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Urban water crises are increasingly affecting over 80 metropolitan cities, with 1 billion urban residents projected to face shortages. While climate change is a significant factor, a study in Nature Sustainability reveals that social inequalities and the consumption habits of privileged social groups contribute to these crises.

The water consumption patterns of the wealthy

Published in the Nature Sustainability journal, the study focused on Cape Town, South Africa, a city experiencing severe drought. Researchers divided Cape Town’s population into five social groups and modelled their water consumption. Unsurprisingly, the elite and upper-middle-income groups, which account for only 1.4% and 12.3% of the population, respectively, consume over half (51%) of the city’s water. In contrast, informal dwellers and lower-income households, comprising 61.5% of the population, consume just 27.3% of the city’s water.

The privileged consumption habits of the wealthy, including the use of swimming pools, garden irrigation, and car washing, are not only harming local water sources but also proving to be unsustainable for the entire urban population. The highly unequal metropolitan area of Cape Town illustrates how unsustainable water use by the elite exacerbates urban water crises, climate change, and population growth.

Addressing privileged lifestyles and inequality

The study, led by Elisa Savelli of Uppsala University, Sweden, proposes a new approach: altering privileged lifestyles, limiting water use for amenities, and redistributing income and water resources more equally. In 2020, the United Nations reported that 2 billion people had no access to safely managed drinking water services. Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading and co-author of the study, remarked, “We have shown that social inequality is the biggest problem for poorer people getting access to water for their everyday needs”. As the gap between the rich and poor widens globally, water shortages in major cities could worsen.

Another study from the University of Leeds found that the wealthiest tenth of the population consume 20 times more energy than the bottom tenth, and are primarily to blame for the global climate crisis. In transport, the top tenth use 187 times more fuel than the poorest tenth. Without significant policy changes, household energy consumption may double 2011 levels by 2050, even with improved energy efficiency.

Proposed solutions and future outlook

To combat the issue of water consumption inequality, some suggested remedies include better public transport, higher taxes on bigger vehicles, and frequent flyer levies. In the context of energy consumption, quicker electrification of vehicles is an alternative, though demand for driving still needs reduction. Comparing nations’ energy consumption, 40% of Germans and all Luxembourg citizens are in the top 5% of global energy consumers, while only 2% of Chinese and 0.02% of Indians are.

Studies like these may influence future United Nations climate negotiations and policy changes. Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, Manchester, commented, “The climate issue is framed by us high emitters – the politicians, business people, journalists, academics. When we say there’s no appetite for higher taxes on flying, we mean WE don’t want to fly less”. Proposed remedies for transport energy include higher taxes on flying, driving big cars, and housing retrofit for home energy reduction.

Addressing privileged lifestyles, social inequality, and unsustainable consumption patterns is crucial to ensure better water management and a more sustainable future for all urban residents.