On a trip to Rajasthan last month I experienced 18 consecutive days of Brahman-blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures. A layer of dust cloaked the roads and hotels like dry, flaking skin. Despite the fact that India is a country where the seasons are marked by monsoon rains, areas such as Rajasthan and the nearby capital Delhi are classified by the World Resources Institute as extremely water-stressed. Yet tourists would hardly know it given the pools and hotels’ lush gardens.
“I think we are conditioned as tourists to cast a blind eye to local problems such as water sometimes,” says Responsible Travel CEO and founder Justin Francis. “We want to leave all our worries and responsibilities behind when we travel, yet may be unaware that tourists often use far more water per person than local people.”
The terms “water-stressed” and “water-scarce” might not have been on many British travellers’ radars until recently, but the drought in Cape Town thrust the issue to the fore, highlighting the need for them to be part of our tourism vocabulary. Trip cancellations spiked as shocked holidaymakers deliberated over whether they should visit (and whether they were prepared to put up with water saving measures such as 90-second showers). But Cape Town is not alone. Many other popular holiday destinations are facing severe water stress too – have we been ignoring their plight?
Today, 22 March, is World Water Day, and this week the eighth World Water Forum has convened in Brasilia to increase awareness of deepening global water crises. About 40 per cent of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people – already live in water-scarce regions, according to the World Water Council, and this is expected to rise to 66 per cent by 2025.
Often, the biggest disparities between tourist water usage and local usage exist in developing countries. Conflicts between local communities and the hotel industry have been recorded in several tourism hotspots including Bali, Kerala and Zanzibar, particularly where hotels have put in unregulated bore holes that unwittingly draw from the same aquifers (underground water sources) as local wells.
The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) says destinations, and hotels especially, have a responsibility to educate visitors. “Just as we would expect a destination to inform tourists about cultural tradition or inoculations they may need, we should expect them to work with the trade and media to inform tourists about other aspects that are vitally important to their travel destination, such as water if that is a scarce resource,” says WTTC research director Rochelle Turner.
Tourism brings obvious economic benefits and tourism organisations unilaterally agree that the answer isn’t to stop visiting, but to better understand our impact.
Cyprus’s Water Development Department urged the public to stop wasting water in January as the island faced its second year of drought, describing the situation as “tragic”. The three reservoirs in Paphos, a popular holiday and golfing destination, are at 19 per cent of capacity – half what they were the same time last year. Yet a single 18-hole golf course uses 50 million litres of water a year, which is as much as 1,000 average households on Cyprus, according to Tourism Concern. More are under construction on the island.
What to do: “If you want to play golf, go to Scotland,” says Tourism Concern’s Mark Watson, who questions whether using water to keep golf courses green and healthy is an appropriate use of local resources. Responsible Travel’s Justin Francis advises travellers to challenge hotels on their environmental policies. “Send a message to hotels that you care about water consumption by asking your hotel to let you know about their water reduction activities. If they don’t have any, then don’t book and/or tell them you are very disappointed.”
A spiralling population, burgeoning middle-class and decades of poor water management have been blamed for India’s looming groundwater crisis, and by 2030 it is expected that almost 60 per cent of India’s aquifers will be in a critical condition.
What to do: Pack a reuseable water bottle as many hotels supply free filtered water, and look out for other signs that your accommodation is doing its bit, such as buckets placed in the shower to capture water that can be used for watering gardens or cleaning. “Use hand sanitiser instead of washing your hands, use the wonders of dry shampoo, and don’t leave taps on when brushing your teeth,” adds Responsible Travel’s Justin Francis.
In one of the 10 most water-poor countries in the world, locals have been witnessing the slow death of the Dead Sea for years as record-low water levels continue to drop more than a metre a year. The World Bank has called out the Middle East and North Africa as “a global hotspot of unsustainable water use” and research from Stanford University predicts that Jordan’s plight will get significantly worse.
What to do: “Although Jordan has scarce water, tourism has marginal negative impact in terms of water use,” says Nabil Tarazi, a founding board member of the Global Ecotourism Network and director of EcoHotels in Jordan.
In an arid valley flanking Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve, Feynan Ecolodge is a superb example of how tourism can actually help ease, rather than exacerbate, water strains, as it supplements water resources for its neighbouring Bedouin community. It also strictly controls on-site water consumption, which includes the use of aerator devices on taps and showers to limit the flow of water. Tarazi recommends spending no more than five minutes in a low-flowing shower like the ones at Feynan, or three minutes if using a high-pressure shower in a five-star hotel. Also, “limit your stays in large hotels with massive swimming pools.”
Grappling with overtourism issues and record levels of visitors, last November pictures emerged of the Iberian Peninsula’s longest river drying up and a damning report from Greenpeace called out Spain’s poor water management as “robbery” in the face of its worst drought in two decades. The cracked river bed exposed a desert landscape, which is exactly what the Greenpeace study says 75 per cent of Spain is at risk of becoming.
What to do: Spain needs our holiday euros. “Tourism in Spain accounts for 14 per cent of GDP and about 5 per cent of all jobs, at a time when unemployment levels at over 16 per cent are one of the highest in Europe,” says Francis, who maintains that Spain is still a good holiday choice if travellers are prepared to become “low water travellers”. He adds: “Choose places to visit that are slightly off the tourist track. By doing so you will ease the pressure on the honeypots of overtourism, local resources such as water, and local people.”