource bar the air that we breathe is in incomprehensibly short supply. Who in their right mind would dream of travelling from a country like the UK, rich with water reserves, to consume water in a country where it is so precious. Why would we not leave this disappearing resource to its residents?

On the other hand, tourism has always been an important, potentially vital part of South Africa’s economy. So many people’s welfare relies on tourism. Hotels have seen an influx of cancellations in recent months.

Hotels in South Africa have made huge changes to their water management policies and it is making a significant difference. It’s a tough line to tread when you want to ensure you’re offering great service to guests whilst being as careful as you can with water supplies. No-one wants their toilet cistern turned off but by making lots of very small sacrifices like this we hope that the Cape can make it’s reserves last until the rains come.

I have customers due to fly to South Africa in the coming weeks and I made some enquiries on the ground to help me understand the situation and relay my findings back to my customers. One hotel, Spier in Stellenbosch, sent me quite a detailed list of their action plan. They have reduced water consumption by 50% over the last year. Stellenbosch isn’t in the same danger-zone as Cape Town but water is still scarce.  Steps they’ve taken include:

  • “Water from Air” machines – giant dehumidifiers that suck in the air, cool it, and collect the condensed air which is then filtered to create up to 1500 litres of drinking water per day.
  • “loo buddies” – a way to part-fill the cisterns – into toilets to reduce water in the system by 2 litres
  • electronic water meters to monitor water consumption and to detect any water leaks
  • External taps potable and non-potable have been isolated by means of the tap lock
  • Water-less urinals
  • New aerators to all taps that reduces water consumption by 50%
  • Sensor taps in the bathrooms that reduce water usage and avoid leaks

Spier Wine Farm & Hotel in Stellenbosch have reduced water consumption by 50% over the last year.

Whilst many hotels in Cape Town have emptied their swimming pools, Spier has the space to find a different resolution – they’ve Installed two 2500L water tanks which are filled by rain collected from the Hotel’s rain gutters. The tanks are connected to our swimming pool filtration and pump systems where it is cleaned and circulated into the pool and back, thus ensuring a continuous flow of clean water.

With tourism being so important, this is about finding ways to make it work: limit the use of water, retain the tourism income.

It’s clear to me that the tourism industry wants us. It’s clear that they are doing all they can to save water. I feel if we do out bit as visitors – if we watch and think about every drop of water we use whilst in the most water-deprived areas of the Western and Eastern Capes, we can do more good than we would by staying away.

There’s no definitive right or wrong answer on this. April is the start of the rainy season and what we all really hope for is that they receive prolonged rainfall to restore their dams.

I’m a travel expert first and foremost and I can’t begin to fully understand the complexities of South Africa’s drought problems.  But the question of whether tourists should visit is a question I feel many people are asking without there being any answers as we struggled to find anyone discussing the subject online. My advice when travelling anywhere is to always tread carefully and to leave a place as you find it. We just have a little more to think about when we do it in South Africa right now. So ultimately, the decision has to be yours.  Cape Town welcomes tourism with open arms; but those in the industry have had to adapt to the the challenges of a water shortage. Tourists need to ensure that they manage their water use and in that respect they are no different to the locals. But isn’t that one of the key motivators of travel – to experience the destination as the locals do?

If you have any comments or you know of any other place where this discussion is happening, then please feel free to share in the comments below.

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