As Cape Town prepares for another summer on the brink of an environmental disaster, with fresh restrictions on water usage already in place, the head of South African tourism has called on the city to become a blueprint for water-scarce cities around the world.
The popular South African city narrowly avoided running out of water earlier this year, thanks to stringent rules governing water consumption and a major campaign encouraging tourists to “save like a local”. At one point the city was weeks away from “day zero”, when street-corner water rationing would be enforced.
Cape Town’s “Big Six” dams have been restored somewhat by rainfall over the winter months, but an October heatwave has already put authorities on alert. The dams are, on average, at just over 70 per cent full, with levels much higher than this time last year.
Last summer’s crisis had a negative impact on tourism numbers, with travellers concerned about water usage staying away, but Sisa Ntshona, chief executive of South African Tourism, says the city will not shy away from its difficult relationship with water.
“We have recovered from the drought. However, we really want to share our lessons with the world around climate change issues,” he said. “Drought is not a matter of ‘if’, it is a matter of ‘when’ in major cities around the world.
“We want to give them the playbook as to how resilient cities like Cape Town overcame the water shortage.”
Ntshona said that what happened in Cape Town is happening in major cities around the world, but that the Western Cape drought became global news after authorities decided to introduce a “day zero” deadline. “A journalist told me it was too sexy not to use. It conjures up armageddon,” he said. “It was a dramatic campaign targeted at Capetonians.”
According to figures from the World Wildlife Fund, Cape Town does not even rank in the 20 most water-stressed cities in the world. Chennai, Istanbul, Tehran, Hyderabad and Kolkata make up the top five.
Los Angeles, in sixth, was one of the cities Cape Town contacted at the height of the drought for advice. Now, after successfully navigating the crisis in one of the world’s famous tourist destinations, cities have been in touch with them, including Sao Paulo and Sydney.
Regions affected by water scarcity are not limited to other continents. In Europe, too, the EU’s environmental agency, has identified Cyprus, Bulgaria, Spain and Malta as countries at risk of drought at current consumption rates.
“We never want to lose the status of Cape Town being a place where you are aware of water consumption,” said Ntshona. “Sometimes you need a bit of a shock to show you what is possible.”
He says that water usage is undergoing a similar overhaul in perceptions as single-use plastic has the past 12 months: “Never underestimate the enthusiasm of the tourist to do the right thing if they are informed with the right information.
“Now how do we make it the new norm, as opposed to just an adjustment, so that the tourist becomes a champion to really drive water conservation not just in South Africa globally.”
Restrictions placed on both tourists and locals earlier this year included restrictions on taking baths, flushing toilets and washing clothes. Swimming pools lay dry and car hire firms stopped washing vehicles. As recently as May, experts were discussing towing an iceberg from Antarctica to Cape Town to help alleviate the stress on supplies.
Even as the city emerged from the drought, announcing that “day zero” would not happen this year or next, the UK head for South African Tourism said “we must continue to be sensitive to the changing environment and modify our attitudes to water consumption”.
Level 5 restrictions on water use were brought into force in Cape Town from the start of October (Level 6b were in force at the height of the drought) and will be reassessed regularly as the city heads into its peak period.
This means that personal usage is limited to 70 litres a day. Visitors to the city are encouraged to reuse towels, flush the toilet “as little as possible” and limit showers to 90 seconds. They are also asked to avoid baths and swim in the ocean and tidal pools rather than swimming pools.
“This will affect your holiday in that you are being asked to use as little water as possible, but you will still be able to do everything you need to enjoy a holiday in Cape Town,” the city’s tourist advice says.
Guidance issued to tourists visiting the Western Cape last summer is increasingly being seen as the norm for travellers around the world.
Last year, the World Travel and Tourism Council launched its Is It Too Much To Ask? campaign, encouraging tourists to sign up to any of 10 pledges that encompass all elements of environmentally friendly and responsible travel. Among them was a three-minute limit on showers in water-scarce destinations, a vow to offset the CO2 impact of a trip and to demand to see the environmental credentials of any tour operator before booking. Indeed, the ubiquity of plastic in hotels featured in Telegraph Travel’s very own campaign to improve the way we travel.
“For decades, the travel and tourism sector has been trying to make sustainable and responsible practices more mainstream,” the WTTC said. “It shouldn’t be called ‘sustainable tourism’ as a niche, but rather just ‘tourism’.”