by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, March 2, 2018
I’m staring at the murky, jaundiced toilet bowl. I reach for the flush but stop and pull my hand back.
“If it’s brown flush it down, if it’s yellow let it mellow.”
Sorry to be crude, but that would be as much as 13 litres of water gone, a fifth of my daily allowance in a Cape Town struggling to manage the precious resource during the city’s worst drought in living memory.
Only I’ve returned from the South African city and am stood not on the southernmost tip of Africa but in my flat in north-east London.
“This is the new normal in terms of responsible tourism and travel,” said South African Tourism’s UK head Tolene van der Merwe, of the guidance and restrictions put in place on residents and visitors over the festive period, at a time when the city was concerned it did not have enough water to last its summer.
Avoid flushing the toilet, no baths, keep showers to three minutes (later cut to 30 seconds). Why not wash in the sea? Tourists were asked to save water like a local, while locals were to told to get “creative” in how they slashed their consumption.
Back from the Western Cape, it’s clear staying in Cape Town at the height of the drought in January has left an indelible impression on my own water usage, at home and abroad.
When I was there, the city had as little as three month’s left of water. Hotels removed plugs from baths, car hire firms stopped washing their vehicles, restaurants refused tap water. It felt like every drop mattered, and myself and the friends I was with behaved thus. We kept showers to three minutes, shamed anyone who did not, and, coming from a country where water is too often in unwelcome abundance, attempted to comprehend what it was like to live somewhere where its presence was so fragile.
Although such diligent water management is not the norm in the UK and nor so in the majority of places to which British holidaymakers travel, it is surely not too far off.Since returning home, I’ve become much more aware of the length of my showers, the water it takes to fill a bath, and, yes, thought twice about flushing the toilet.
By now, we are familiar and comfortable with keeping towels off the floor in hotels so that they might be used again the next day, saving water on laundry. And in the same way the national conscience on single-use plastic is changing, our approach to sustainable travel is poised to undergo a revamp, with Cape Town guiding the way.
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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’.”
The need for such habits is not reserved to far-off sun-scorched lands, but includes popular, mainstream destinations.
Mexico City, Tokyo and Delhi are all among dozens of cities classed as water-stressed by the Nature Conservancy. In Los Angeles, the most water-stressed city in the US, last winter ended a six year drought, during which the government instituted mandatory water restrictions.
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.
Prior to travelling to Cape Town I struggled to believe what I read about the city’s crisis, assuming that Day Zero could never happen in such a global city, such a key tourism destination.
But having spent a fortnight, seeing the cracked, bone-dry river beds, feeling the practical impact of water restrictions and imagining the hurt should the taps run dry, I appreciate environmental responsibility should no longer be a niche way to travel, but the norm.