How to save water while traveling

Can you save water, and your holiday?

Saving water starts at home. I should know – I wrote an entire article on how exactly to do that. But how can you save water on holiday? I travel often. Its a big perk of my job. I’ve had meetings on slowboats floating down the Mekong River and seen leatherback sea turtles hatch under the moonlight, on the shores of Mozambique.

But I wonder what was the impact of my being there. I often write about how to save water and the places where its found, but how well can I practice what I preach? Really, I try. Sometimes I’m better at it than other times.

I have to admit, there’s more to the story. Her name is Loora.

The Loora measure

Loora is the loveliest thing. She is the two-year old daughter of my sister and her hubby Jow, and they live back in South Africa. I think about Loora often. Since I don’t see her much (one of the things that are not so great about my job), I regularly think about how I can contribute to her life.

Loora and Petro
Loora and me, just after she was born. I know I know….bad godmother for not having up-to-date photo with that pretty thing.

Once, I saw a photo that changed how I approach that. The picture was of a small girl on a garbage heap, somewhere, playing with sweet wrappers. The caption said that the brightly coloured wrappers were her toys. Say what?

Then I read that sweets wrappers and stuff like chips and chocolate packaging can’t be recycled. Packets from the eighties are apparently regularly picked up during beach cleanups. That struck a chord. I was born in the eighties, and have devoured many packets of crisps and chocolates since.

Is that what I will leave behind for Loora?

Since then, I try to apply the Loora measure whenever I buy stuff. If I can justify the possible impact of the product that I buy on Loora’s life, I can go ahead. If I’m okay with the plastic bottle (or, insert any product name) that I think I absolutely need right now, lying on a landfill site polluting systems after I’m dead, leaving Loora to deal with the consequences…well …I don’t mind just refilling another bottle.

Then, I learned that other people might benefit too.

It happened in Sarajevo. I was traveling with a friend as I refilled my reusable water bottle at a local fountain. She bought one with the sparkling variety inside. I mentioned the Loora measure as we walked along.

Save water on the road
A public water fountain in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Since that conversation, my friend refilled hers too.

Noble, but not easy

Now, after a couple of months, I can attest that this is not an easy yard stick to apply, if not impossible at times. There are places where you cannot drink the tap water. Sometimes, you really feel like a chocolate.

However, I’ve learned that its easier as a team effort, and that constant and small reminders make a difference. To see where I fall short, I’ve started to keep a diary of my attempts to save water and the greater system that it flows in. This post is a version of that. Stick around if you want learn what worked or not.

If you like tales of traveling, this post is for you too. If you also try to leave lighter footprints behind at the places you go, this post is definitely for you. In fact, I need your help. Please share your tips and ideas in the comments. If you also have a Loora to take care of, send me a pic. Then I can think of that little kid too the next time I want to eat a Twix.

Let’s go.

This blog starts where many of my tales do: On the way. This time, on the way to the Balkans. I recently went there on holiday.

Day one: From Copenhagen to Belgrade

We took a train to the airport (see notes on flying under “losses” below). It was a couple of hours, so we packed sandwiches in the paper bag that I bought the bread in the previous day.

According to The Water Calculator, it takes about 83 litres of water to produce just under half a kg of plastic. Plus, if not recycled properly, it can take hundreds of years for plastic to break down. Then the pollutants in plastic also damage the environment.

Packing food meant we wouldn’t be tempted by snacks or take-aways at the station, most of which comes with unnecessary packaging, that often can’t be recycled. The paper bag also has a lighter footprint than plastic and its reused, further reducing our footprints as we go.

We chose to go for tomato, salad and pesto sandwiches. Not only yum, but research has shown that the greatest water savings for the planet takes place on a vegetarian diet. We’ve reduced our meat eating habits since (also based on these two diet tips to save yourself and the planet).

I refilled my reusable water bottle at the station before we departed. Skipping bottled water has become a no-brainer nowadays. It takes at least twice as much water to produce a plastic water bottle as the amount of water contained in the bottle. I drink tap water whenever I’m in country where its possible, saving some cash too.

Letting go of the cup

Admittedly, I indulged in a take-away coffee (at least minus the plastic lid). I’ve not found a reusable coffee cup that I’m happy with, and could kick myself for not trying harder. Though technically recyclable, The Independent recently reported that less than 1% of disposable coffee cups ever end up being recycled.

Plus, it’s a single-use item. In the UK alone, 7 million disposable cups a day are being used. Some reports also state that some paper cups will be around for decades, due to the plastic lining to make it waterproof. The coffee tasted damn good, but in retrospect, not worth the packaging it was in (sorry Loora).

I finished the water in my bottle before entering the airport, and filled it again after the safety check, before I boarded.

And just like that – we’re in the Belgrade, capital of Serbia.

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

I never thought I would visit, but Belgrade presented all of the surprises a traveler could hope for. The city is jumble of the old, ancient and new, with the imposing Beogradska Tvrđava fortress dominating itineraries. Around every corner there’s a bar or a coffee shop, where locals seemed to spend the day chin-wagging over a small kick of caffeine. It was lovely to see.

We started with meat. Though we are eating less meat, I still adore trying local dishes when traveling. Here, the local to-go options included ćevapi (grilled mince meat). We shared the portion of meat, ordering sides of vegetables that came in the form of bright red grilled peppers, scooped up with chunks of fresh bread and finished off with crunchy, fresh onions. Yum!

Day two: Around Belgrade

The morning started with a short shower, turning the tap off between rinsing. Since spending time Cape Town after their recent severe drought, we’ve learned to keep showers short, mostly under two minutes. Every minute the shower runs can use as much as eight litres of water. In the shower, time counts.

I took care to not let the tap run when I brushed my teeth. When I last checked, a tap at the basin can run five litres a minute, when only a cup of 250 ml is really necessary. I recently also switched to a bamboo toothbrush. The National Geographic recently wrote that globally, about 23 billion toothbrushes could be trashed every year. Most of these are unrecyclable, filling up landfill sites, polluting our water and other natural systems. I don’t want to add to that, and I’m not turning back from bamboo soon.

Before we headed out, I refilled my water bottle.

There’s a local market down the road, and we bought some fruit for the morning – it was fig season, and the nectarines also looked too delicious to resist. The stall holders put them in our paper bag that we kept from yesterday’s sandwiches. It folded up very small, so was easy to carry around.

Market in Belgrade
Belgrade market.

This time, we sat down for our coffee. This way, we got to soak up the sunshine to enjoy that loveliest of local past-time: the slow coffee. Plus – we generated no waste.

Back to sightseeing then. Belgrade had one particularly fine feature if you love water. The great Danube! We headed there for an afternoon walk. It was the first time I saw this mighty river – it flows through more countries than any other on the planet.

The Danube River, Belgrade
Belgrade sights and sounds: The mighty Danube River!

Strong and swift it flows

In fact, the the Danube is still only the second largest in Europe, following the Volga. Still, its mightily impressive. Born in the Black Forest Mountains of Germany, the Danube flows for about 2 800 kms to the Black Sea. On the way, it makes its way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and the Ukraine. It also skirts four capitals. Belgrade, from where I was watching it, as well as Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.

If you’re there, you can now enjoy the sight of the Danube from one of the many bars and restaurants that line its banks in Belgrade. There’s even a floating gym banked along the shore.

Day three: Višegrad

We drove down from Belgrade the previous day, a four hour trip that saw us skirting past Valjevo and the fairy tale wooden houses of Mokra Gora, to cross the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The landscape became greener, and more mountainous as we went, sliding seemingly through mountains, as we swooped along under endless tunnels chopped through the ancient, rocky hills.

We packed fruit in our paper bag for the trip, and opted to stop along the way for a coffee. This way we skipped having to potentially buy snacks wrapped in stuff we couldn’t recycle. We filled the trusty water bottle where we stopped along the way.

How to save water while traveling

Višegrad is a small town at the confluence of the Drina and the Rzav river. A famous site in town is the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bridge hails from the Ottoman period in the 16th century, but the Drina River that flows underneath it, has a tragic story to tell.

The bridge murders

It’s difficult to imagine this if you wander the streets of Višegrad today. The town is a tranquil place. In the heat of the day, we escaped to sip small black coffees under the shade of a leafy tree. At night, we had cold beer to the beat of Balkan tunes belted out by a small band in a local pub.

But not too long ago, things here were very different. The town was the scene of unimaginable atrocities during the Bosnian War in the early nineties. Thousands of Bosnians were killed. Their bodies were dumped in the Drina. When maintenance work was done along the river in 2010, the remains of hundreds of victims were retrieved.

Today the river has returned to its peaceful state, flowing serenely through the canals and under the streets of Višegrad. I wondered how many secrets the water still kept. When locals walked along these banks, what did they remember as the water flowed past, ahead into the future, but forever a reminder of the past.

Day four: Sarajevo

How to save water in Sarajevo
The streets of Sarajevo

Have you ever walked into a place, and knew that you could live there? I had that feeling in Sarajevo. The city is, of course, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Right in the heart of the Balkans, it has become a hub of the arts and entertainment. We could attest. Coincidentally there during the Sarajevo Film Festival, the city was transformed in a week-long party zone, with dressed-up festival goers running from one premier to the other, dancing the night away in the streets as they went.

But the city quickly crept into my heart for other reasons. It was indeed something about the lively mix and variety of people that walked its ancient cobbled streets. The air was filled with both the call to prayer and churchbells in the distance. Rightly called the Jerusalem of Europe, you can find a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and synagogue in the same neighborhood in Sarajevo.

What else? From along the narrow alleys of the old town, as they have for centuries, traders vied for your attention. Would you want to buy copper coffee sets, taste the sweetest baklava, or feel the rough texture of the finest quality cotton goods against your skin? Sarajevo had that. What about the smell of cardamom pastries and the waft of the bitter Bosnian coffee in the breeze? Go to Sarajevo for that too.

Or, do you want to feel walls scarred by bullets like pockmarks? Or let your feet touch a Sarajevo rose, the concrete scars of mortar shells? Yes, you could also go to Sarajevo for that. After all, it suffered the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. During the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war, Sarajevo was under siege for 1 425 days, from April 1992 to February 1996. The scars still linger, but on the surface at least, life seems to have moved on.

How to save water in Sarajevo

And now, a note on water in Sarajevo.

Day five: Drink from the fountain

There is a rumour in Sarajevo. If you drink the water from the Sebilj fountain, you will return. A quick Google search spits up mentions of water cuts, protest, and pollution but when we visited, the water was in ample supply, and the many public water fountains were used generously. It was by far my favourite city to refill that water bottle.

How to save water in Sarajevo
The Sebilj winks in the background – an Ottoman-style wooden fountain at Baščaršija square, Sarajevo.

If you are ever there, you will cross the Miljacka river sometime during your visit. It was here, not far from the Latin Bridge, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated. The event is said to have triggered World War 1.

The river that runs through Sarajevo
The London Bridge over the Miljacka river in Sarajevo.

I often find the history of the places that I visit closely tied to the water that runs through it. The Balkans were no different. As for me, I made sure to drink enough water from the Sebilj fountain. I hope there is some more Sarajevo in my future too. Maybe, there is even some Sarajevo in the future of Loora.

In that case, I’m glad I tried to tread lightly across it.

How to save water on holiday

In retrospect, these are my wins for a water wise trip, as well as those areas where I can improve:

The wins

  • That reusable water bottle: This makes an enormous difference to your footprint in day wherever you roam.
  • Brown paper bag: Small to pack, it was handy for whatever fruit and snacks (especially from bakeries) we bought along the way.
  • No take-aways (including coffees and sweets): This made all the difference to the impact of the places we visited. No take-aways = no unnecessary packaging
  • Shopping at local markets: Great experiences, best for tasting local produce, and often the place to buy stuff without packaging (especially if you have the above paper bag handy). This is also where we bought all our fruit, getting more of the right stuff in our meals during our trip.
  • Eating less meat: Though we still ate meat, we shared meat dishes, and bulked it up with vegetables and grains.
  • In the bathroom: Short showers and no wasting water when brushing teeth.

The losses

  • The other plastic bottles: Unfortunately I did leave more than footsteps behind in the Balkans. A shampoo bottle, another one for sunscreen and a toothpaste tube are some. I don’t know if recycling there is happening and if so, how efficient it is. Still, I’ve started looking for alternatives (that also fit my budget) for my next trip. I’d prefer to keep the countries that I visit, clean.
  • Flying: Without going into the details of climate change and water, flying has emerged as one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. A flight from London to New York apparently generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year. Holidays aside, I fly frequently for work. In the coming weeks, and posts, I will investigate alternatives (if any) and offset programmes. Any ideas? I’d appreciate it.

What are the glaring gaps in my progress so far? If I’m not aware of it, I can’t change it. Please let me know where and how I can improve in the comments. This way everybody can learn from it. Or, which tips can you use? Tell me if any of this is of any value to you.

Until then, happy travels! Especially if you tread lightly while there.

Comments 12

  1. I really enjoyed this article. I must say I learnt so much and I suddenly realised how bad I am. You an I both love our take away coffee, I have switched to bamboo reusable cups. Though i have just learnt from you that veggies etc puts less pressure on the environment. No my new plan… trying to eat less meat. I have a Loora too. I pledge to keep trying to do my part… always.

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  2. I have two Loora’s of my own, named Brendyn and Alex. And it’s for them I’m trying to lighten our impact, for their future. Also have to note that living on the edge of Lake Ontario, we are spoiled with so much water, that we forget it’s not so for everyone. This post serves as a reminder, thank you!

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      Hi Lucie – great! Brendyn and Alex have been added to my list. It really does make a difference if we start thinking about the impact of our lives, on that of somebody else. It definitely did for me. Thanks for checking in!

  3. I love the diary style of this post and that you were honest about your wins and losses. So relatable! I am in the process of planning a trip to Europe and will definitely be keeping this post in mind as I think about reducing my consumption while traveling.

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      Let me know how you get along in Europe Laura. I just had a trip to Kazakhstan where it felt like I was bleeding plastic as I went. And you know what? A simple brown paper bag would have made all the difference (lost it somewhere along the way). Defo need to buckle down (again)…

  4. The more people like you who start to question everything they do and search for the greenest options will be much of the driving force behind the change. And the more we are visible making changes like refusing plastic the more our influence will spread. Together we are stronger. Can I find you elsewhere on social media?

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      Rosie, you’re so right. It’s a team effort, on a very grand scale. Glad we’re playing for the same side. I’m on Facebook (50 litres) and Instagram (life behind the blog @ petro.kotze). Best though is to subscribe for the newsletter (at the end of the blog). That’s the best way to stay up to date.

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    Hi Lucie – great! Brendyn and Alex have been added to my list. It really does make a difference if we start thinking about the impact of our lives, on that of somebody else. It definitely did for me. Thanks for checking in!

  6. Oh flying and water bottles have been our toughest things too! Depending on where you go, water needs are hard to avoid.

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