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Time to move beyond technical fixes to resolving water challenges in tourism sector

By Rachel Noble, Head of Policy and Research Tourism Concern

The increasing scarcity of freshwater facing our planet is widely known. Shifting climate patterns, burgeoning populations, urbanisation, and inadequate infrastructure, resources and political will, are all contributing to the complex challenges around sustainable water management. In many destinations, particularly in the global South, the tourism sector is considerably affected by unreliable water supplies. However, if managed in the wrong way, it can also be a contributor to the unsustainable and inequitable depletion and pollution of local water resources. A new report by Tourism Concern, Water Equity in Tourism – A Human Right, A Global Responsibility [1], has found that such practices are threatening the very environment upon which the tourism sector depends, while undermining living standards, livelihoods and development opportunities of local communities.

As shown by our case studies from Zanzibar, Bail, The Gambia and Goa and Kerala, south India, in some instances the consumption and pollution of freshwater by certain sections of the tourism industry is directly contributing to the infringement of the right to water of neighbouring communities.

Business complicity in such infringements, even if inadvertent, extends up through the supply chain, placing companies at risk of allegations of abuse while undermining the social, environmental and economic sustainability of both the company and the destination.

Many industry players, such as hotels and tour operators, are involved in programmes to reduce their water consumption. A range of guidelines have been devised under various initiatives, including the International Tourism Partnership, as well as The Travel Foundation and the Travelife Sustainability System Criteria. However, such initiatives tend take a narrow approach, framing water as a purely technical and environmental issue, and focusing on water conservation measures within hotels. Such measures includes the installation of water-saving technologies in guest rooms (such as aerated shower heads and low-flush toilets), rainwater harvesting, grey water re-use schemes, as well as staff sensitisation and training, and towel re-use programmes for guests.

Although such approaches are positive and need to be broadened further, they do not yet recognise water as a social issue, and therefore ignore the wider impacts of tourism businesses’ water consumption on the lives and livelihoods of local communities. They do not sufficiently take account of the universal business responsibility to respect human rights throughout their activities and supply chains, as clarified in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This includes the right to water and sanitation.

It is essential that tourism businesses begin working to integrate this baseline standard of conduct into their strategies for sustainable, equitable water resource management. Managing this responsibility through a processes of human rights due diligence – as set out in the UN Guiding Principles [2] - can also help companies manage the reputational, legal and financial risks of being associated with socially and environmentally harmful activities. Human rights due diligence is an on- going process of identifying, assessing and mitigating potential and actual human rights impacts; of tracking and reporting on performance internally and externally; and of providing access to redress for those whose rights have been harmed. Effective human rights due diligence necessitates direct engagement with potentially affected parties, including marginalised groups such as women and indigenous peoples.

Broadly however, securing the sustainable, equitable management of water resources in destinations requires a shared solution. Stakeholders in government, the tourism sector, the donor community and civil society all have important roles to play. Governments need to implement clear regulatory frameworks for tourism and water resource management, which are based upon integrated and participatory planning. Tourism sector stakeholders have a responsibility to ensure that their water consumption is not adversely impacting water access for local communities, particularly in contexts where public infrastructure, government capacity and resources are lacking.

Approaches emanating from the CEO Water Mandate [3], another major global initiative, also provide useful guidance for effective business engagement in sustainable water management and policy. There is a clear need for improved cooperation and collaboration among all stakeholders in addressing this issue, including with respect to data gathering, information sharing, advocacy, capacity building, technology transfer, and sensitisation, including of tourists.

Tourism Concern’s report contains recommendations all key stakeholders, the core components of which are presented in nine Principles of Water Equity in Tourism, presented below. These Principles are underpinned by the notion of water as a human right. They are based on the recognition that there are shared risks to all water and tourism stakeholders if water is not managed equitably and sustainably. These shared risks give rise to a shared responsibility to work together to address water issues, with particular responsibility conferred to those inequitably consuming water, in positions of power and with greater access to resources.


1. The right to water and sanitation should not be compromised by tourism

Governments should uphold their international legal obligations to fulfil and protect the right to water and sanitation of citizens as a priority. Governments should issue guidelines to tourism businesses operating locally and overseas on their business responsibility to respect human rights.

2. Governments should implement clear regulations for sustainable and equitable water and tourism management

Destination governments should implement clear regulatory and institutional frameworks for sustainable, equitable, integrated water and tourism planning and management. Transgressors should be penalised; good practices should be championed.

3. Land use and tourism planning should be based on assessments of water resources

Land use planning should be based on assessments of water resources and infrastructure, and tourism carrying capacities established. These should take into account livelihood needs, food security, population growth, climate change, and wider watershed degradation.


4. Tourism businesses should implement their business responsibility to respect the right to water

Tourism businesses should move beyond technical approaches and implement their business responsibility to respect the right to water and sanitation in their activities and supply chains.

5. Tourism businesses should abide by the law

Tourism businesses should adhere to national regulations governing water use and waste management, even where these are poorly enforced. This includes paying for what they consume.

6. Tourism businesses should reduce their water consumption

Tourism businesses should work towards reducing their water consumption and contributing to water conservation by making use of existing industry guidelines


7. Land use, tourism and water planning should be undertaken participatively

Land use, tourism and water planning should be undertaken transparently and participatively, with adequate community representation, particularly of women.

8. Governments and tourism businesses should be accountable to local communities

This includes providing access to redress where water rights have been adversely impacted

9. Cooperation to further water equity should be pursued by all stakeholders

Cooperation and collaboration should be pursued by government, international donors, tourism and civil society stakeholders in resourcing and undertaking data collection, improvements to community water access, advocacy, capacity-building, technology transfer, and tourist sensitisation.