READING, United Kingdom — Large swimming pools and extravagant, well-maintained lawns belonging to the wealthy elite are depriving poorer communities of basic water access, according to researchers from the University of Reading. Study authors report social inequalities are driving urban water crises even more than environmental factors like climate change or the continual growth of urban populations.
More specifically, researchers found that urban elites tend to over-consume water for their own personal uses, like filling their swimming pools, watering their gardens, or washing their cars. The international team focused on Cape Town, South Africa, where an urban water crisis has left numerous under-privileged individuals living without taps or toilets, and thus must use their limited water for drinking and hygiene.
Moreover, the research considered 80 additional cities worldwide as well, including London, Miami, Barcelona, Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne, Istanbul, Cairo, Moscow, Bangalore, Chennai, Jakarta, Sydney, Maputo, Harare, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and Rome.
“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,” says Professor Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading who co-authored the study, in a university release.
“More than 80 big cities worldwide have suffered from water shortages due to droughts and unsustainable water use over the past 20 years, but our projections show this crisis could get worse still as the gap between the rich and the poor widens in many parts of the world. 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.”
Wealthy residents use up half of a city’s water
This project was led by Dr. Elisa Savelli at Uppsala University, Sweden, alongside co-authors from the University of Reading, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and the University of Manchester. Researchers used a model designed to analyze the domestic water use of urban residents in Cape Town in an effort to better understand how different social classes consume water.
The international team identified a total of five social groups, ranging from “elite” (people who live in spacious homes with large gardens and swimming pools) to “informal dwellers” (people who tend to live in shacks at the edge of the city).
While elite and upper-middle-income households make up less than 14 percent of Cape Town’s population, they use up more than half (51%) of the entire city’s water. Informal households and lower-income households, meanwhile, account for 62 percent of the city’s population, yet consume just 27 percent of Cape Town’s water.
Right now, researchers explain that most efforts to manage water supplies in water-scarce cities focus heavily on technical solutions, such as developing more efficient water infrastructure. These types of strategies, which ultimately only focus on maintaining and increasing water supply, are insufficient and counterproductive, study authors posit. Instead, they suggest a more proactive approach that focuses on lowering unsustainable water consumption among elites.
The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.