Swimming pools and lush green lawns are a staple of affluent neighborhoods in cities around the world. However, these luxuries come at a high cost for poorer communities who are left without access to basic water services.
A new study published today in the journal Nature Sustainability has revealed how social inequality, rather than just environmental factors like climate change, is driving urban water crises across the world.
The study shows that rich elites with large swimming pools and well-maintained lawns are leaving poorer communities without basic access to water in cities worldwide. The researchers have highlighted this problem in 80 cities worldwide, including London, Miami, Barcelona, Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne, Istanbul, Cairo, Moscow, Bangalore, Chennai, Jakarta, Sydney, Maputo, Harare, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and Rome.
Social inequalities can amplify environmental factors
The study, led by Dr. Elisa Savelli at Uppsala University in Sweden, used a model to analyze the domestic water use of urban residents in Cape Town and to understand how different social classes consume water. The researchers identified five social groups, ranging from “elite” to “informal dwellers.”
Elite and upper-middle-income households, which make up less than 14% of Cape Town’s population, use more than half of the city’s water, while informal households and lower-income households account for 62% of the city’s population but consume just 27% of Cape Town’s water. As a result of the rich over-consuming water by filling swimming pools, watering their gardens or washing their cars, they are, in effect, leaving underprivileged people without taps or toilets and using their limited water for drinking and hygiene.
“Climate change and population growth mean that water is becoming a more precious resource in big cities, but we have shown that social inequality is the biggest problem for poorer people getting access to water for their everyday needs. This shows the close links between social, economic, and environmental inequality. Ultimately, everyone will suffer the consequences unless we develop fairer ways to share water in cities,” said Professor Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading and co-author of the study
Although the study focused on Cape Town, South Africa, a city of four million that made headlines years ago due to a severe water crisis that was seen by many as an omen of things to come due to climate change. During the peak of the Cape Town water crisis between mid-2017 and mid-2018, each person was not allowed to use more than 13 gallons (50 liters) of water per person per day. That’s just enough for a 90-second shower, a half-gallon of drinking water, a sinkful to hand-wash dishes or laundry, one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings, and one toilet flush.
Since then, heavy rains helped reservoir levels rise again, ending this devastating crisis. But even today, Cape Town’s water system is struggling, and the researchers from the new study found similar issues are prevalent in cities worldwide, which are facing water shortages due to droughts and unsustainable water use over the past 20 years.
Insufficient water management
The researchers note that current efforts to manage water supplies in water-scarce cities mostly focus on technical solutions, such as developing more efficient water infrastructure. However, they argue that these reactive strategies, which focus on maintaining and increasing water supply, are insufficient and counterproductive. Instead, a more proactive approach aimed at reducing unsustainable water consumption among elites would be more effective.
While water scarcity may seem like a distant issue for some, the reality is that it affects millions of people worldwide, with the poorest communities often bearing the brunt of the crisis. It is crucial that policymakers prioritize fairer distribution of water resources to ensure that everyone has access to this precious resource. As Professor Cloke notes, “Ultimately, the future of water in cities depends on how we choose to share it.”