Thanks to its famous coastline and peninsular setting, tourists in Cape Town expect that they will be surrounded by water — and lots of it. But as visitors have descended this month for the peak summer tourist season, they have been greeted at the airport with signs beseeching them to “Slow the flow: Save H2O” and “Don’t waste a drop!” among others.
Cape Town is in the throes of a severe drought because unseasonably dry winters have led to dangerously low dam levels. As of mid-December, the city’s dams were at about 33 percent capacity, according to the mayor’s office, and what officials have dubbed “Day Zero” is looming: that’s the date the dams will drop below 13.5 percent, taps will be turned off, and residents will have to line up at 200 checkpoints across the city to collect daily water allotments, with police and military deployed to monitor the situation. As of Dec. 18, based on current consumption and expected rainfall, Day Zero is projected to be April 29, 2018.
“The city of Cape Town could conceivably become the first major city in the world to run out of water, and that could happen in the next four months,” said Dr. Anthony Turton, a professor at the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State. “It’s not an impending crisis — we’re deep, deep, deep in crisis.”
As the city races to implement alternatives through recycling, boreholes and desalination by February, residents are restricted to 87 liters (23 gallons) of water per person per day. “We are all in this together and we can only save water while there is still water to be saved,” Zara Nicholson, the spokeswoman for Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille, said in an email. Residents are asked to meet that number by limiting showers to two minutes, turning off taps while brushing teeth, avoiding flushing toilets regularly (“If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” as one sign puts it) and using recycled water when they do, not watering gardens or topping off swimming pools, and using hand sanitizer instead of soap and water. But as the city struggles to hit a household consumption target of less than 500 million liters per day, anxiety continues to build.
“I think it’s kind of like, you know when you have a health scare, so you just ignore it till you’re dying on the ground?” said Natalie Roos, a Cape Town-based blogger. “I think that’s pretty much where we’re at.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, officials say that visitors are welcome. “The City of Cape Town certainly welcomes and encourages all tourists to Cape Town to visit our beautiful iconic city,” Ms. Nicholson wrote. “Tourism is a major job creator and one our most important sectors.”
About 150,000 people, or 10 percent of the city’s 1.5 million annual foreign visitors, visit Cape Town in December, but many tourists are unaware of the severity of the situation until they hear pilots making announcements just before landing at Cape Town International Airport. Experts say there’s no reason for travelers to stay away, but raising awareness and water consciousness is essential.
“Tourists traveling to a destination, in terms of being a responsible traveler, should always be aware of context of a destination to which they’re traveling, whether it’s cultural sensitivity or religious sensitivity,” said Lisa Scriven, the director of Levelle Perspectives, which works to implement sustainable tourism practices. “This is water sensitivity.”
Ms. Scriven pointed out that the surge in tourists does not correlate to a surge in water consumption — many Capetonians leave the city for the holidays and the construction industry shuts down; tourists only represent a 1 to 3 percent increase in population during the season. But the travel industry is encouraging sustainable practices for all, locals and visitors alike: hotels send notices upon booking and add signage asking guests to be conscientious during stays, while also removing bath plugs, installing new shower heads that reduce water flow, adding timers to help guests keep showers under two minutes, and refraining from daily linen changes.
The eco-friendly Hotel Verde has placed stickers in bathrooms educating guests on how many glasses of water are used in one bath while also incentivizing guests for good water practices — giving discounts for not requesting ice and glasses and drinking straight from the bottle, for instance. The Taj Cape Town is closing down steam rooms and hot tubs in its spa and has stopped offering a standard honeymoon amenity of a rose-petal laden bath. The city’s “Save Like a Local” campaign asks all visitors, whether they’re staying in hotels or holiday rentals, to pitch in — by using a bucket in the shower to recycle water, not requesting fresh towels and linens daily, and adapting the practices that are becoming the norm for Capetonians.
“Now do you see this beautiful bath? It’s now a sculpture,” the Airbnb host Alison von During said she tells her guests as she shows them around, before briefing them on the water restrictions.
Although things may change if Day Zero becomes a reality, for now travelers are encouraged to be respectful of the crisis while still enjoying a visit to one of the world’s most beautiful cities — the income generated by tourism is not something South Africa can afford to lose, as tourism accounts for 9.4 percent of the country’s GDP.
“The tourist dollar is lifeblood of economy, and we obviously don’t want send out a symbol that the city is going to collapse,” Dr. Turton said. “I think it’s important that all tourists become hyperaware that there is a serious water crisis, but I don’t think we want them to have a bad experience as a result of that. We want to appeal to the tourists’ conscience, to enjoy the city but do the right thing by the local community.”
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