I've just returned from a "water run" to my local Publix grocery store just a few blocks away from our office. In southwest Florida, you live in a state of constant awareness that you need to hydrate, but you can never give in to the temptation of thinking you can drink anything that comes out of a Florida tap.
So having unloaded my truck, filled with distilled water bottles for the coffee maker, 12-packs of spring water minibottles for car rides and sporting events and several dozen tall bottles of something out of a spring in Iceland, Switzerland or Fiji, I was now ready to sit down to write an article about Spain, France, Bolivia or the current success of trips by private jet.
But first, I checked my email, and I found one new message that dictated what I want to write about today. The other stuff will have to wait. This is too important.
I opened a letter from the management team at Cape Grace, a hotel that sits on a private quay surrounded on three sides by water, smack on the edge of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa.
It is among the most ideally situated hotels on earth, with Table Mountain forming a majestic backdrop while diners in the Signal restaurant enjoy bobotie-spiced springbok loin followed by bitter chocolate and goat cheese truffles. I've booked it many times over the years, and guests rave about its location adjacent to trendy shops and restaurants and its high service levels.
But this letter was different than any I have ever received at my travel consultancy or at Travel Weekly. This was a letter letting me know what exactly might happen when Cape Town becomes the first major city in the world to run out of water.
This is, I'm afraid, more than idle speculation. Cape Town has seen three solid years of unprecedented drought, and the city's reservoirs will soon run dry. Mayor Patricia De Lille initially predicted that the water taps in the city would run dry on or about April 22, a date that has since been pushed back to July 9 thanks to water restrictions and conservation efforts.
I keep thinking of the future impact of this phenomenon as other cities join this ignominious list.
Over the years, I've come to realize that of all the places worth a visit on this intriguing planet, southern Africa is the destination from which visitors seem to return with the highest rate of overall satisfaction with their journey. We could say it's all about getting that digital shot of the elephant sauntering by in the bush, but truth be told, most returnees bring home stories of the people they have met, people who will come to mean more to them in the long run than all of the Instagram shots.
Cape Town is one of the highlights of any trip to the region, a jewel that bedazzles nearly every visitor.
But now, I fear, the city may come to represent something very different; and I want to fight its new identity, but I'm feeling helpless, as words do not suffice. Cape Town is in a battle for its life.
The city might be the parakeet in the coal mine. It might be the precursor to a growing number of travel destinations that will suffer significantly from the merging of geopolitics, natural water resources and local political priorities that make long-range conservation planning difficult to achieve.
The letter from Cape Grace talked about the possibility of a "complete shutdown," but the letter also contained some reasons for hope. Perhaps the city leadership will recognize the potential economic impact of no water on the tourism industry. Perhaps the city fathers and mothers will consider maintaining the meager supplies of water in the central business district.
Cape Grace has donated a part of its land to the city to build a temporary desalinization plant, which is expected to be operational in two to three weeks. But the best that can be hoped for is very low water pressure. Already, this month, the daily allowance has been reduced to 50 liters per person. That includes bathing, washing dishes and flushing toilets, as well as drinking water.
Hotel guests in Cape Town will be urged to reduce the number of times they have their linen changed. They are being asked to take quick showers instead of baths.
Guests at Cape Grace are being made aware that there are many in the rural areas and the townships who will depend on water being brought in by outside parties. Hotel guests will be constantly reminded that "every drop counts."
A client who happens to be one of the world's premier water conservation experts once told me, "In less than 20 years, water will be the new gold. Many cities will run out, and they will be forced to take extreme measures to get some to keep their people from taking to the streets."
During the years I've been a Travel Weekly columnist, I have written about tourist spots that are becoming dramatically overpopulated. I've talked about fears of terrorism and how to deal with a clientele that increasingly sees overseas travel as something dangerous rather than fulfilling. I know there are several important places in the world that have gone nuclear, where tensions seem to continually run high, and I've written about the impact of the Zika virus and about Irma and her relatives.
But I have had very little to say about our shrinking water supply and how it could affect the way we travel in the future.
In 2040, just 22 years from now, the World Resources Institute estimates, one-fifth of all the nations on Earth will face acute water shortages. They have ranked the 33 countries most likely to suffer from a lack of water and 14 of them are in the Middle East, a region that does not need additional reasons to launch attacks on one another.
Those identified as most vulnerable to a lack of water include Bahrain, Kuwait, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.
Somehow, we've been told that these folks were fighting over oil, but that is merely the short game. The long game is water.
Three huge nations are facing serious water shortages going forward, including most of India; several provinces in China, including Ningxia province; and even portions of the Southwestern United States.
Running a high risk for "severe water scarcity" by 2040 are Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, Mongolia, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana. In South America, shortages are anticipated in Peru and Chile.
"High risk" should be explained. In the context it is being used, it means countries whose need for water is more than 80% of its available surface water.
Greece and Spain are among the 33 European countries identified as likely to suffer severe "water stress."
Of course, there is some hope, and our clients need not despair just yet. Beneath the streets of Istanbul lies one possible answer. In A.D. 560, the Emperor Justinian built the Basilica Cistern, capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of rainwater.
Now, one-and-a-half millennia later, cities around the world are trying to copy the design. Melbourne has a huge stormwater harvesting tank that holds an amazing 4 million liters of water. Singapore captures about 30% of its water needs by harvesting rainwater. Bermuda and the U.S. Virgin Islands have building codes that require all new construction to include rainwater harvesting. Progressive countries have progressive water policies, and there is hope for the future.
Water is inexorably tied to tourism. Globally, agriculture accounts for 70% of water usage, on average. But in coastal zones of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, tourism is "the dominant sector for water use" according to a study by Linnaeus University in Sweden.
What I have described above is a relatively optimistic view of the growing problem of water scarcity we will see post-Cape Town.
A 2016 U.N. Environmental Program Report noted that "the demand for fresh water is likely to outstrip supply by 40% before 2030." It goes on to predict that by that time, "a third of the world's population will be living in areas of severe water stress. In most countries," the report concludes, "water consumption per guest in hotels vastly exceeds that of the local population."
Let's all be mindful of the words on a card placed in every guest's room at the Cape Grace Hotel: We want our guests to have every indulgence in the most responsible and sustainable way. Every Drop Counts.