Water (In) Equity in Tourism


The right to water constitutes one of the most fundamental human rights. However, for many communities,particularly those living in the global South, this right is being compromised by tourism development. This article, based on Tourism Concern’s research report ‘Water Equity in Tourism: A Human Right – A Global Responsibility’, highlights some of the pressing issues being faced by destinations and communities in different parts of the world. The report’s core recommendations are contained in the Principles of Water Equity for Governments, Industry and all Stakeholders.

The inequities of water access and consumption between resorts, large hotels and golf courses on the one hand, and local communities and small-scale tourism entrepreneurs on the other, are starkly played out in holiday destinations in some of the world’s poorest countries. A lack of access to clean water and sanitation both exacerbates poverty and is itself the result of poverty. More often than not, such water scarcity is not due to a physical absence of water, but is caused by inadequate or nonexistent infrastructure, depleted or polluted groundwater supplies, and a lack of resources to secure water from other sources. In many places, tourism’s consumption of water is exacerbating poverty, curtailing socioeconomic opportunities and degrading the environment, while undermining food production, livelihoods and wider sustainable development. The research shows that extreme pressure on water resources to supply tourist demand is, in many instances, directly contributing to water scarcity and inequity, through the appropriation of public water supplies, overexploitation of aquifers, lowering of groundwater tables, and contamination of freshwater by saltwater and sewage.

In places, this scenario is leading to conflict and resentment among local people, while threatening the viability of the tourism sector. This also holds worrying implications given the heavy economic dependency on tourism in several destinations. The potential for tourism to generate jobs, economic growth and foreign exchange, means it is harnessed as a development driver by countries all over the world. This includes many in the global South classed by the UN as ‘least developed countries’ (LDCs), as well as small island developing states (such as in the Caribbean). However, the report argues that tourism cannot fulfil its potential as a contributor to poverty alleviation and sustainable development while it so often causes the exponential depletion, and inequitable appropriation, of freshwater resources. For tourism to be truly sustainable, its development and management must be premised upon a respect for human rights, including the right to water. The following example provides an insight into the kind of challenges a destination dependent on tourism faces due to the inequity in water access.

Defining Water Equity in Tourism
Based on the UN definition of the right to water and sanitation, use of the term ‘water equity in tourism’ refers to tourism development that does not infringe upon, or take precedence over, the right to water of communities in destinations for essential personal, domestic and livelihood needs. It implies the duty of states to uphold, fulfil and protect this right, including against abuses or unsustainable consumption by (tourism) businesses. The definition also includes the responsibility of tourism businesses to respect human rights, as clarified in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.



P1040750Case Study: Zanzibar
Tourism is a major contributing factor to Zanzibar’s economy and arrivals in 2011 reached an all-time high of 220,000 (ZATI, 2012), up from 19,368 in 1995. The industry has created many jobs, which have benefitted numerous sectors of society. However, despite tourism’s on-going rapid expansion, almost half the population remain in poverty (UNDP, 2011) and just half of rural residents have access to a water source (DFID, 2011).

In the villages and popular resort areas of Kiwengwa, Nungwi and Jambiani, there are stark inequities between water access, consumption and quality for local communities and the growing numbers of hotels and guesthouses. All villages are facing increasing water scarcity and many residents report a daily struggle to access sufficient quantities.

Water infrastructure and supplies to the communities are inadequate, while the over-extraction of groundwater by the tourism industry is causing salination of local wells. On average, households across the three villages consume some 93.2 litres of water per day. The types of tourist accommodation in each village vary, but average consumption per room ranges from 686 litres per day for guesthouses, to 3,195 litres per day for 5-star hotels. This gives an overall average consumption of 1,482 litres per room per day: 16 times higher than average household daily usage.

Very few hotels surveyed in the area undertake water conservation measures. Just two practise rainwater harvesting and the majority change linen on a daily basis. Only one hotel treats its grey water sufficiently for garden use. A minority use sewage treatment plants, with most disposing of their sewage into soak pits. This widespread use of unlined soak pits means sewage is leaching into the water table, posing a threat to human health and marine ecosystems.

  •  Conflict in Kiwengwa

In Kiwengwa, residents widely reported conflicts with hoteliers over water. Community wells have reportedly become salty since the arrival of tourism 15 years ago. Many residents say they must  now buy water from private vendors who transport water in from elsewhere. However, not all can always afford to do so.

In the mid 1990s, two hotels were granted government permission to pump water from a cave on the condition that they also supplied water to Kairo, the closest neighbouring area of Kiwengwa. Local people report that the hotels have not always honoured the agreement, and would prioritise their own needs over those of residents. Anger at this provoked some community members to cut the hotels’ water pipes and to hold public demonstrations. Cave water sources are now guarded 24 hours a day by hoteliers.


  • Inequity in Nungwi

Wall-to-wall hotels and guesthouses surround the village of Nungwi. Water supply is hugely  roblematic. Local residents report that well water has become too saline for use. The one remaining public borehole and pump are inadequate to service the area. This means most villagers must buy water transported from Channi, a town 20 kilometers away. Meanwhile, four of the larger hotels have sunk their own boreholes. The perceived water inequity between hotels and local residents has again resulted in conflict. Hotel water pipelines have been deliberately cut by locals. This has prompted some hotels to employ guards to patrol their pipelines.

The persistent low water pressure is widely attributed to the hotels using powerful pumps to siphon off water from the main public pipeline. Again, this is giving rise to anger and resentment among residents.