Cape Town is currently in the third year of a severe drought, which has necessitated unprecedented water restrictions. Consumption has halved over the past two years and continues to decline. While the environmental constraints are indeed severe, it is imperative that we also safeguard the local economy and the jobs that depend on it.
Wesgro, the official tourism and trade investment promotion agency for Western Cape, calculates that tourism supports over 200,000 direct jobs across the province, as well as a further 100,000 indirect and induced jobs. It contributes R38-billion annually to the local economy and is the second-largest economic sector. Over 54 percent of all visitors to the city are domestic travellers, with 27 percent of these visitors coming from Gauteng. Groups and conference-related travel, both international and domestic, also account for a healthy share of the visitors.
Given the current climate, many visitors are rethinking their plans to travel to Cape Town, and this hesitation has a huge impact both on the local economy and the national tourism sector. In particular, international visitors who book package holidays to South Africa that include a short break in Cape Town tend to cancel the entire holiday, including visits to Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, when they’re concerned about one stop on the trip. At the same time, conference bookings are also under pressure, as visitors worry about the impact of their water consumption on the city as a whole.
The concern is understandable, but in fact visitors account for only 2.4 percent of Cape Town’s daily water consumption, while having an enormous impact on the economy. At the same time, this is an issue that will become increasingly common.
Cape Town’s current water crisis is far from unique. Two years ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified water scarcity as the largest global risk in terms of impact, with many cities worldwide experiencing shortages to varying degrees. According to the WEF’s Global Risks Report 2016, water crises are one of the three biggest challenges we face. The WEF estimates that 4-billion people – two-thirds of the global population – are facing water scarcity. Already, 500-million people live in places where water consumption is double the amount of rainfall. This problem will become acuter as populations grow and water use continues to rise.
It’s clear that we need to make better and fairer use of the water resources we are fortunate to have, but even the WEF study admits that this won’t be easy. In fact, it will be one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century.
The harsh reality is that if there are fewer tourists, then there is less work and fewer shifts. This will shrink the economy, and the knock-on effect will be felt far beyond the borders of Cape Town.
Negotiating this challenge is precisely what Cape Town is already doing, and we as the hospitality sector are doing our part too. Businesses, residents and visitors have come together to ensure that water usage declines steadily. With short-term measures already showing results, we are aware that we also need to start planning for the longer term. Unfortunately, this needs to become the new normal and requires us to take similar actions to when there was a scarcity of electricity not too long ago.
The hospitality sector has successfully reduced its water usage by monitoring water consumption per bed night, removing bath plugs, adding water-saving shower heads and tap restrictors, scrapping table linen and reducing linen changes. This has resulted in reducing water consumption by as much as 40 percent at Tsogo Sun, Cape Town’s largest accommodation supplier.
We are also looking for ways to augment our water supply, for example by installing a private desalination plant at the Westin Hotel, which will use seawater already being pumped from its basements to supplement water usage. Boreholes and additional water storage are also being installed. All of this means that some hotel properties will reduce their dependency on municipal water supply.
These measures will mean that we can continue with operations throughout the drought, despite the water restrictions. It’s particularly important that we spread the word to the larger public, especially business and leisure travellers, that Cape Town is still open for business and still offers a great experience to holidaymakers.
If we don’t succeed in this, the impact of a drop in tourism will hit the poor and working class the most. Those who drive tour buses, serve tables, clean rooms and man iconic tourist destinations to put food on the tables for their families will struggle. The harsh reality is that if there are fewer tourists, then there is less work and fewer shifts. This will shrink the economy, and the knock-on effect will be felt far beyond the borders of Cape Town.
Loadshedding forced us to think differently about electricity usage and to change behaviour. Now it’s time to think innovatively about alternative water sources and water savings. Everybody needs to understand that Cape Town is open for business. While no one can guarantee uninterrupted water supply, the tourism industry has put the necessary measures in place to ensure guests’ needs will be provided for. Our only appeal is to use this water responsibly and “save like a local”.
Ravi Nadasen is the chief operating officer of Tsogo Sun and the deputy chairperson of the Tourism Business Council.