Cape Town Beats Water Shortage But Tourists Hang Back

by David Cogswell
Cape Town Beats Water Shortage But Tourists Hang Back

Lines of people waiting to collect natural spring water for drinking in Newlands in the drought in Cape Town South Africa. Photo: Mark Fisher/Shutterstock.com.


A drought in 2017 brought Cape Town’s water supply to a dangerously low level and started a scare about Day Zero, the day when the city would theoretically run out of water if usage continued to outstrip the water supply.

In the face of a water shortage, citizens, city and provincial governments, and the tourism sector rallied and launched a myriad of initiatives to change the ratio of consumption-to-replenishment of water supplies. The success of the initiatives went far beyond expectations. Today, after a combination of hard work and good luck, Cape Town’s water supply is no longer a pressing issue.

Good news travels slowly
Unfortunately, the news of the recovery has not traveled as fast as the news of the crisis did, and a city that relies on tourism for 7.5 percent of its GDP is still experiencing a reduction in tourism arrivals because of perceptions surrounding the water shortage of early 2018.

“The scare had an impact on South African Airways’ business and on Cape Town because of the coverage in January and February,” said Todd M. Neuman, executive vice president, North America, for South African Airways.

“But water continues to flow in Cape Town,” Neuman said. “Cape Town did not run out of water. Cape Town did a fantastic job with water conservation. It has been recognized worldwide how Cape Town made the effort to save water. The water is running, the hotels are running. We have had a wet winter in South Africa, especially in the Western Cape. The reservoirs are 65-70 percent full again. There is no shortage of water.”

Innovation and water conservation
Through a variety of water conservation efforts, the city cut its water consumption by more than half, from 1.2 billion liters a day to 550 million liters a day. At the same time, Cape Town experienced a drenching winter (June through August). Civic water restrictions loosened, but most of the conservation measures remain in effect to insure against a repeat of the water crisis.

Local hotels joined in the efforts by creating educational programs to inform guests how they could participate in conservation. The guests proved to be happy to participate.

According to Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, “As guests were escorted to their rooms in these luxury establishments, part of the conversation was, ‘Thank you so much for supporting Cape Town. We want to share some of the good work that we are doing at our establishment to ensure that we are water-wise and that you have a remarkable stay.’ So, it was done in that kind of style rather than, ‘Oh we’re in a water crisis and you’d better do these 10 things.’”

Combined efforts
The water conservation efforts included a wide variety of initiatives:

  • Hotels and homes installed new shower heads that decreased the flow of water while maintaining pressure so that the change was barely noticeable to users, but the effect on conservation was significant.
  • Some hotels removed bath plugs to encourage taking showers instead of baths.
  • A new technology from a company called Water-Gen was deployed to pull “water from air.” The system extracts moisture from the atmosphere, similarly to how an air conditioner works but using less energy. It produces drinking water for about 8 cents a gallon.
  • A local campaign that urged residents to reduce water consumption was highly successful.
  • Hotels and homes set up systems for using gray water, filtered water from shower or baths, for watering gardens or for toilet water.
  • Some hotels replanted their gardens with hearty indigenous plants that needed less water but were as beautiful as the plants they replaced.
  • Swimming pools were protected with liquid pool blankets, using a nontoxic solution on the surface that prevents evaporation but does not affect the swimming experience.
  • The Westin Cape Town set up a desalination plant that processes sea water for drinking. The plant uses a three-stage filtration system to remove the salt from sea water by running it through a filter with such small permeations that only a pure water molecule will pass through. The plant provides 400,000 liters of water per day, supplying three hotels, without touching the city’s water supply. It makes the hotel sustainable and off-the-grid so it can operate without impacting the local water supply.


“It means that we are still supporting tourism, which is a massive revenue generator for the city,” said Stacy Hopkins, Westin Cape Town’s director of sales.

Setting an example
In a time of rising global temperatures and increasing populations, Cape Town became the model for how cities could cope with water shortages in the future.

“As a result of remarkable efforts of government and citizens, as well as the tourism industry, this is a phenomenal turnaround in one year,” said African Travel’s Banda. “The city is well on the way to recover from a very severe drought.

“But what is really interesting about this experience is that the drought taught not only Capetonians or South Africans, but the world, an invaluable lesson in responding to the changing global climate. The Western Cape has transformed into a sustainable tourism destination leading the charge in promoting and practicing water-wise tourism. And that is so exciting because it is shaping how we travel and how we behave when we are traveling.”

Getting out the message
Unfortunately for a city that relies on tourism as a staple of its economy, the scare has continued to put a damper on tourism. The coverage of the water shortage caused many to stay away because they thought it would be better if there were fewer people using the water. At this point, however, the opposite is true. Cape Town needs tourism for its economic well-being.

“Staying away from Cape Town is not part of the solution,” said Bangu Masisi, president of South African Tourism, North America. “Instead, it’s putting strain on a region that depends heavily on tourism. The city has over 1.2 million visitors annually, spending approximately R40 billion [U.S. $2.8 billion], and creating over 300,000 jobs, adding over 7.5 percent to the city’s total GDP. This spending helps significantly to fund the ongoing water-saving projects being implemented; decreasing this input will create further challenges and financial strain.”

As to the issue of tourists using Cape Town’s water, it is not a significant impact. “It’s important for us in travel, to remind travelers that tourism in the Western Cape makes up only 1 percent of the population at peak season,” said Banda, “but it contributes to a sector that supports more than 300,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Western Cape.”

Hope on the horizon
Fortunately for South Africa, the recovery in tourism has begun. “The good news is our partners in the local trade are reporting that forward bookings are already reflecting an uptick in numbers,” said SAT’s Masisi, “and are expected to grow more as news of stable water levels in the Western Cape spreads.”

South Africa is number three on Virtuoso’s top 10 most popular fall season and holiday travel destinations for Americans, based on future bookings for September through December 2018. Beyond this season’s tourism revenues, Cape Town’s triumph over the water shortage has engendered a wave of optimism.

“As the dam levels rose, so did the spirits of locals,” said Banda. “When you live in an area that is facing drought, it’s a very anxious time. As the rain came, everyone would start out their conversations with, ‘It’s a great day.’

“The human spirit has the capability to evoke tremendous change. If we tap into that level of consciousness, we could move mountains. If Cape Town can have this kind of turnaround in such a short period of time, what’s to say we couldn’t do even better … the next time a major city faces the same kind of challenge, because we now have a standard of what good looks like.

“While it’s always uncomfortable to be dealing with moments of stress, I like to think it is preparing us for the greatest time yet to come.”

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