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Capri Runs Dry: How Tourists’ Freshwater Needs Are Impacting the Mediterranean

The Mayor of Capri recently blamed tourists for the fact that the Italian island had “run out of water.” Capri is not the only destination in the region struggling to meet tourist demands for water.

In a 2004 “Freshwater and Tourism in the Mediterranean” study, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that the largest tourist destination in the world was the Mediterranean, with numbers expected to reach between 235 and 355 million people per year by 2025. The most congested time for travel to the Mediterranean is during the summer months, when natural water sources are at their lowest and tourist demand for freshwater is highest. Tourists on average use substantially more water than they would at home and substantially more water than locals.

UNESCO reported in a “Water Portal Weekly” 2006 update that tourists in Grenada, Spain used seven times more water than locals. A 2000 European Environment Agency (EEA) report found in the Spanish Balearic Islands, that in just one summer month in 1999, tourists consumed the equivalent of 20% of what the local population consumed during an entire year. Protracted over consumption of natural water sources depletes groundwater resources faster than they can be replaced. The World Travel Market’s 2007 “No Water, No Future” report explains that each year the water table drops more and more, which means fossil water is being used. Like fossil fuels, fossil water is a limited natural resource that has accumulated over the centuries.

Tourism is not the biggest source of freshwater use worldwide. Tourism comprises only 13% of freshwater use, compared to 63% for agriculture. However, the unique nature of seasonal tourist water demands creates a unique conservation conundrum. The WWF points out that tourism-related increases in water demand are concentrated largely to Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and summer months. This puts a special strain on local communities to provide enough freshwater for large influxes of people that are otherwise absent the rest of the year. Take France’s Côte d’Azur region, which has 1.7 million visitors each summer. At times the number of visitors literally doubles the population, thus doubling water supply needs.

Tourism’s excess use of freshwater has also been blamed for negatively impacting local ecosystems. In Israel, UNESCO reported in the above mentioned 2006 update that hotel water use along the river Jordan directly contributed to depleted water levels in the Dead Sea. In just over 30 years, water levels have fallen 16.4 meters. In addition, increased water use produces more wastewater and a greater need for proper management and disposal facilities. The EEA estimated in 2000 that tourism contributed 7% of all pollution to the Mediterranean Sea. According to the WWF study, pollution results from improper wastewater management and the inability to deal with stark seasonal fluctuation in the wastewater produced. Improper wastewater disposal has the dual effect of contaminating other fresh water supplies, thus further limiting freshwater resources and harming local organisms and ecosystems. Ironically, rapid tourism growth and failure to properly conserve water may ultimately lead to the destruction of the beautiful and natural wonders that draw holidaymakers to the Mediterranean in the first place.

The WTM’s report also discussed increasing competition between local communities, agriculture and tourism for access to freshwater. Tourism often wins out because the industry can afford to pay more for water. A 1998 Plan Bleu study reported that tourist facilities were given priority access to freshwater supplies over local communities during a major drought in Tangier, Morocco.

“We take water for granted but it is an increasingly limited resource in more and more destinations around the world,” says Fiona Jeffery, Chairman of the WTM. “The tourism industry has a vital role to play in reducing consumption in places where water is becoming scarcer.” The WTM report highlights the importance of a growing need for “water literacy.’ Further education is necessary for all involved—tourists, hoteliers, and local communities—in order to increase awareness of the ever increasing water crisis.

WWF says that tourists use between 300 and 850 liters per day and that this usage can be cut in half. Both the WWF and the WTM believe that individual actions form part of the solution to the growing need for freshwater conservancy. Both organizations offer similar tips for efficient water usage while at home and on holiday. They include: taking short showers, turning taps off while brushing teeth and shaving, making sure taps are completely turned off, and flushing toilets only when necessary. By taking these simple steps, each tourist can save hundreds of liters of water a day.

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