How Much Do You Think about Water While On Vacation?

Tourists generally don’t devote much thought to water usage. And why should they? After all, crystal swimming pools, delightfully verdant tropical grounds, and long, luxurious showers are essential elements of any successful vacation, as any harried wage-slave will be happy to tell you. But according to British charity Tourism Concern, blissed-out tourists in third world countries should be contemplating how their leisure is affecting others lives.

As it turns out, all that showering and swimming may be genuinely harmful to the residents of developing countries, who rely on the very same water  tourists frolic in for their most basic day-to-day needs. Sure, tourism can bring in needed income for developing countries – but tourism can also cause serious resource shortages, that are very difficult for passing visitors to percieve. Worse, peak tourist season is usually in the summer, when strain on local water supplies is highest.

Tourism Concern recently released a rather interesting new report on the concrete effects of tourism on water supplies in third-world countries, and it’s interesting reading. Tourism Concern analyzed water use statistics in popular developing-destinations Goa and Kerala (India), Bali (Indonesia), Zanzibar (Tanzania), and the Gambia (West Africa). The results are definitely distressing. According to Tourism Concern, there’s usually a yawning disparity between hotel room water use and that of the average local, thanks to tourist development’s superior infrastructure and substantial water needs.  In Goa, the group found that a five-star resort used 1,785 litres of water per guest each day—in stark contrast to the 14 litres the resort’s local neighbors used.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania, Human Concern claims that hotels employ security guards to patrol pipelines to prevent them from being cut by locals as community wells are becoming salty and useless. Sewage from growing tourism developments is damaging the water quality of Kerala, India’s iconic backways and rice paddies. The water table in Bali is dropping, and the water that’s there is diminishing in quality. Meanwhile, women in the Gambia must still rise early in the morning and spend much of their day fetching water, while hotels often fail to pay for what they use. You can read the full Tourism Concern report here.

Some tourism-centered businesses may use water reduction techniques to tout their environmentally friendly facilities , but Tourism Concern says though these efforts are a step in the right direction, they aren’t nearly enough. Encouraging tourists to take fewer showers and reuse their towels fails to address bigger issues like water contamination and unfair water distribution structures – and worse, often lulls even thoughtful travelers into a false sense of complacency.

The linchpin of Tourism Concern’s approach is cooperation and accountability: tourist-driven businesses, government, and communities need to work together to figure out methods of coexistence, methods that don’t doom locals to a parched existence. Further, women need to be brought into the fold, as they are usually responsible for the punishing and usually thankless work of fetching water. Actually implementing these strategies, especially in places plagued by corruption, is the hard part. The needs of the impoverished tend to come at a very distant second to profit motives.

Certainly the charity’s base idea is a no-brainer. Water resources are scarce and getting scarcer, and major tourist developments in low-income areas are going to have an especially damaging effect on locals access to H20. Further, I can’t say it’s ever occurred to me to think about the damage that refreshing, aesthetically-pleasing resort pool is doing to people nearby – and I suspect that few others have given it deep contemplation, either.

When vacationing in the developing world it’s easy to imagine you’re a world apart when you walk through the doors of your resort hotel, which has usually been carefully engineered to make you think you’re in some Western resort, preferably in Orlando or Italy.  But even those carefully-controlled ecosystems have a real impact on those forced to live outside their pleasingly designed walls, and that’s worthy of deep consideration by responsible travelers.

Ultimately, nothing in the water-use game is going to change until tourists demand something different – and it’ll be very interesting to see if Tourism Concern’s campaign makes a dent in popular perceptions.