Every drop counts - so why can Cape tourists still fill up the tub?

24 October 2017 - 05:47 By tom eaton
Image: Gallo Images/ Thinkstock

This week I pretended to be a tourist from Gauteng and now I wish I hadn't.

Everybody knows that Cape Town has a water problem. In about five months, we have been told, the city will experience, well, we're not quite sure what.

The municipality keeps telling us that there's a plan and that it will work because if it doesn't work then things will be bad, and things mustn't be bad, so therefore the plan will work. On the other end of the spectrum we have scientists like Anthony Turton using phrases like "total system crash". And in the middle are Capetonians, carrying buckets of water from the bath to the loo, shuttling between hope and denial.

Like most Capetonians, I don't understand the extent of what's coming. If I did, I would have moved to Johannesburg by now. But that's where we are: this city and its immediate future have become a place of undirected anxiety, where rumour competes with bad journalism and both are dismissed by unconvincing press statements from a city
whose mayor has been suspended by the provincial government for doing, well, again, we're not quite sure what.

The statements may well be true. The plan might work. But I don't think anybody believes anything. There is an almost total absence of authoritative leadership right now and that hole is being filled by whatever appeared on Facebook this morning. Which means right now Capetonians believe that it's all going to be OK and that there will be a complete breakdown of everything and the SANDF is going to safeguard the tankers that will deliver our drinking water except when the tankers aren't needed because the desalination plants (which were started too late and well in time) have come on stream.

And that's not even mentioning tourist season. Because that's what we're doing: we're not mentioning it. At all. If you've seen Jaws, you'll understand. Remember how Sheriff Brody begged the mayor to shut the beaches? Well, right now the water sceptics are Brody and the mayor is Cape Town and the shark is "total system crash".

OK, maybe that's a bit overdramatic. I don't have all the facts and figures, and I must concede the possibility that, if Cape Town gets the usual number of tourists this summer, it might survive March and only collapse in April. But, given that residents have been ordered to use no more than 87 litres a day, I wanted to know if the same restrictions apply to visitors.

Which is how I ended up pretending to be a tourist from Gauteng.

"I'm coming down from Joburg in mid-December," I told the receptionists of the first 10 hotels that came up on Google, "but I've heard you guys have water restrictions down there so I want to find out if you have rooms with a bath, and if guests are allowed to have baths."

If you are, in fact, coming to Cape Town this summer and you want to have a bath, I have great news: you can fill up the tub whenever you want and loll like a manatee at the Table Bay Hotel, the Cape Grace, the Breakwater Lodge, Protea Fire and Ice, Protea Victoria Junction and the Radisson Park Inn. Good times!

If you go to Protea Sun Square, the Southern Sun Cullinan, the Protea Marriott in Mowbray, or the Vineyard Hotel, you will find that the plug has been removed from your bath. But don't worry: you can request a plug at reception and all will be well. (The Cullinan was the only one to tell me that it was "trying to make guests aware of the problem we have".)

It was a tiny sample size and it was, I admit, entrapment. But the fact remains: every single hotel I phoned effectively told me that if I paid them enough money I could flush hundreds of litres of water down their drains. And the fact that nobody I spoke to tried to lie or obscure this wild hypocrisy - austerity for residents, wastage for tourists - means that they are confidently operating within the city's rules. This is part of the city's plan.

And that means there is no plan.

The Vineyard Hotel responds:

Over the last five years the Vineyard Hotel has invested millions in water-saving initiatives as a responsible business committed to operating in a sustainable manner.

After a discussion with the mayor in February 2017, we brainstormed further measures to reduce our reliance on municipal water, which were instituted. These have led to a further reduction - please read about some of these here https://www.vineyard.co.za/save-water/.

 As a commercial property we have reduced our monthly water-usage by more than 30% - which is 10% more saving we have been asked to achieve compared to last year’s consumption figures.  We see this as an ongoing process and will continue to seek ways to reduce this consumption at the Vineyard Hotel even further.

We were saddened to be included in Tom Eaton’s opinion piece.

In concert with the efforts we have made to lower our water consumption, some of which are outlined in the web article link above, we have placed a huge amount of effort into educating our staff and guests about the water shortage. 

 We communicate with our guests in their rooms, in the elevators, in their welcome letters and through the staff. We are happy to say that most of our guests are enthusiastic to assist, including our international guests.

 It is true that we have plugs available at reception – this is for the elderly and other guests (including parents of infants) who are physically unable to use the showers. 

Our reception staff know to discuss the water crisis with guests before providing a plug and they appeal to our guests to keep water usage to a minimum.

Every request for a plug is recorded so that we are able to fetch the plugs the next day.  In October, out of all our residential guests, only 1% made such requests.

The water saving collateral we place in rooms is unmissable, it explains the water crisis and requests that short showers be used instead – and every room has a shower timer provided for this purpose. 

 We have invited Tom Eaton to visit the hotel to experience our water-saving initiatives as a guest would, not via a phone call, and to allow us to show him the initiatives that happen behind the scenes.

If he or anyone else, after visiting the hotel, our public restrooms and our in-room bathrooms, has ideas for where we can make further cuts, we would be very grateful to hear them and will endeavour to implement them.

Our team meets regularly to brainstorm ideas, the outcome of which results in further savings.

Our grey water system will be online within the next 2 months – this will enable us to use grey water to flush all our toilets. There are other imminent initiatives which we will announce as they come on line. We see this as an ongoing process of reducing our water usage and we will continue to implement further measures.

 It is a pity Mr Eaton did not have the time to conduct a more in-depth investigation. While there is always more we can do, we feel the South African public and our fellow Capetonians have been given a very skewed impression of our sincere and concerted efforts to reduce our water consumption.

 Roy Davies, General Manager, The Vineyard Hotel

FEDHASA responds:

As the Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa (FEDHASA) Cape region – the private sectors voice and the lobbying body for the hospitality industry in the province, we can assure you that our members are 100 percent committed to saving water and have strict measures in place to ensure visitors; both local and international alike don’t waste water.

This monumental crisis that grips the Western Cape means our member establishments, including the Table Bay, the Cape Grace, the Radisson Park Inn, the Protea Breakwater Lodge, the Protea Fire and Ice, the Protea Victoria Junction and the Vineyard Hotel, that you specifically make mention of in your column, all have water-saving measures in place.

These include visible signage in public areas, including bathrooms and rooms, and many establishments have also completely removed bath plugs from their bathrooms. This means that guests are politely informed thereof during check-in and reminded that the establishment encourages guests to make use of showers instead.

In fact, one of the member establishments you mention – the Protea Fire and Ice – does not in fact have any baths in their bathrooms and only have shower facilities. Another property you mention - the Victoria Junction Hotel - only have four bathrooms with baths out of their 172 rooms.

To further demonstrate the commitment of hotels to conserving water, our hotel member establishments earlier this month signed the FEDHASA Cape Water Wise Pledge and vowed to increase awareness campaigns for guests, particularly during the upcoming holiday season, and to educate staff in order to manage this appropriately.

A copy of the signed pledge is displayed in each property for guests to see.

The FEDHASA Cape Water Wise pledge supports the Western Cape Provincial Government and the City of Cape Town's Water Saving initiatives. Since this pledge was signed FEDHASA Cape, in partnership with our members have challenged other industry associations and businesses to take urgent action to save water.

We’d like to assure you and your readers that as an industry we are committed to both short- and long-term improvement in our water conservation measures, which forms part of our commitment to responsible tourism practices that protect and enhance the natural, cultural, social and economic environment.

Jeff Rosenberg, Chairperson: FEDHASA Cape