What do tourists need to know about the Cape Town drought?

Cape Town, South Africa's second-largest city, is suffering from a severe water shortage and expects to run out of water on July 9, the doomsday date known as Day Zero. To conserve the precious resource, government officials are encouraging visitors and residents to limit their showers to 90 seconds, among other measures. To keep time, you can count Mississippis, set a stopwatch or play one of several South African songs that have been shortened to two minutes. With more than seven songs on the playlist, you can wash to a new song every day of the week: Springbok Nude Girls' "Bubblegum on My Boots" on Monday, Francois Van Coke's "Dit Raak Beter" on Tuesday, Kwesta's "Boom Shaka Laka" on Wednesday and so on. 

"We are recalibrating our relationship with water," said Sisa Ntshona, chief executive of South African Tourism, "and we want tourists to be part of the solution."  

Ntshona was in Washington last week as part of a multicity speaking tour. His mission: to clear up several confusions about the crisis, which started to gain attention a year ago.  

"It's not pandemonium - 'I can't shower. I can't flush the toilet. The taps don't work,' " he said, airing and then refuting many of the worries.  

One of the greatest misconceptions is that the entire country is struggling with a water shortage. Only Cape Town is. The rest of the country, including Johannesburg, the Cape Winelands and the whale-watching hub of Hermanus, is drinking and rinsing as usual.  

"People think that if there's a drought in Cape Town, it must be all over," he said. "But it's quite the opposite."  

He also addressed tourists who might balk at the idea of visiting Cape Town, for fear of siphoning water from locals. The number of annual international visitors is so modest (about 1 percent of the population of 3.75 million) that their effect on the overall supply is as negligible as swallowing a mouthful of water in the ocean. Also of note, the Western Cape province supports more than 300,000 tourism jobs that will suffer if people stay away. Visitors don't have to pick sides: They can boost the tourism industry and contribute to the cause.  

"It's water-wise tourism," he said. "Save like a local."  

A five-year drought plus unchecked water consumption have drained Cape Town's reservoirs. Last year, the dams were 37 percent full; this week, the number is hovering at 24 percent. When the needle hits 13 percent, the government will declare Day Zero and turn off the municipality's running water. As the situation improves, officials have moved the date several times, from April to June to early July. Rainy season starts in May, but South Africans aren't just sitting around waiting for the drops to fall.  

To delay Day Zero, or avoid the apocalyptic moment altogether, the government has issued several restrictions. Beginning on Feb. 1, each household member was asked to use only 50 liters of water (about 13 gallons) a day.  

Businesses are also showing initiative. Larger groups and conventions are embracing water-neutral practices by hauling in their own water and dumping it into the system. Restaurants and hotels are swapping out dishware that requires washing for disposable napkins, plates and utensils. They are asking guests to flush responsibly and to cleanse with hand sanitizer. Properties are laundering linens and towels less frequently and have installed low-flow showerheads and tap aerators in guest room bathrooms. They are setting out buckets to collect excess shower water. Several hotels, such as Table Bay Hotel and Grand Hotel at Grandwest, have removed the bathtub plugs to discourage the wasteful soaking practice. At the Vineyard Hotel and Spa, guests who wish to take a bath must trot through the lobby carrying a rubber duckie, which they must trade for a stopper - the yellow bird as the scarlet letter.  

The conservation efforts also extend outdoors. Hotels are filling their pools with saltwater or borehole water and are employing covers to minimize evaporation. They are watering their gardens with gray water and replacing thirsty plants with succulents. (Flora fans should not worry about the state of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, where water comes from such non-city sources as the Window Gorge and Nursery Ravine, and the winter rains.)  

"It's not cool to have a green manicured lawn," said Ntshona, "or a clean car."  

Some enterprises are taking a more self-sustaining approach. Tsogo Sun, one of the country's largest hotel and casino operators, plans to build a desalination plant that will supply water to its Cape Town hotels. Others are offering incentives. At Hotel Verde, guests earn Verdinos (the in-house currency worth about 5 rand, or 50 cents) for participating in such eco-friendly activities as taking the stairs instead of the elevator and reusing towels. Both appear on Cape Town Tourism's online list of water-wise accommodations.  

As more cities around the world face looming shortages, Ntshona hopes that water conservation becomes as ingrained in our psyches as recycling.  

"Sometimes you need a crisis to wake you up," he said.  

For updates and facts on the water crisis, Wesgro, the tourism office for Cape Town and the Western Cape, created a website (www.waterwesterncape.com) and Twitter account: #WaterWiseTourism. The City of Cape Town's website offers a calculator, so you can tally up your daily water usage. A two-minute shower, for instance, consumes about five gallons; a sponge bath laps up less than a gallon.

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