Social Inequalities Driving Urban Water Crises, Study Finds

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While there is often much discussion about the pressure being put on global water resources by the likes of climate change, urbanisation, population growth, pollution and extreme weather events, it seems that there may well be another factor at play when it comes to water crises in urbanised areas… and that’s social inequality.


According to new research published in the Nature Sustainability journal, rich elites around the world are leaving poorer communities in their local areas without basic access to water because they’re diverting resources to fill their large swimming pools and to maintain their lawns.


Carried out by Uppsala University, alongside the universities of Reading and Manchester in the UK and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the study suggests that it is in fact these social inequities that are fueling urban water crises, more so than environmental factors.


A model was developed to analyse domestic water use of urban residents in Cape Town (which in 2018 became the first city in the world to face a Day Zero threat, the day that the taps would run fully dry) to develop a deeper understanding of how different social classes use and consume water.


It was found that urban elites are now overconsuming water for their own personal leisure pursuits, including filling swimming pools, washing cars and watering gardens.


In Cape Town, elite and upper middle income households constitute less than 14 per cent of the city’s population, but use 51 per cent of its total water consumption. In contrast, informal and lower income households make up 62 per cent of the population, but use just 27 per cent of water resources.


The results also indicated that lower income residents are significantly more vulnerable to the effects of drought and water crises than their richer counterparts, who are better able to afford any tariff increases that are pushed through, as well as enjoying easier access to alternative water sources.


Similar issues to Cape Town were identified in 80 cities around the world, including London, Barcelona, Miami, Tokyo, Beijing, Istanbul, Cairo, Melbourne, Bangalore, Moscow, Jakarta, Chennai, Harare, Maputo, Sydney, Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Rome.


The researchers suggested that efforts currently being undertaken to manage resources in cities facing water scarcity issues typically focus on more technical solutions, such as developing more efficient infrastructure.


But the argument is that these are more reactive strategies and, as such, they are insufficient and counterproductive because they only address the symptoms of the problem, rather than the actual root cause.


As an alternative, they suggest that a more proactive approach be adopted, one that addresses social inequalities and reduces the elites’ unsustainable water consumption as a way of tackling water crises in the future.


Lead author of the study Dr Elisa Savelli said: ““Our study argues that the only way to preserve available water resources is by altering privileged lifestyles, limiting water use for amenities, as well as redistributing income and water resources more equally.


“Future water security and drought resilience strategies should be more proactive and able to recognise and address the long-term inequalities and unsustainable patterns that can engender urban water crises like the one in Cape Town.”


She went on to say: “There is nothing natural about urban elites over consuming and overexploiting water resources and the water marginalisation of other social groups. Instead, water inequalities and their unsustainable consequences are products of our political-economic system.


“Thus, the only way to counteract the unsustainable and unjust patterns of elites is by changing this system and reimagining a society in which elitist overconsumption at the expense of other citizens or the environment is not tolerated.”


Spotlight on: The UK


It’s certainly interesting to see London included on the list of cities where overconsumption of water is an issue among the capital’s more affluent residents.


Figures from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) show that England alone will need to find an extra four billion litres of water a day by 2050 in order to avoid the consequences of extreme drought… which is the equivalent of around 22 million full bathtubs a day!


In order to achieve this, there are various strategies being considered, including focusing on water leakage rates. In England, three billion litres of water is lost through leakage each day, so prioritising this would make a significant difference to water supplies in the future.


However, as the NIC observes, reducing water demand wherever possible will help deliver quicker wins for water efficiency and conservation.


Committing to compulsory water metering (which is very common in many other countries around the world) could also help to drive understanding of water usage and consumption, allowing people to see how and where they could reduce water use.


The government’s recently published Plan for Water details measures to reduce UK household consumption to 110 litres per person per day by 2050. Currently, household consumption is 144 litres per person per day.


Businesses can also take action to reduce pressure on mains water supplies. Not only will this help safeguard resources for future generations, it will also help improve company water footprints and boost their eco-friendly credentials, which will certainly stand them in excellent stead from a consumer perspective, given that the general public are becoming increasingly aware of sustainability and increasingly keen to do business with those brands that are making this a top priority.


It can be difficult to know where to begin with this endeavour, however, and this is where water management consultants really come into their own.


Various services can be carried out simultaneously that will help reduce water consumption, as well as reducing your water bills, helping you to claim money back on previous billing errors, early water leak detection, online water bill management and so on.


If you’d like to find out more, get in touch with the H2o Building Services team today to see how we can help.