Sustainable hotel water use – who is responsible?

hotel water use - whose responsible?

Whilst perhaps not on the same scale as industry, it takes a lot of water to provide the standard which customers have come to expect in servicing guest rooms, laundries, gardens and food and beverage operations. According to a forthcoming report from EC3 Global and Griffith University, the average Hong Kong’s hotel water use is 389 litres of water per guest night. If a hotel has a pool or spa, this increases on average by 33%.

Given the average Hong Kong citizen’s consumption of 131 litres of water per day (a figure already considered high by many international standards), the hotel sector is vulnerable to criticism that it is taking more than its fair share. Hong Kong is just one example and in many other less-developed and more resource constrained areas, hotels risk being increasingly exposed to reputational and potential operational risks in future years.

The problem is that for many there appears to be no urgency to act at the moment. Similar to climate change, the risks seem to be just too far in the future. Unlike climate change though, where the business case for action can be built with even the most hardened climate sceptic due to the rapid cost savings that can be achieved, the same does not ring true for hotel water use. In many parts of the world, water is just too cheap to worry about. It almost always comes out of the tap. That is not to say that the industry is inactive or in denial over the issue. Many hotels and hotel companies have adopted wide-ranging water-saving initiatives and technologies across their properties. But how much of this is based on hard facts informing long-term business decisions and how much is sticking on low-flow showerheads and hoping for the best?

water use tourism conflicting demands
in times of increasing water pressure, hotel water use can can conflict with local needs

One difficult question for hotels is where does the responsibility fall for dealing with water issues? The increasing trend to leased, managed and franchised models means that in many cases a hotel is built by one company, owned by another and operated by a third. Each stakeholder will have different business objectives with a different business case for investment in sustainable water technology and management. Whilst the operating brands will seek to maximise operational savings, these may be limited by the infrastructure of the building which was built for low cost for quick sale. Real estate moves quickly in the hotel sector, with investment trusts looking to recoup their investments and turn a profit within a relatively short period – maybe just 5 to 10 years, meaning that projects with long payback periods do not get the go ahead. Though ownership may change, once a hotel is built it is likely to be in operation for a number of decades. It is understandable then that the hotel industry’s efforts on water resource management can appear fragmented at times. The challenge going forward is to bring all the stakeholders together and start meaningful dialogue on how sustainable water management can deliver value to all sides in the short and long term.

Effective hotel water use strategy

To make an effective contribution to a water management strategy, projects need to be backed up with solid facts on water risk in the areas a company or hotel operates, in order to provide a clear business case to act and a clear steer on what activities will be most effective. This is why the International Tourism Partnership (ITP) commissioned the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) to research water risk issues in key development areas for the hotel industry – Rio de Janeiro, Beijing and Shanghai, India’s Golden Triangle and Dubai. The study – the first of its kind – provides an overview of how freshwater may become a constraint to the hotel industry in the specified regions in terms of maintaining current operations, as well as future growth. It highlights a range of potential impacts the industry could suffer due to shifts in the availability and quality of water resources and points out potential areas where additional costs can be expected. The assessment also suggests possible mitigation measures that can be taken to reduce negative impacts from hotel water use.

We hope the findings of this report will help hoteliers understand the local context where they operate and develop appropriate water management strategies. ITP’s water working group is now collaborating to create a body of resources and reference materials to build a strong business case and support hoteliers, owners and developers to implement future-proofed water strategies and move the industry from a position of simple water efficiency to true water stewardship.

The report is available on the International Tourism Partnership and Green Hotelier websites.


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