Population growth and human-caused climate change are fueling water shortages around the world. But new research suggests there may be another, often overlooked driver: Socioeconomic inequality.
City-dwelling wealthy people use a disproportionate share of water compared to lower-income individuals, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. And, often, these so-called “urban elites” use water for nonessential purposes, like filling up swimming pools, irrigating their gardens and washing their cars.
The findings demonstrate the “close links between social, economic and environmental inequality,” says co-author Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading in England, in a statement. “Ultimately, everyone will suffer the consequences unless we develop fairer ways to share water in cities.”
Within the last 20 years alone, more than 80 cities around the world have grappled with water shortages, which have largely been attributed to drought and increasing consumption. But researchers were curious whether social inequality also played a role in those scenarios and, if so, how much of one.
They decided to focus their study on Cape Town, South Africa, because of the country’s massive income gap: About 10 percent of its residents hold 80 percent of its wealth, making South Africa the “most unequal country” on the planet, according to a 2022 World Bank report. And, from 2015 to 2018, Cape Town experienced a severe water crisis and only narrowly avoided a “Day Zero” scenario, in which the city would essentially run out of water.
After analyzing water consumption across Cape Town’s different income groups, they found that the city’s wealthiest residents used roughly 51 percent of its water, despite representing just 14 percent of the population. While rich inhabitants were using much of their outsized share of water for non-basic needs like pools and gardens, the city’s low- and lower-middle-income residents were using their comparatively smaller proportion for necessities—things like bathing, cooking, laundry and drinking water.
What’s more, Cape Town’s wealthiest residents were also accessing additional private water sources, above and beyond what they were using from the public water supply. During the water crisis, this made them more resilient to drought—and the government-imposed water restrictions that went along with it—compared to their lower-income peers. When public water restrictions went into effect, Cape Town’s urban elites simply drank bottled water, installed rainwater collection systems or drilled boreholes to access groundwater.
Water scarcity is only poised to get worse amid droughts and overuse, and the authors argue policymakers should consider the paper’s findings as they think about strategies for dealing with future water crises. Policies that raise water rates, charge fines or restrict use in an effort to curb demand may only deepen existing inequalities, they say. And other proposals, such as to build new dams to increase supply, may be overlooking the “root cause of the crises,” which is unequal consumption, as co-author Elisa Savelli, a researcher at Sweden’s Uppsala University, tells the Washington Post’s Victoria Bisset.
Though the paper focused on Cape Town specifically, the authors say their methodology could be applied to any city around the world. The study’s takeaways probably won’t come as a surprise to residents of cities like Los Angeles, either, where celebrities such as Dwayne Wade, Sylvester Stallone and Kim Kardashian made headlines last year for using excessive amounts of water during a serious drought.
“We have to put justice and equity at the center of this,” Mariana Mazzucato, an economist at University College London who was not involved with the study, tells the Guardian’s Damian Carrington. “It’s not just a technological or finance problem.”