Wealthy Lifestyles Drain Urban Water Resources, Study Finds
In 2022, the news broke that Southern California celebrities were using far more than their fair share of water during an ongoing drought. Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union went more than 489,000 gallons over water limits in May of that year because of problems with their pool, while Sylvester Stallone drew 533 percent over his monthly water budget in a bid to save mature trees on his property.
It turns out that excesses like these are not isolated incidents. A new study published in Nature Sustainability Monday found that the pools and gardens of the wealthy pose a major threat to urban water security worldwide.
“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,” study co-author and University of Reading hydrologist Professor Hannah Cloke said in a press release.
The research used South Africa’s Cape Town as a case study. The city is both highly unequal and survived a major drought from 2015 to 2017. During this time, reservoirs shrank to 12.3 percent of normal levels, leading officials to warn people to conserve water and avoid a “Day Zero” at which point nothing would be left.
The researchers used a model to look at water use across Cape Town’s income brackets both before and during the drought. According to the 2020 census, Cape Town was 1.4 percent elite, 12.3 percent upper-middle income, 24.8 percent lower-middle income, 40.5 percent lower income and 21 percent “informal dwellers” who live in shanty towns on the city outskirts. The model found that the top two income brackets–13.7 percent of the population–used 51 percent of the water, while the bottom two–61.5 percent of population–used only 27.3 percent.
“Many people have swimming pools, which need a lot of water,” study lead author Elisa Savelli of Uppsala University in Sweden told New Scientist of the disparity. “They also have flashy gardens, which need to be regularly irrigated.”
During the drought, this meant that, while elite and upper-middle income groups did reduce their water use the most, that reduction came from forgone luxuries like the pools and gardens rather than their basic needs, and they were able to recover quickly. Lower income people, on the other hand, had to cut their water consumption by 51 percent, and this did interfere with their daily lives.
“These results indicate that drought-related restrictions can leave lower-income households without enough water to meet their basic water demands for bathing, laundry, cooking and sustaining their livelihoods,” the study authors wrote.
At the same time, the wealthier groups were able to access additional water by purchasing bottles or digging private wells, an action that ultimately threatens groundwater supply. A final model ran by the study authors found that an increase in unequal water use could be more detrimental to the urban water supply than either the climate crisis or a growing population.
The strain that the wealthy put on urban water resources is also likely to increase as the climate warms. The study authors noted that more than one billion city dwellers are expected to face water shortages in the near future, and this is not a threat limited to Cape Town. Other cities in a similar situation include London, Miami, Barcelona, Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne, Istanbul, Cairo, Moscow, Bangalore, Chennai, Jakarta, Sydney, Maputo, Harare, Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Rome.
“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,” Cloke said in the press release. “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.”
The study has important implications for how to address urban water shortages, since technical innovations that enable more efficient water use won’t address the underlying issues.
“To a certain extent, to solve this issue, we need to criticise and contest the political and economic systems that regulate all our lives,” Savelli told New Scientist.
University College London Professor Mariana Mazzucato, who was not a part of the study but was the lead author of a report from the Global Commission on the Economics of Water that warned freshwater demand was set to exceed supply by 40 percent by the end of the decade, agreed.
“We need a much more proactive, and ambitious, common good approach [to the water crisis],” Mazzucato told The Guardian. “We have to put justice and equity at the centre of this, it’s not just a technological or finance problem.”
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