Rich urban elites consuming more than fair share of water, research finds

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Rich elites are overconsuming water for their own personal leisure and leaving poorer people without basic access in cities across the world, research has found.

Social inequalities are exacerbating urban water crises more than climate change or population growth, as the richest people use water for swimming pools, gardens and washing cars when others lack basic means.

The international team of researchers from the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands focused their study on Cape Town, South Africa, but found similar issues in 80 cities worldwide including: London, Miami, Barcelona, Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne, Istanbul, Cairo, Moscow, Bangalore, Chennai, Jakarta, Sydney, Maputo, Harare, Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Rome.

Professor Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading who co-authored the study, said: “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.

Review of the Year 2022
Prolonged hot and dry weather in 2022 led to rivers drying up with restrictions placed on usage of water for many parts of the country (Danny Lawson/PA)

“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 UK National Infrastructure Commission has said about four billion extra litres of water will be needed in England by 2050.

Half of this will be met by increased supply, the Government has said, with the other half coming from improving water efficiency, reducing demand, and cutting wasted water.

Flooding in north London
The UK Government wants to reduce leakages from burst pipes by 50% by 2050 (Yui Mok/PA)

It said it also wants to see a 50% reduction in leakage from water company infrastructure and a 15% reduction in non-household water usage.

The current study was led by Dr Elisa Savelli of Uppsala university, Sweden, along with colleagues from the University of Reading, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and the University of Manchester.

They analysed the domestic uses of water in Cape Town to understand the differences between social classes, separating them into five groups ranging from elite (people who live in spacious homes with large gardens and swimming pools) to informal dwellers (people who live in shacks on the outskirts).

Elite and upper-middle-income households make up less than 14% of Cape Town’s population but use more than half of the city’s water.

Informal and lower-income households account for 62% of the population but use just 27% of the water.

The researchers said that reactive efforts to manage water supplies such as developing more efficient infrastructure are insufficient and counterproductive.

Instead, there should be a more proactive approach they said, aimed at reducing the overconsumption of the elites.

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