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27 Aug, 2012

How Much Water Will 2 Billion Tourists Guzzle?

A major United Nations report being discussed at the World Water Week now underway in Stockholm provides ample food for thought for the travel & tourism industry: Can it cope with the pressures of managing the generation, consumption and disposal of water by more than two billion international and domestic tourists annually?

From Kenya to the UAE, the Caribbean to Europe, Costa Rica to China, countries and regions turning to travel & tourism as a means of economic development are set to face significant problems as global water systems and supplies face increasing constraints, the report warns.

Says the report, “Water is increasingly a critical factor in decisions regarding the location of economic activities such as industry, mining, power and tourism. Companies working or contemplating investment in water-stressed regions are becoming aware of their ‘water footprint’ and its impact on local communities, which could pose operational and reputational risks to their business.

“A growing number of countries will also face increasing difficulties in providing water to their growing water-intensive cities, farms and industries. Investment in measures to bring supply and demand into better alignment can safeguard future development in such cases.”

The report says tourism depends not only on the availability of fresh-water but also the quality of water in the ecosystems and the oceans.

“Every year across the world, coastal ecosystems provide an estimated US$25 billion worth of services in the form of food security, shoreline protection, tourism and carbon sequestration. In Zanzibar, marine ecosystem services account for 30% of GDP, 77% of investment, large amounts of foreign currency and numerous jobs.

“Caribbean countries depend on coral reefs for tourism, fisheries and shoreline protection. Degradation of these reefs could reduce net benefits by between US$350 million and US$870 million a year. Because conventional urban management is hardly concerned with water resources management, adverse effects are expected to continue before the costs and benefits are fully recognized.”

The report identifies both water and tourism as two of 11 “green economy” sectors, along with agriculture, buildings, cities, energy, fisheries, forestry, manufacturing, transport and waste management. But it notes that the health of tourism destinations, products and projects is directly related to the availability and quality of water available to support them.

Says the report, “Water is increasingly becoming a critical factor in decisions for the location of economic activities such as industry, mining, power and tourism. Companies working or contemplating investment in water-stressed regions are becoming aware of their ‘water footprint’ and its impact on local communities, which could pose operational and reputational risk to their business.”

It adds, “Ecosystems provide a wide range of services (e.g. food and fibre, nutrient recycling, climate regulation, flood and drought regulation, and tourism and recreation), all of which are underpinned by water security.

“Water use by all is dependent on ecosystem functioning, as are the other natural resource-based goods and services that support human society. Maintaining the ability of ecosystems to support ecosystem services is therefore critical for socio-economic well-being and sustainable development.”

At the same time, the report notes that “tourism generally provides a strong incentive to protect the environment and water quality, because a healthy environment is what attracts its trade. As such, tourism development may become a positive driver, if properly advised and facilitated, but urbanization and lack of proper waste treatment have destroyed recreational assets.”

Entitled, “Managing Water Under Uncertainty and Risk,” the fourth edition of the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, Download the full report, originally published in March 2012 and released at the Water Forum in Marseilles, France), is described as “a milestone within the WWDR series.”

The usage of the word “Uncertainty and Risk” comes within the context of a world which is changing faster than ever in often unforeseeable ways.  One part of the more than 900-page report is devoted to contributions from UN-Water members to build a comprehensive review of regional and challenge area issues surrounding the world’s freshwater resources. A third section, ‘Facing the Challenges’, includes country-level case studies describing the progress made in meeting water-related objectives.

It is designed to offer leaders in government, the private sector and civil society tools and response options to address current and future challenges related to the pressures driving demand for water and affecting its availability.

The action awaiting the travel & tourism industry is to enumerate the water consumption of the one billion international visitor arrivals forecast by the UN World Tourism Organisation for this year, as well as the more than twice as many domestic tourists, and evaluate the sustainability of these rosy forecasts. The challenge is similar to that facing the industry across the board – to optimise the economic gains while minimising consumption, waste and disposal of precious natural resources, including water, food, and energy.

The challenge is all the more acute because the competitive pressures for water are set to get worse, both between countries as well as amongst individual economic sectors within countries. To avert the risk of this competition breaking out into outright conflict, the entire paradigm of generating growth at any cost will need to be reconstructed.

The World Water Week is organised by Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in cooperation with the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and the Swedish Foreign Ministry. According to Per Bertilsson, Acting Executive Director, SIWI, the 2012 WWW includes over 60 seminars, 42 side events, 8 scientific workshops, 6 excursions and field visits, 4 prize ceremonies, 2 plenary sessions, and a royal banquet. Nearly 250 convening organisations will be involved, with over 40 exhibitions featuring the latest work of diverse organisations working with water.

This year, UNESCO and UN Water will also unveil the general thrust of the International Year of Water Cooperation (2013), as proclaimed by the UN General Assembly following a proposal made by Tajikistan.

A key theme of WWW 2012 is what the WWDR4 calls “one of the oldest and most urgent challenges to human development: Water and food security.” It says, “Feeding everyone in the future with limited water resources means that we have to become better at growing more “crops per drop” as well as revisit our thinking regarding how we produce, consume, and trade food all along the food chain.

Adds the report, “Valuing the multiple socio-economic benefits of water is essential for improving decisions of governments, international organizations, the donor community, civil society and other stakeholders. Conversely, a failure to fully value all the benefits of water in its different uses is a root cause of the political neglect of water and its mismanagement.”

It notes, “Managing ecosystem services is about trade-offs. Trade-offs are not necessarily about choosing one benefit over another. They are as much about sustainable multiple benefits and balanced investments to achieve an optimal outcome.

“Sustainable development, including water security, is dependent on maintaining ecosystem services. Ecosystem management is therefore key. Many ecosystem services are not generally considered in economic planning but can generate very high economic values. They are often considered as being provided free of charge by nature, but in many cases this is incorrect because they can be expensive to rehabilitate or replace artificially when degraded or lost. They are also finite and can be over-used.

“There is an urgent need to incorporate ecosystem-based thinking into water governance. Water allocation needs to be based on sustainable supply, which is determined primarily by ecosystem boundaries, and not on demand.”

Here are some of the many references to tourism in the report.

Jordan (1)

The agricultural sector still uses about 574 million m3 of water, which corresponds to 60% of annual water use in Jordan (2009). In spite of consuming large quantities of water, agriculture contributes just 3% of Jordan’s gross domestic product (GDP). Municipal water demand accounts for about 33% of overall consumption (approximately 315 million m3). This demand is met largely from aquifers. Water use by industry and for livestock production is relatively insignificant at 39 million m3 and 7.5 million m3 respectively. While tourism accounts for approximately 1% of water use, the contribution of the sector to GDP was 10.6% in 2009 (Kreishan, 2010).

Jordan (2)

The development of the eco-tourism sector is being spearheaded by a long-established non-governmental organization, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). The RSCN is entrusted by the government with the protection and management of Jordan’s special ecosystems. For several decades, the RSCN managed its protected areas as isolated, fenced sanctuaries that were guarded from the general public and had little involvement from local communities.

This all changed in 1992 with the Rio Summit and the Biodiversity Convention. As a signatory to the Convention, Jordan was the first country in the Middle East to be awarded a multi-million dollar pilot project under the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The project was to develop a regional model of integrated conservation and development. It was focused on the Dana Nature Reserve in southern Jordan, where the creation of the protected area in 1994 was linked to the socio-economic development of the local community. This pioneering initiative ushered in a new era in conservation thinking, which the RSCN continues to lead today.

The number of tourists to RSCN sites exceeded 137,000 in 2010, generating approximately US$1.7 million in revenue. In the same year, over 16,000 people from poor rural communities were supported by this tourism for nature conservation scheme. This revenue stream also covered over 50% of 2010’s conservation costs.


Some of the transboundary water basins in the region hold tremendous potential for mutually beneficial uses, including cross-boundary hydropower generation, large-scale multi-country irrigation schemes, inter- and intra-country navigation, joint inland fisheries development, joint water supply projects, environmental protection, wildlife conservation, recreation and eco-tourism development.

The Congo River Basin alone holds almost 30% of Africa’s total fresh surface water reserves and the world’s largest hydropower potential in any one single river basin [an estimated 100,000 MW of power production capacity] …

The main thrust of the management of transboundary river basins is to find ways of turning potential conflicts into constructive cooperation, and to turn what is often perceived as a zero-sum predicament – in which one party’s gain is another’s loss – into a win-win situation. (UNECA, 2006, pp. 201–4). The challenge is to adopt a paradigm shift from water sharing to benefits sharing.


Other sources of income are tourism and fisheries. In 2009, 8 million tourists visited Morocco generating approximately US$6 billion of income. While tourism constitutes an increasingly important sector for the national economy, the consumption of water by touristic activities is also growing.

Flood and drought have also become more pronounced. In the past 35 years, Morocco has faced more than 20 periods of drought – the worst in recent history – with some lasting five years or more. Floods have also had a socio-economic impact on society that is stronger than before. This is not only because of the individual floods tend to be worse, but also because of population growth, urban development, and expanding agricultural, industrial and tourism activities in vulnerable areas.

The record rainfall of 2,685 mm at Jbel Outka and the exceptional floods in the Ouergha River basin (maximum discharge of 7000 m3/s), are only a few examples of extreme events that took place between 2008 and 2011. Frequent floods and droughts have also led to increased land erosion.


Unresolved water allocation in the Lerma–Chapala basin

The Lerma–Chapala basin straddles five Mexican states and provides surface water and groundwater for nearly 900,000 ha of irrigation farms. It also supplements the water needs of Mexico’s two largest cities, Mexico City and Guadalajara, and the touristic Chapala Lake at its downstream end.

The Lerma–Chapala basin is now ‘closed’ as a result of increasing human pressure on its water resources, which have depleted the levels of blue water and made the basin very sensitive to climatic fluctuations. The lack of accurate water accounting in the basin, and the relatively wet period in the 1960s and 1970s, resulted in an overestimation of water availability and the ‘over-building’ of the basin. This is a common phenomenon in closing basins, and makes it very difficult to reduce water use levels once a basin has closed.


In Kathmandu, some progress has been made towards an IUWM approach. The Bagmati Action Plan was developed with support from UNEP and UN-HABITAT. The scheme identifies a range of stakeholders and corresponding actions that are needed to prevent the pollution of the Bagmati River, which serves as the city’s main water source. The Plan adopts a holistic approach and sets out specific strategies and actions for five different zones within the Kathmandu Valley.

The scope of the plan runs from the conservation zone in the upstream catchment area and extends all the way to the downstream zone. Under the Plan, watershed management and conservation is the main goal for upstream areas; sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism are to be promoted in the surrounding rural areas; and decentralized wastewater treatment systems are a priority for peri-urban communities (GoN/NTNC, 2009). Funds to implement the plan come from setting aside a small portion of the registration fees charged on land transactions in the Kathmandu Valley.

Latin America and Caribbean

External demands for natural resources

With the exceptions of Mexico and some of the small countries of Central America, the countries of Latin America base their economies on the export of natural resources. The global demand for these products, whether minerals, food crops or other agricultural products, timber, fish or tourism, has increased notably in recent years. Moreover, much of the production of these goods and services is financed by external capital and many of the facilities are foreign owned.

The result is that the major engine of economic growth in the region, with heavy demands on the water resource, is subject to factors outside the direct control of the governments of the countries of the region. This is so even when the producing companies are locally owned, as it is the world markets that determine demand.

For water management, the dependence on natural resources is complicated by the physical location of many of the activities to obtain them. For example, the expansion of copper and gold mining in Chile and Peru has mainly occurred in arid areas and has led to competition for scarce water resources both with export agriculture dependent on irrigation, and with the needs of the indigenous population.

Tourism demand has increased water stress on many Caribbean islands as tourists consume far more water than local residents. Coffee production uses large quantities of water and can seriously affect water quality. One potential future demand for irrigation could come from the production of biofuels.


Household water security

Meeting the MDG targets remains a priority for the region, but the benefits of access to water and sanitation expand beyond the basic need for life. Adequate water and sanitation are linked to various desirable developmental outcomes, such as healthy ecosystems and productive livelihoods and also linked to GDP growth through increase in tourism, foreign direct investment, labour productivity and agricultural outputs.

A study of four South-East Asian countries estimated the total economic benefits of achieving universal access to sanitation at between US$5.4 billion and US$27 billion (Hutton et al., 2008). The narrow definition of access to drinking water and sanitation facilities is thus expanded to accommodate a broader concept of household water security linked to socio-economic development.


Projections vary considerably across the UNECE region, but climate change is expected to bring higher temperatures, drought, reduced water availability and lower crop yields to Southern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Hydropower potential and summer tourism are also likely to be affected. In Central and Eastern Europe, summer precipitation is projected to decrease, causing higher water stress. While climate change is likely to have positive effects in the short term in Northern Europe, these are expected to be outweighed by negative effects as climate change progresses (UNECE, 2009a).


Biodiversity, tourism and the potential impact of climate change

Within the basin, there are important habitats that support the region’s vibrant biodiversity. Among the most important of these are the Mau Forest, the Mara Swamp and the Mara–Serengeti eco-region, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Mara–Serengeti alone contains over 90 mammals and more than 450 bird species.

There have been conservation programmes in the basin implemented by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments as well as regional and international institutions. However, despite these efforts, the condition of the habitats continues to decline.

For example, over the past few decades, the Mau Forest has been reduced by 23% as a result of forest clearing for tea plantations, farming and timber harvesting. Even though there are laws protecting the buffer zones, the corridor of riverine forest along the Mara River has been greatly degraded by grazing and cultivation in both Kenya and Tanzania.

Socio-economic demands such as a growing tourism sector are adding to the problem. The number of tourists visiting the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania rose from approximately 190,000 in the 1990s to over 600,000 in the early 2000s. The growing concerns are clearly highlighted in the management plan of the Masai Mara National Reserve, which states:

The Reserve is faced by unprecedented challenges. Inside the Reserve, escalating pressures from tourism development and growing visitor numbers … are leading to a … deterioration of the natural habitats on which the Reserve’s tourism product is based … Outside the Reserve, there is growing pressure from local communities to use the Reserve’s pastures and water sources for livestock, because of the diminishing supplies of these resources in the wider ecosystem and deteriorating community livelihoods …

Xiamen, China

Healthy water ecosystems bring multiple benefits to various aspects of urban life. Wetlands provide important natural wastewater treatment functions. For instance, in Xiamen in China, municipal authorities generate revenue by imposing fines on polluters and charging fees for a number of facilities such as using marine areas.

Improved wastewater treatment facilities have led to an increase in the quantity of wastewater being discharged – which has also resulted in an increase in Xiamen’s revenues. This has allowed the city authorities to spend US$2 billion on sewage treatment systems since the mid-1990s. The result of this has been a huge increase in the proportion of industrial and domestic waste that’s being processed.

In the mid-1990s, just 20% of industrial wastewater was processed, ten years later, that figure had reached 100%. And the figures for domestic wastewater processing are almost as impressive with an increase from 28% to 85% over the much same period. Today Xiamen attracts immigrants, tourists and real-estate development (Chiramba, 2010).

Lake eutrophication in China

Taihu Lake (or Lake Tai) is the third largest freshwater lake in China, providing water to 30 million people. It has a thriving fishing industry and was previously a popular tourist destination. In May 2007 a severe algal bloom and major pollution with cyanobacteria occurred, largely driven by the high levels of industry and development in the catchment, made worse because the lake was at its lowest level in 50 years.

The Chinese government called the lake a natural disaster. and banned water providers from implementing price hikes after bottled water rose to six times the normal price. It was reported that the Chinese government had shut down or given notice to over 1,300 factories around the lake by October 2007.

The State Council set a target to clean Taihu Lake by 2012, but in 2010 a fresh pollution outbreak was reported. This highlights the complexities involved in controlling pollution, often with competing political, developmental, commercial, and environmental interests.

Middle East (1)

Water consumption in ESCWA member countries is largely tied to GDP, although this is mainly a consequence of their heavy reliance on desalination. Water consumption in other parts of the Arab region is largely tied to agricultural activities, which contribute only marginally to their GDP. Freshwater consumption in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries continues to increase as a result of high incomes, comfortable lifestyles, real-estate development, the availability of energy for desalination, and growth in the tourism industry. In contrast, regional agricultural water consumption is characterized by low productivity, and has been significantly affected by droughts in recent years.

Middle East (2)

Tourism growth is creating seasonal peaks in water demand in the Gulf and Arab Mediterranean countries. The Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi reports that the United Arab Emirates water usage is 24 times greater than its total annual renewable water resource availability (Al Bowardi, 2010). While Dubai signalled in 2011 that there would be no changes to its water or electricity tariffs in the coming years, graduated water tariffs have been instituted in Jordan and Tunisia, and revisions to tariff schedules are under way in Egypt and Lebanon to stem excess consumption and generate revenue to improve water services.


Outside of the GCC, desalination represents a growing share of water supply in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, with efforts to expand capacity in Palestine underway. Tourism growth along the Egyptian coastline is dependent upon desalination, as pipelines transferring Nile River water to the Red Sea coast are no longer sufficient to satisfy needs.


According to projections, by 2030, agricultural consumption will decrease by 12%, whereas municipal consumption (that is, the demand for the public water supply) may increase by as much as 10% (St Johns River Water Management District, 2005.)

In terms of importance, agriculture is second only to tourism in Florida’s economy. Important agricultural activities include growing oranges and other citrus fruit as well as cattle ranching for both beef and dairy products. Florida possesses 68.1% of the market share of orange production in the USA. These activities are all typical of the St Johns River basin.


The prediction is that by 2100, the annual mean runoff from the Tagus River basin will be 10% to 30% lower. Such a reduction implies longer periods with low flow, and that is likely to have a negative impact on agriculture and tourism. It is also expected that a reduction in water availability will affect ecosystems, energy production and water quality which is extremely important in terms of human health, ecosystem services and other water uses.


Barbados, with a population of about 290,000, is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. It is a drought-prone island, almost entirely dependent on groundwater, and the available water supply is less than 390 m3 per person per year. It is a country living under conditions of absolute water scarcity.

Universal water metering, via a variable tariff based on consumption, has been introduced, but the tariff was set too low. Some fairly successful water efficiency methods have been introduced but water consumption has increased with rising living standards. Tourism, which is very important to the economy of the island, is an especially large water user.

Overall, water management has worked well although the water authority has suffered from poor management. Recently, Barbados received a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to improve the water authority’s efficiency, coastal zone management and climate change adaptation (IDB, 2009).

Costa Rica

The Central region has the biggest demand for water in the country because more than half the population lives here and there is a high concentration of industrial and economic activity (Mora Valverde, n.d.). Nationwide, generating hydroelectricity accounts for 80% of total water demand, followed by agriculture at 16%. The remaining 4% is used for drinking water, and by industry and tourism.

Given that the water used for hydropower generation returns to the flow without loss, agriculture remains the largest user (3.2 billion m3) in terms of actual consumption. In 2008, agricultural activities were practised over approximately 4,190 km2 of land (8% of national territory), 920 km2 of which were irrigated. Some 70% of the irrigated land is developed by the private sector, and the most important agricultural products grown are coffee, rice, African palm, sugar cane, banana and pineapple (SEPSA, 2009).

Floods and natural disasters

Groups of countries with small and vulnerable economies, such as many small island developing states (SIDS), land-locked developing countries (LLDCs) and least developed countries (LDCs), would appear to have particular difficulties in absorbing and recovering from disaster impacts (Corrales and Miquelena, 2008; Noy, 2009). SIDS, for example, often have higher relative disaster risk than larger countries because almost all of their population and assets are exposed to hazards such as tropical cyclones (Kelman, 2010; UNISDR, 2009), while their economies may be concentrated around a single vulnerable sector, such as tourism.