As the world gets warmer and droughts grip cities from Madrid to Shanghai, it can seem like we’re headed for a Mad Max-style future where water is a scarce resource. We’re already starting to see a version of this as regular Californians make water cuts while movie stars use as much as they want. But what role, exactly, do the lifestyles of the rich and famous play in water shortages?
That’s the question researchers set out to answer in a study published Monday in Nature Sustainability. Their analysis found that elites in cities across the world are using so much water that their impacts could be just as devastating to urban water supply as climate change or an increase in the population.
“In the long term, the unjust and unsustainable behaviour of these elite will deplete common water sources, making drought more severe and water crises more frequent,” Elisa Savelli, a research fellow at Uppsala University in Sweden and the lead author of the study, wrote in an email to Earther. “As much as any other factor, socioeconomic inequality drives the urban water crises of today, and tomorrow.”
With celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian making headlines in California for their gratuitous water use, it may seem obvious to the average observer that the rich are draining taps dry. But past academic research, Savelli said, has focused mostly on average water use across populations and hasn’t quantified the impact that socioeconomic status has on water use in different groups of people living in the same place. She and her team set out to look more closely at the impact rich people’s water use has on urban life.
They focused on Cape Town, South Africa, as a framework around which to build a model. South Africa has the largest wealth gap of any country in the world, and Cape Town faced a water crisis so dire in the mid-2010s that the city almost ran out of water, a near-disaster known as Day Zero. While Cape Town may seem like a study in extremes, as the planet keeps warming and droughts keep increasing—and as income inequality rises in places like the U.S. and the UK—more cities could look like Cape Town in the future.
The researchers modeled water consumption across different populations of the vastly segregated city and examined how different social groups responded to droughts. They found that while people in the lower- and middle-income groups mostly used water to meet basic needs, like drinking and hygiene, the upper-class groups in Cape Town used vast amounts of water on luxuries like swimming pools, gardens, and washing cars.
These excesses meant that elites in Cape Town, despite forming just 12% of the population, were using 52% of the city’s water. And even when they’re not using public water, the study found, elites also have more access to private wells, which risks depleting valuable groundwater sources—especially if water restrictions are imposed on the larger area.
Day Zero is often discussed in the context of the larger drought and rainfall deficit that preceded it. But the study estimates that if every social group in the city had used the same amount of water for necessities and limited its use for extraneous stuff like pools and gardens, the worst impacts of the crisis could have been avoided. “Water crises such as the Day Zero drought in Cape Town are also a product of the unsustainable practices of the elite brought about by the uneven power dynamics of the city,” the study finds.
The study points out that analyses of the impacts of climate change on water availability that don’t take inequality into account are at risk of not capturing the whole picture.
“The problem with depoliticized analyses is that they often lead to technocratic solutions that are likely to perpetuate the same logic and, in turn, reproduce the uneven and unsustainable water patterns that have contributed to the water crisis in the first place,” the study authors wrote.